Teaching about air quality with electric cars

By the Division for Air Quality Staff

How do you teach about something you can’t see or touch? Air quality educator Roberta Burnes tackles that challenge with physical activity, a little math and a very special tool: an electric car.

Burnes is the education specialist for the Division for Air Quality. Throughout the school year, Burnes visits schools to help connect students with the invisible world of air quality. “Air quality is a hard topic to wrap your head around,” said Burnes. “The electric car is a great hook that helps students make the connections between their choices, the environment and their wallet.”

In 2013, the Department for Environmental Protection became the first state agency to add electric vehicles to its fleet with the purchase of four Chevy Volts. These hybrid-electric plug-in vehicles achieve more miles per gallon and produce fewer tailpipe emissions than conventional, gasoline-powered vehicles.  They are part of the Department’s goal to improve the efficiency of its fleet.

Earlier this month, Burnes drove a Chevy Volt to scenic Martins Fork Lake for three days of outreach with Harlan County fourth graders. The annual environmental education event is hosted by the Harlan County 4-H and reaches more than 500 students from every school in the county.

Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat

 Before unveiling the electric car, Burnes started by asking students about the bus they traveled in: Is a bus good or bad for the air? “Students know what it’s like to breathe in diesel exhaust,” Burnes said, “but few students realize that a bus can also benefit air quality.  When I ask them which makes more pollution – 30 separate cars on the road or one bus – it soon becomes clear that the bus is the better choice.”

Burnes then gave every student a card with a colorful photo of a vehicle along with some basic information on fuel economy. “Sports cars, hybrids, luxury sedans, trucks, SUVs – I try to include a range of vehicles for the activity so students can compare the differences,” she said.

Burnes then asked students questions about their vehicles and the information on their cards. What do the letters “MPG” stand for?  Most students guess correctly that it’s “miles per gallon”.  Why does each vehicle have two MPG numbers, one for the city and one for the highway?  How do our driving habits affect our miles per gallon?

Burnes showed the students how to use their footsteps to represent miles traveled. “The best way for students to understand fuel economy is to physically do and see it,” said Burnes.

Using the information on their vehicle cards, the students pace off the miles their vehicle can travel on one gallon of gas in the city. Burnes reminds the students not to “speed” by running or taking giant steps.  Their goal is to make it to the end of the driveway, which represents an agreed-upon destination. “Usually it’s the beach,” Burnes said.

Burnes instructed the students to stop when they’ve run out of gas. “The Hummer runs out of gas first, then the sports and luxury cars,” said Burnes. Soon, everyone has come to a stop – except for the student with the hybrid sedan.  With a fuel economy of 51 in the city, that student can take 51 steps before running out of gas.

At the end of the first round, no one has made it to the beach yet. Burnes then encourages the students to brainstorm ways they could change the activity so that everyone makes it to their destination.  Within minutes, students are trading cars for more efficient models, sharing rides and sharing fuel.  This time, everyone makes it to the beach and back, with fuel to spare.

Close Encounters with Alternative Technology

 Burnes then invites the students to peek beneath the hood of a Chevy Volt. She asks the students to point out differences between the Volt and other engines they’ve seen.

The Volt combines hybrid and electric plug-in technology with a gasoline-powered generator. A fully-charged battery provides around 35 miles of electric-only power; once the battery is depleted, the gasoline-powered generator kicks in to keep the battery charged.  Burnes reminds students that the 2014 model they are looking at is actually old for an electric car, and battery technology has improved significantly in the past two years. Today’s electric vehicles typically have a range of about 100 miles on a single charge.

Every day, more than 133 million miles are driven on Kentucky roads.  For the average car, burning just one gallon of gasoline produces more than 20 pounds of pollutants.

“I am often amazed by the insightful questions people ask as they explore the Volt for the first time,” Burnes said. Some questions are practical: How far does it go on a charge? Where is the battery? How do you plug it in?  Other questions reveal a deeper level of thinking: Does it still pollute?  Is generating electricity less harmful to our environment than burning gasoline?  How much does it cost to operate it?

Figuring out the answer is part of the learning process, Burnes said. By exploring these questions, students come to realize how every energy choice they make has an impact on the air they breathe.

Would you like the Volt to visit your school? Contact or call the Division for Air Quality at 502-564-3999.


Categories: Air, Air Quality, Innovation

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