When Ayaz Hyder, assistant professor in Ohio State's College of Public Health, developed a National Science Foundation grant proposal to place low-cost air quality sensors in critical spots around a local community, Hilliard was a natural choice.

Hilliard is where Hyder's family resides, and it is an ideal testing ground for a public-health researcher interested in how air quality affects us. We have Interstate 270 on the east and rural land to the west: a great variety of test spots for an air-quality researcher.

The grant funding provides materials, equipment and instructions for the creation of do-it-yourself air-quality sensors about the size of your phone powered by a tiny computer called the Raspberry Pi. Each sensor can be assembled for about $35. The sensors that the EPA uses for regulatory purposes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The nearest to Hilliard is in New Albany.

Hyder's air sensors will focus on traffic-related air pollution, namely carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. Low-cost sensors may lack the precision to be used for large-scale decision-making, but the inexpensive and mobile technology allows for a small army of sensors in the community. These can then be used to monitor trends and aberrations in air-quality readings.

To deploy these sensors, Hyder has tapped the engineering program at Hilliard Davidson. Davidson engineering teacher Rusty Herring has been thrilled students have been able to learn from and contribute to this project.

Herring said Hilliard City Schools' adoption of Project Lead the Way, a national curriculum for high school engineering, facilitates experiences for students that are "authentic, project-based and self-motivated."

Three Davidson seniors advancing the project this year are Emma Wood, Ben Charlson and Zach Augustine. They will work an hour per school day with the goal of creating assembly kits so that other students interested in contributing have a guide to set up more sensors using their instructions.

Along the way, these students are learning aspects of GIS, computer programming, engineering and public health.

"Maybe my favorite engineering field is electrical. I love working with electronics," said Charlson, who will consider the field as a college major.

The goal of the project is to place 15 sensors at strategic sites throughout Hilliard. Wood has thrived in a management role on the team.

"I don't know that last year's group really had a project manager," she said. "It's been a great way to use my strengths to contribute."

Part of the challenge the students are tackling is that their contributions will not bring the overall project to completion but will set up others to carry on the work after they graduate, work that could help us learn more about how air quality can affect the health of Hilliard residents.

"What we're doing is part of something bigger," Augustine said.

Peter Spreitzer is a member of the Hilliard Environmental Sustainability Commission.