A generation of high school students in Utah are coming of age with a different perspective on the poor air quality that plagues parts of the state during wintertime inversions.

When life-long Cache Valley resident Dale Elwood was a teenager, he said nobody thought much about the inversions.

“There was no awareness for it; you just put up with it,” Elwood said. “It’ll go away when the spring hits.”

Over 500 teenagers in Cache and Grand counties this year have participated in the fourth annual Utah High School Clean Air Poster Contest, which aims to dispel some of those attitudes. That includes Elwood’s daughter, Green Canyon High sophomore MaKinna Elwood. She was one of nine winners who took home cash prizes on Saturday for their creative, terrifying, funny and informative posters.

MaKinna Elwood drew a young girl with her pet dog, both wearing gas masks amid a smoggy background. Big block letters read, “Welcome to 2050! Stop idling now, or this will be your future.” With Utah’s growing population, she said air quality could worsen in coming decades unless people change their behavior.

“I don’t think it could get to the point of gas masks, but it could get pretty bad,” MaKinna Elwood said.

Ed Stafford, a USU marketing professor who began the contest in 2015 at Logan High, said the goal of the poster contest is to engage teens as they are learning to drive and help them understand the air quality implications of their new driving privilege. Through the poster contest, Stafford said the students learn about the negative effects of idling and the benefits of carpooling and trip chaining.

“Maybe even taking the bus even though it’s cool to drive,” Stafford said.

As the contest has grown over the years, Stafford and his colleague Roslynn Brain, a sustainable communities specialist at USU’s Moab campus, began to realize that these teenagers began pestering their parents about idling.

They call it the inconvenient youth effect.

Dale Elwood said he’s witnessed that effect. Even when he’s alone in his car, he said he can hear his daughter telling him to shut off the engine when he’s parked.

“In the back of my head you hear them,” he said. “It has helped.”

Paige Morgan, a marketing and environmental studies major at USU who has helped Stafford with the contest, said that’s one of the goals of marketing. She said environmental studies often try to guilt people into change — with lots of finger pointing — but marketing is more focused on making people want to take action on their own accord.

“Marketing definitely gives you insight into how to market environmental actions in the correct way where it’s not guilting,” Morgan said. “Ed does humor, is his big thing.”

One poster included a graveyard with a headstone that read: “Last words, I should have carpooled.” Another played on the Netflix show, “Stranger Things,” with the words, “Pollution Things.” It stated, “Don’t let our world turn into the upside down.”

Morgan said finding the right target audience, and finding the right time to teach them, is another important marketing strategy. In this case, she said educating teenagers as they are learning to drive is the perfect opportunity.

“Your target audience is right when people are developing those habits,” Morgan said.

Of the 550 students who participated this year, a team of judges narrowed the entries down to 36 finalists, of whom nine were selected as winners on Saturday at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art. Sponsors include USU Credit Union, Conservice, Campbell Scientific, Youngblood Real Estate and the Cache Chamber of Commerce.

sdolan@hjnews.com Twitter: @RealSeanDolan