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4-H fresh air project takes plants to schools
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Little potted plants placed in temporary classrooms in south Mississippi are doing more than beautifying the sparse atmospheres -- they also are improving the air quality in these small buildings.
The 4-H Youth Development Program, part of the Mississippi State University Extension Service, recently launched a new effort, the 4-H Grow Fresh Air Project. The initiative is operating in Hancock County, with plans to expand it across the state next year.
Kerry Johnson, Extension area horticulture agent for coastal Mississippi, said the program places live, potted plants in classrooms to create cleaner, fresher air. The idea to put plants in classrooms, especially the modular units being used after Hurricane Katrina destroyed schools in south Mississippi, came from a Pearl River County Master Gardener. It was based on the research of former NASA scientist Bill Wolverton.
“We wanted to take this into the classroom and teach the kids how plants make fresh air,” Johnson said. “The research NASA did was on how to keep the air fresh in space stations. We developed a plan to go into the classrooms in Hancock County.”
Johnson said live, potted plants have been placed in 82 classrooms in Hancock County so far, reaching almost 1,200 students. Master Gardeners and Extension personnel from six counties went into each classroom to give them the plants and tell the students a bit about how plants clean the air.
“Plants do more than exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide,” Johnson said. “Dr. Wolverton's research shows that plants also reduce the volatile chemicals in the air.”
Many chemicals are introduced to closed spaces in new construction and renovation. Flooring, glues, treated lumber, building materials and more emit volatile chemicals into the air. These chemicals and chemical combinations range from mildly annoying to unhealthy. In the Hurricane Katrina rebuilding efforts, many Mississippians are living, working and studying in closed environments where they breathe these chemicals.
“We realize that we can't eliminate the problem, but there is a teachable moment, and we can bring the plants in to help alleviate the problem,” Johnson said. “We knew we wouldn't be able to supply enough plants for every classroom, but we wanted to teach a principle. We hope they will adopt the plants and maybe bring in their own.”
For plants to fully filter the air, there must be about one plant per 100 square feet, but this varies depending on the size of the plant and the level of air contaminants.
The state 4-H program bought the first round of plants donated to classrooms, and Johnson said there is now a wave of activity as other counties, Master Gardeners and local 4-H programs get involved. Chevron/Texaco and the Modern Woodmen of America are among those already giving grants to put more plants in schools and homes.
Margaret Howell, Extension 4-H agent in Hancock County, said the work has been done in four schools that combined the students of six schools destroyed by Katrina.
“They'll be in these temporary schools for a while, so we wanted to do this to see if we couldn't help reduce some of the pollutants in the air,” Howell said. “We wanted to go in and make a healthier environment for these kids.”
When the plants were delivered, volunteers used a lesson plan and educational materials from the Junior Master Gardener curriculum to teach the students how plants filter the air.
Area Master Gardeners have volunteered to adopt each of the schools, and these volunteers will check on the plants every six to eight weeks and answer any questions the class may have about the plants. Howell said she hopes to get larger pots or hanging baskets donated so the plants can be repotted as they grow.
“We hope to instill in the kids a little bit about caring for plants,” Howell said.
Susan Holder, state 4-H director, said the new 4-H Grow Fresh Air project will be used statewide, but it is especially useful in south Mississippi.
“After Hurricane Katrina, we conducted Operation 4-H Relief to focus on any child, but especially our 4-H family, to help supply food and water and to help with evacuation centers. Later we participated in Coats for Kids, then helped collect and distribute school supplies. We continue to focus the support of 4-H members and volunteers on helping young people in the affected area return to a normal life. This project helps the students make the new schools their own,” Holder said.
She said the Grow Fresh Air Project combines 4-H, horticulture and gardening while bringing students a ray of hope.
Contact: Dr. Kerry Johnson, (601) 947-1301