Wicked Device, an Ithaca-based company that created the Kickstarter product the Air Quality Egg, was recently awarded a $1.7 million National Institutes of Health grant to conduct research on epidemiological research programs in high schools.
Wicked Device was founded by Dirk Swart, CEO, and Victor Aprea M.Eng. ’04 in 2010. The company specializes in electrical engineering consulting and product development. They created an educational platform through their product, the Air Quality Egg, that allows students to analyze data and promotes scientific collaboration.
The Air Quality Egg, named on the “Best of Kickstarter 2012” list, is one of the company’s most successful products. The Egg measures air quality of indoor and outdoor spaces by measuring contaminants that the user chooses to track. Data is accessible in real time online, through the mobile app, or by connecting the egg to a computer.
“A hundred years ago it might’ve been true that you could sit in a basement for three years and emerge with the next big idea,” Swart said in a University press release. “That is just a myth nowadays. Science is an inherently collaborative and cooperative endeavor.”
Additionally, the egg is a part of Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, an organization formed by the presidents of Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins-Cortland Community College to provide a space for student entrepreneurs to grow their businesses post graduation.
The Egg is currently in use in over 70 locations and is employed by companies and educational institutions alike. As of March 2018, over 3,000 units of the Egg were sold. The device is available to be purchased individually or through a special educational package.
According to its website, the Egg hopes to “bring Citizen Science into the Classroom” by introducing air quality concepts, promoting data literacy, emphasizing scientific collaboration, using cross-curriculum applications in other subjects and encouraging local action and awareness.
The grant will be used for the salaries of developers and to “expand the capabilities of the egg backend software to handle epidemiological information,” Swart said. The goal of the program is to teach epidemiological research to high school students and increase their literacy on the subject.
“We want to have mechanisms for teaching epidemiology, or public health if you like, to a wider audience, to an audience that includes high school students,” Swart told The Sun. “The way we want to do that, is to have mechanisms to stimulate epidemiological research to high school students.”
According to Swart, students will be given projects to learn about epidemiology through analyzing simulated data.
The research will initially be conducted in Pennsylvania area schools. Prof. Robin Wilson from Pennsylvania State University’s Cancer Institute partnered with Swart on the program and is already working with approximately 30 schools in Pennsylvania on educational initiatives. These aim to increase students’ knowledge about the sciences and introduce them to different career paths.
“My main goal is to increase interest and persistence in the sciences,” Wilson told The Sun. “For me as a epidemiologist, I didn’t hear about the word epidemiology until I was in my masters program.”
Previously, Wilson has worked with high school students conducting research on how they learned and what they were getting out of the projects they were doing. Students explored a wide range of public health issues from tobacco use to depression to ability in sports.
The flexibility and structured autonomy in the projects allowed students to gain experience in the research process, from soliciting approval from administrators to collaborating with fellow researchers at science fairs or events at Pennsylvania State.
“We wanted students to be able to really get a sense of what it is like to develop a hypothesis make an analysis plan, get approval for that plan from your principal and administration and think critically about some of the exposures that you are interested in your hypothesis that you developed,” Wilson said.
The educational platform that Wicked Device provides, combined with the research that Wilson is conducting on education in high schools, created the perfect partnership for the program that the grant will be funding. Wilson said she is excited to expand the program to other regions with the help of Swart and his team.
Swart said he primarily wants to bring the program to New York, the current company base, but eventually Swart hopes acquire global partners for increased data sharing and learning.
“We are really looking to see what do students think about it, what do they like, what do the not like, after phase 1, making improvements before launching it on a bigger scale in phase 2,” Wilson said.
The overall goal of the program will be to expose students to new areas of sciences. Wilson referenced her own experience in high school noting she did not know anything about epidemiology at that time and thought she would go into art.
“You don’t know what you don’t know and so we want to offer as many opportunities for students to explore that prior to graduating high school.” Wilson said.