A poster contest designed to make high schoolers think about how they contribute to air pollution is now growing in its fourth year — and generating a fresh research opportunity for two USU professors.
Marketing professor Ed Stafford and Sustainable Communities Specialist Roslynn Brain started the Utah High School Clean Air Poster Contest in 2014 with the intent of educating teenagers, as they come of driving age, about small actions they can take to limit emissions like carpooling, trip chaining and refraining from idling their cars.
“The contest started in Cache Valley for good reason,” Brain said. “Cache Valley has some of the worst air quality in the nation, or the worst air quality in the nation, certain days of our winter months during inversion periods.”
Four hundred students from six Cache Valley high schools last year participated in the contest. This year, Stafford said the contest is expanding to Grand County and is expected to reach 600 students.
Around this time each year, Stafford kicks off the contest with presentations in high school art classes. He explains some basic marketing strategies and provides an introduction into air quality issues in Utah. The students then create their very own posters — some filled with puns and humor, others more thought-provoking and edgy — that encourage actions that limit air pollution.
Winners at each school then receive $25 or $50 prizes and the statewide finalists take home $100 to $200 in cash prizes, all donated from local businesses.
After a couple of years of running the contest, Stafford and Brain began to notice an unintended side effect. Some of the students who created the air quality posters began pestering their families and friends about idling.
“We were excited to see that these contestants then potentially become evangelists for clean air,” Stafford said.
The two researchers then began collecting data to test a theory they call the “inconvenient youth” effect. Those results, Stafford said, are expected to be published in next month’s edition of the academic publication, “Sustainability: The Journal of Record.”
According to Stafford’s and Brian’s research of last year’s poster creators, two out of three students said they pestered their family or friends on clean air issues.
“We were pretty excited about that because we did not tell them to pester their friends, we just … wanted to see if this would happen without kind of overtly trying to push it,” Stafford said.
They also found that 43 percent of participants believed they had convinced their family or friends to change their behavior for good.
“In other words, when they pestered them to not idle, they said that, ‘Yeah,’ their father stopped idling,” Stafford said.
With those results in mind, Stafford and Brain have been studying academic literature to find new strategies to encourage students to pester their parents without explicitly telling the students to pester their parents.
Stafford said they came across research from rural Africa that suggested teaching kids in school about hand washing encouraged those kids to educate their parents. Other research shows children can have a strong influence on convincing their parents to quit smoking.
“There is already this tradition of where parents are going to respect the views of their children and they will change their behavior,” he said.
Their next research proposal is currently under review ,but Stafford said they hope to expand the research this year to include gathering information from both students and their parents. Depending on how that research turns out, Brain said they will consider expanding the contest again next year.
“Our goal with the contest is to eventually go statewide,” she said.
Brain, who relocated to USU’s Moab campus in part because of the poor air quality in Cache Valley, said expanding the contest to Grand County is a good test to gauge interest outside in other areas of the state.
Air quality isn’t as bad in Moab compared to the Wasatch Front or Cache Valley, but Brain said it’s still important to make sure high schoolers understand that emissions from their cars don’t just magically disappear.
“We really want students to grasp that concept, that there are consequences of idling your vehicle,” Brain said.
But Stafford said some Utahns tend to discount the entire notion of improving air quality. Since inversions are a natural phenomenon, they feel there is nothing they can do. He said there are so many factors that contribute to air pollution — including cows, cars, buildings, wood burning stoves — that many people feel helpless.
Brain said air quality is one environmental issue where every individual who chooses to ride the bus or chooses not to idle their car can help decrease air pollution.
“Our individual ability to make a difference and improve air quality is significant,” Brain said.