Berkeley CEE Partners with Local Community Groups & Stockton Students to Build 125 Air Purifiers


By Pooja Nerkar and Tina Chow


The end of summer marks high temperatures in Northern California and poor air quality from industry, agriculture, and wildfire smoke emissions. This trend is particularly true in Stockton, about an hour from Berkeley, where air quality is among the worst in California, and asthma affects up to 1 in 3 kids. For the kids at All Saints Academy, a K-8 school in Stockton, a new community partnership with UC Berkeley has brought them one step closer to having cleaner air.

In a 2-part event on 8/27 and 9/1, a team of UC Berkeley civil and environmental engineering students helped build 125 air purifiers for students at All Saints Academy to take home. Using a simple box fan, a MERV13 filter, weatherstripping, and rubber bands, students assembled low-cost air purifiers at about $40 each. They followed a design created by the Common Humanity Collective. This mutual aid group grew out of Berkeley during the pandemic and distributed over 1400 of these low-cost air purifiers during the 2021 wildfire season.

A Berkeley CEE student demonstrates how to build a homemade air purifier at All Saints Academy. (Photo Credit: Nia Jones)
A Berkeley CEE student demonstrates how to build a homemade air purifier at All Saints Academy. (Photo Credit: Nia Jones)

CEE Professors Tina Chow and Sunni Ivey and students (including undergrads, MS/Ph.D. students, and a postdoctoral researcher) teamed up with environmental justice programs from Little Manila Rising and Catholic Charities of Stockton for this event. These two community organizations are actively working to bring cleaner air to historically marginalized groups in Southwest Stockton as part of the California AB 617 process, which provides state funding for such efforts.

All Saints Academy is located in the heart of Southwest Stockton and is taking the lead in bringing its students awareness about poor air quality. September 1 was “environment day”' for the K-8 students, with clean indoor air as the focus. Students heard presentations about how to prevent asthma from Little Manila Rising’s DAWN program. Then, they got to help build their own box fan air purifier to take home with them.

Students as young as 4 years old entered a classroom with two assembly lines, where they could help apply stickers and attach filters to fans with the aid of older students from the school and adult volunteers. “It was cool to see the kids watch their box fan get transformed step by step into an air purifier, something much more powerful!” said Tina Chow, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “One of the goals is for young students to learn that they can take action in their communities and be part of the process to improve air quality.” There are plans for future air filter build events in Stockton which can reach even more residents.

"It was wonderful to engage with the students, teachers, and parents of All Saints Academy,” said Sunni Ivey, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. "The event was an example of community-engaged education and community activism. Supporting communities through technical training and allyship is an important aspect of public service for university students and professionals."

Students constructed 125 air purifiers using basic household items in two hours (Photo Credit: Nia Jones)
Students constructed 125 air purifiers using basic household items in two hours (Photo Credit: Nia Jones)

"My highlight from the event was seeing how excited the students were to bring home their air purifiers, and it was right on time for the huge heatwave that has swept our region, which also makes air quality worse," says Nia Jones, Director of Community Outreach Programs in CEE. A Berkeley student who attended shared their thoughts on the event, saying, "I felt the work we did was meaningful and had a real impact. I appreciated the background and Southwest Stockton tour from Little Manila Rising." Another student commented on "how easy it was to make the air filters" and considered it a "great community bonding experience.”

Funding for this build event came from The Green Initiative Fund (T.G.I.F.) at UC Berkeley, which awarded a grant to Prof. Chow to continue community-engaged engineering work stemming from student projects in CE 105, an undergrad design class. In Spring 2022, students in Prof. Chow’s CE 105 class worked with Little Manila Rising and Catholic Charities to help with the AB 617 process. One student team looked at data from the Stockton Air Pollution Exposure Project (SAPEP), a study that took place at All Saints Academy led by UC Berkeley researchers from the School of Public Health. Other CE 105 student teams looked at ways to mitigate emissions from heavy-duty truck traffic, activity at the Port of Stockton, and agricultural emissions. They aimed to work with community groups to develop strategies to reduce emissions and increase air quality awareness.

Noehmi Jauregui, principal of All Saints Academy, grew up in Stockton and returned to her community to participate in the change movement. Jauregui thought the hands-on nature of the event gave students the power to "walk away with new knowledge that will help them in the future." She added, “It's also nice for them to see that there are many people who care. When people come and do projects, they don't forget that kind of stuff."