E.Louise Larson

Systems Intervention —


Making air quality visible for grade schoolers in Pittsburgh, PA.

A comprehensive curriculum kit for grades fourth—fifth at the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh, PA.

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4 weeks

Edwin Cho
Visual Style

Researcher • Curriculum Designer • Photographer • Learning Technology Designer • Information Architect

Techniques + Tools
User Testing • Field Research • Spatial Storytelling • Fusion360 CAD Design • Laser Cutting • Magnetism

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Process Overview


Sentio is a curriculum kit that gradually introduces students to the science of air quality, histories of industry, and the socio-economic impact of air in their own communities.

This project has a scaffolded curriculum that leverages cognitive advances in youth ages 5-14 with a dynamic exploration of air quality as it is experienced through your senses.

The complete kit include lesson plans, classroom tools, student field guides, and an in-school art installation.


1.0 Planning

1.1 Brief


Working in teams of two, you will design a visual communication system for the Environmental Charter School (ECS) intended to address issues of air quality in the Pittsburgh region.

The system your team develops will need to:

  1. Develop visual system to communicate to an appropriate spectrum of audiences as framed by ECS, relevant to the issue of air quality, as defined by your team

  2. This system should also consider the practicality and feasibility of implementation

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2.0 Exploration

2.1 User Interviews


Our initial research began with user interviews. Local experts within the Environmental Charter School and grassroots Air Quality organizers were contacted.

These interviews included conversations about the cognitive ability of students, ECS’s unique curriculum, and air policy advocacy initiatives in southwestern Pennsylvania.


“Parents are highly motivated and potent potential advocates, they just don’t know where to start.”

— Nikole Schaeffer
Chief Outreach & Innovation Officer
Environmental Charter School of Pittsburgh.

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2.0 Exploration

2.2 Problem Space


How might we design a curriculum for the Environmental Charter School (ECS) that builds literacy around Pittsburgh’s air quality, identity, and industrial past that promotes civic engagement for a healthier future?


2.0 Exploration

2.3 Competitive Analysis


A competitive analysis for air quality curriculum was a difficult task. The majority of air quality curriculum is for science classrooms. A direct comparison would have been out of scope for this project because ECS wanted an air quality curriculum that also reflected their commitment to local sustainability within the natural world and unique socio-economic conditions of their neighborhoods.

Our goal was to find common curriculum formats ECS teachers are already familiar with and regularly use. This curriculum would help us understand the kinds of in-class tools teacher need to communicate with the students, parents, and colleagues.

The primary curriculum provider we identified was Engineering is Everywhere. EIE has brand recognition within ECS, and the curriculum provides teachers with take-home letter, clear pedagogical benchmarks, hands-on activities, and lecture slides. We wanted to provide an equally in-depth curriculum that could be used by ECS to promote general awareness of air quality, with a specific goal of creating a sense of civic responsibility within ECS student culture.

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2.0 Exploration

2.4 Problem Exploration


Our scientific research included a broad survey of learning science, identity and pollution, and pollution’s effects on the neurodevelopment of grade school students. We also examined Pittsburgh’s air quality record, including the “smokiest” days on record. This historical data informed how we built an experience with air pollution that can be made visible.

The client interviews and research we conducted informed the demographic areas of intervention. We proposed a curriculum to match each grade loop of the Environmental Charter School, but focused on 4th-5th grade. This age range has the cognitive ability to think abstractly and is also developing their sense of empathy. Combined, this makes 4th and 5th grades the ideal demographic for a sensory-forward exploration of Pittsburgh’s air quality over time.

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2.0 Exploration

2.5 Design Principles


Guided by client needs, this project uses the Environmental Charter School’s student goals and the Design Thinking process to create a curriculum driven by these principles:



Air Quality is felt more than seen. This project leverages sensory experiences for new ways of engaging with air quality.



Every Sentio lesson empowers students to identify problems, potential solutions, and find joy in the process.


Civic Responsibility

In line with the client needs, Sentio curriculum aims students towards a future of civic engagement.



Situated in a city with a rich industrial heritage, this project uses local stories to explore future identities.

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3.0 Generative Ideation

3.1 Prototyping


To make air quality concrete, we utilized sensory experience and hands-on making as the focal point of each unit. Ideas like projection mapping, tangible data, and edible air were all explored. The most well received idea was a vinyl installation that obscured vision in decades with highest air pollution. The whiteboard drawing to the right is our initial concept.

This concept tested well with our client, so we moved into physical prototyping of the air magnifier, and designing the curriculum.

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The Air Magnifier curriculum begins with an overview of Pittsburgh’s industrial past, then moves students through scientific inquiry to civic action. The curriculum for the Air Magnifier is unique to each loop, depicted below. The focus in every loop changes and is meant to scaffold on the previous content. Students in K-3 begin exploring air quality through sensory experiences, through Design Thinking. To facilitate this, educators use their in-school art installation and in-class lessons to guide students through the process. All curriculum units have one maker lesson where students build a tool to help them contemplate the wicked problem.

Students in Sentio curriculum use a field guide to reflect on lessons, out of school observations, public art, and Design Thinking to prototype solutions to wicked problems. Grades 4-5 explore history, identity, and empathy, and 6-8th graders use science to better understand pollution and think critically about their own agency as a citizen scientist.


Air Magnifier

The air magnifier is a device the students build in class. It is made of laser cut acrylic and iron filings. The filings represent actual air particulates. This concept-drive device explores “visible” air particulates and their affects on our physical world.

Air magnifiers are the centerpiece of the fourht—fifth grade air quality unit, however, they are also meant to work independently as a single lesson. The air magnifiers also work in conjunction with the student’s field guide, and with the in-school art installation.

Students physically place their air magnifier over pre-drawn landscapes, charts, or puzzles in the field guide. They are can draw on the air magnifiers with dry-erase markers to create their own templates, charts, or graphs.

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3.0 Generative Ideation

3.2 Usability Testing


Our reframe of Design Thinking is “Design Feeling: the messy joy of problem solving.” This feeling is an internal practice of continuous iteration and action: one that naturally lends itself to civic action.

To make air quality concrete, we brainstormed many different sensory experiences. Ideas like projection mapping, tangible data, and edible air were all explored. The most well received idea was a vinyl installation that obscured vision in decades with highest air pollution. The whiteboard drawing to the right is our initial concept.

Below are excerpts from our explorations of user identification, curriculum mapping, and guidebook layout.


4.0 Delivery

3.1 Final Deliverables

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