Cache Valley has an air pollution problem. Nestled in the northernmost extension of the Wasatch Mountain range, the beautiful 50-mile agricultural valley of approximately 125,000 residents straddles the Utah-Idaho border, and is home to Utah State University (USU) in Logan. Flanked by the Bear River Mountains to the east and the majestic Wellsville and Bannock Mountains to the west, the valley’s bowl-like topography is prone to winter inversions. A lack of wind and an upper layer of warm air traps cold air and pollutants from motor vehicles, buildings, agriculture, and factories onto the valley floor. For several weeks during winter, news headlines often proclaim Cache Valley (as well as communities in Salt Lake and Utah counties) as having some of the worst air pollution in the nation.1 “As locals often say of pollutants during these inversion periods, “we swim in our own soup.”2
For many residents, the murky haze is viewed, with chagrin, as being beyond their control.3 People need to drive and heat their homes (primarily through natural gas, propane, and wood-burning stoves), and local dairy and farming operations have existed since the 1850s, when the Mormon pioneers settled the valley. Nevertheless, federal and state officials, as well as local health, business, and community leaders, are increasingly alarmed about the pollution’s impact on quality of life. Of particular concern are PM2.5 emissions- fine-particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less- that penetrate deeply into human lungs and may cross into the bloodstream.4 Exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to a variety of cardiovascular and respiratory ailments, cancer, low-birth weight, autism, pre-mature death, depression, and even suicide.5 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated Cache County, as well as other counties along the Wasatch Front, as nonattainment areas for the PM2.5 National Ambient Air Quality Standards, mandating that the state develop plans to reduce pollution concentrations to safe levels.6
While vehicle emissions have the greatest impact on local air quality, given the many other complex and potentially less-manageable sources of pollution (e.g., pollutants wafting in from outside the valley), there are no ‘silver bullets’ to solve the valley’s air problems. Consequently, specific local and state clean air proposals have met resistance among Utah’s mostly politically-conservative population, many of whom are skeptical of the severity of pollution health risks and view the U.S. EPA’s concern as federal overreach. For example, in 2013 a narrowly-passed vehicle emissions testing ordinance for Cache County met strong opposition because of its perceived cost and inconvenience. “I have a real beef with the EPA stepping in and strong-arming us,” noted one irritated county council member, who viewed the ordinance as unlikely to significantly improve air quality.7 In 2015, a winter wood-burning ban proposed by Utah Governor Gary Herbert in areas affected by winter inversions was also met with overwhelming citizen outcry because of its perceived infringement on liberty.8
Utah’s business community, however, is increasingly concerned, as air pollution appears to be stifling the state’s ability to attract new companies, jobs, quality employees, and their families.9 For example, in 2012, a state economic development officer testified before a Utah legislative task force regarding representatives from a foreign company who cut short a Utah site visit upon experiencing a ‘red air alert’ pollution day. “These folks were shocked, literally shocked,” he explained, “they basically said ‘we’re going to conclude our visit early because we’re just not interested in being in a place that has this kind of issue.'”10
Within this context, our pilot high school student poster contest emerged as a way to engage teens on air quality. In October 2014, approximately 100 concerned valley residents, business owners, local and state policymakers, university faculty, and students met at the inaugural Cache Clean Air Consortium (CCAC) summit held at USU. They discussed the status of science, policy, and outreach efforts concerning Cache Valley air and determined collaborative paths forward. One of the summit’s conclusions was that too many segments of the local population remained unaware or unconcerned about local air, and engagement of local businesses, schools, and other stakeholder groups was insufficient. For example, while some elementary schools had programs to encourage children to influence their parents in refraining from idling cars, there were no programs targeting high school teens learning to drive, and who were then abandoning the bus to drive to school. We wanted to consider ways to educate them on the implications of their new driving privilege on air quality. The question was how to make clean air relevant for high school students and empower them to engage in appropriate driving behavior.
High School Poster Contest
Our vision was ambitious: launch an exciting, high-profile clean air poster contest at the local high school where students could not only learn about air pollution, but also gain savvy marketing know-how to create compelling poster messages, win sensational prizes, and have their winning posters celebrated and displayed throughout the community. The objective was to educate the teens by having them develop persuasive materials for others (this educational strategy is based on the “protégé effect”—the idea that children often learn better when they teach others).11 USU was encouraging faculty to partner with local government and community groups to address local sustainability issues through a new Community Bridge seed grant initiative. We seized that grant opportunity to partner with Logan City’s environmental coordinator and launch the pilot poster contest at Logan High School for the spring 2015 semester. About 15 USU students with marketing, sustainable communications, and art skills were recruited to help mentor the high-schoolers and administer the contest (for their involvement, most of the USU students received credit for a class or internship).
Though the contest was open to all Logan High students, given that the posters would integrate clean air, marketing, and the visual arts, we invited faculty advisors of the environmental science classes, art and photography clubs, marketing club, and the Governor’s Youth Council (a service club that had advocated student carpooling the previous semester) to be involved directly with the contest. Acceptance of our invitation required that the high school advisors would allow USU faculty and students to take several hours of class/club meeting time to launch the contest and engage in periodic coaching sessions with their students. Assistance from experts kept the students engaged with the contest and helped them develop provocative posters.
The advisors for the environmental science classes and the Governor’s Youth Council accepted their invitations, allowing direct access to approximately 100 students, of which most were freshmen and sophomores. For environmental science classes, the poster contest was a required assignment, and the teacher included an in-depth study unit for students on local air issues to parallel the contest. For the Governor’s Youth Council, however, participation was voluntary, and the contest was just one of several club activities scheduled for the semester. Regrettably, because of other commitments, the art and photography and marketing clubs were unable to participate, eliminating students with potentially valuable skills for developing compelling posters. Thus, more time was dedicated to mentoring the environmental science and Governor’s Youth Council students on marketing and design.
The contest rules were simple. Posters needed to promote the value of clean air and ways to preserve it. Students could work individually or in teams of up to three, and all artwork and photography had to be original—no copyrighted photos or images from the Internet. Students had two months to prepare their poster entries, and they could turn in as many poster entries as their creativity allowed.
“The Fault in our Cars:” Framing Clean Air Messages
Instructing students on effective poster messaging and design was a critical objective of our initiative. Students were introduced to the contest through a presentation that captured local air pollution issues, actions to preserve air quality (e.g., refrain from idling, carpooling, taking the bus, walking, etc.), and a two-step message framing technique for creating provocative air quality messages, drawing on green marketing research and best practices.12 Specifically, we urged students to avoid the typically-fatiguing ‘doom and gloom’ or ‘preachy’ messages commonly associated with environmentalism. Instead, we encouraged them to have fun thinking about actions to keep air clean that aligned with positive, personally-relevant values and benefits that could sway their peers and other Cache Valley residents.
More formally, students were instructed to develop messages that would appeal to their audiences’ mental ‘frames;’ that is, cognitive structures that people use to understand and interpret reality, such as their values, beliefs, lifestyles, and aspirations.13 Communicating issues aligned with audiences’ sensibilities and desires can encourage people to act on their deepest heartfelt ideals and assumptions by appealing to emotions rather than just logic. For example, Nike’s famous Just do it! campaign dares aspiring athletes to pursue their passions without excuse, while wearing Nike gear, of course.
We introduced students to the famous 1985 Don’t mess with Texas anti-littering campaign as a successful illustration of environmental message framing that they could mimic in their own creative clean air posters. The slogan, Don’t mess with Texas, began as part of the Texas State Department of Highways and Public Transportation to persuade macho Texan males to stop littering Texas roadways.14 Initially, young guys did not really care about tossing trash out of their pickup truck windows. However, with the endorsement of celebrity spokespersons, sports, humor and music, the campaign told a compelling story that trashing Texas was simply unbecoming of ‘real’ Texans. The piercing slogan united a green behavior—anti-littering—with what was near and dear to the hearts of young macho Texans: Texas pride. Littering was framed as an insult to Texas. Don’t mess with Texas commanded young men to protect their beloved state’s honor. In its first year, Texas highway trash decreased by 29 percent. Five years later, litter was reduced by more than 72 percent!15
High school students were encouraged to consider the persuasive lessons of the Don’t mess with Texas campaign as they developed their own posters. In a two-step creative process, they needed to:
- Identify the values, concerns, and things that mattered most to them (e.g., school and grades, friends, and social media, their favorite music, sports, and video games, their smart phones, etc.), and to valley residents (their religious faith, children and families, making ends meet, etc.)
- Associate those values, concerns, and things, in creative and persuasive ways, to clean air actions16
To initiate creative thinking, we asked the students to consider a typical, deeply valued teen lifestyle activity—texting—and how that could be connected with supporting clean air. Teens know they are not supposed to text while driving, and are confronted with “PLEASE DON’T TEXT AND DRIVE” signs on roadways. After some discussion, the students were then shown the image of a school bus with the familiar street sign, but re-worded with a twist: “PLEASE DO TEXT AND RIDE.” The illustration sparked laughter. The example showed the students how to frame a clean air activity—riding the bus to school—as an opportunity to do an activity they valued—texting!
In another example, we discussed how most Utahns detest cigarette smoking, which is against Mormon beliefs. Though considered a controversial analogy among some clean air experts, the group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment has described the risks of breathing Utah’s air pollution as comparable to involuntary cigarette smoking.17 Again, students were asked to think about how anti-smoking values could be connected to improving air quality. After some conversation, students were shown a striking image of an idling car’s tailpipe depicted as a smoldering cigarette with the adage, “Thank you for not smoking.” Through these and other humorous and provocative examples, the students were challenged to come up with their own framed messages, coupled with pictures snapped on their cell phones, to align clean air actions with the values of their peers and Cache Valley residents.
Over the two-month poster development phase, USU faculty and students used the two-step messaging framework to coach high school teens during class or club time (approximately one hour every two weeks). They would chart relevant values of teens and local residents and brainstorm ways to connect them to clean air awareness and action. Favorite movies and entertainment emerged as a popular focus of these coaching sessions, and two movie tie-in poster examples where circulated among the students for them to follow. One poster on display at the local movie theater, sponsored by the Utah Department of Transportation read, “Never fly Solo. Always carpool when you go to the movies,” with an image of Star Wars’ Han Solo and his companions flying aboard the Millennium Falcon space ship. A high school student assisting with the contest also created another illustration, entitled, “The Fault in our Cars.” This was a movie poster parody of the popular young adult film, The Fault in our Stars, incorporating take-offs on memorable film quotes, including “The fault, dear friends, is not in our cars, but in our idling.” Many students liked the creative opportunities posed by satirizing their favorite movies and entertainment.
Once the contest was underway, we procured 14 local businesses popular with teens to donate prizes (mostly gift cards and merchandise valued around USD$50 to $70 each), including restaurants, retail stores, and a rock-climbing gym. We offered many prizes so students would recognize that they had a good chance of winning. For the donations, local businesses that were not engaged with clean air issues were purposefully targeted. This was so that the owners and employees would become more aware of air issues, and their contributions were publicized.18 The awards were named after the business donors (e.g., Al’s Sporting Goods Prize) to further promote the businesses’ support for the students and for clean air. The City of Logan’s mayor also contributed a USD$100 cash grand prize for the best overall poster. During mentoring sessions, students were reminded of the numerous prizes for the winning posters to keep their interest and motivation peaked.
“May the Air Be Ever in Your Favor:” Poster Entries and Winners
Over 75 posters were entered, many of which were creative, funny, and edgy, relating to teen pop culture, entertainment narratives, and community values. Predictably, some entries were disqualified, as they did not adhere to the guidelines by using original artwork, despite the reiteration of contest rules. Two judges recruited from the community selected the best 14 entries based on the likely appeal of the poster to other high school students and to the broader community.
As expected, many winning entries spoofed popular teen entertainment and media narratives. One clever takeoff on the Hunger Games read, “May the Air be Ever in Your Favor,” with an image of a hand pulling a slip of paper from a glass bowl that read, “Carpool.” This corresponds to the memorable quote and scene from the film. Another poster featured a male student striking a menacing Arnold Schwarzenegger-like pose from The Terminator, captioned, “Stop Idling or … Idle Be Back For You!” written across his black sunglasses. A whimsical lampoon of the salacious Fifty Shades of Grey movie read, “Zero Shades of Grey Air. Zero Idling.” For the grand prize winning poster, a student painted two minion characters from the popular Despicable Me animated movie with the words, “Clean air is deliverable. Dirty air is despicable. Walk to school or carpool.” Other teen media parodies among the winning posters included American Idol, Brave, Eggo Waffles commercials (“Leggo that bad air”), and York Peppermint Patty ads (“York your air. Get the Sensation of Fresh Air!”).
Aside from movies and entertainment, some winning posters tapped into values and matters important to youth and the broader community, including catchphrases, children, the Mormon faith, saving money, and love of the outdoors. One showed a mischievous young boy with his arms on his hips badgering the reader with, “My mom idles less than your mom!” Another edgy poster depicted three black stick figures in a black car with “Don’t be lonely. Drive with a homie,” to encourage carpooling. One poster, promoting the fact that Cache Valley residents can ride the bus at no charge, had the slogan, “Why spend on gas? When you have a free pass!” Another designed to appeal to the local Mormon culture showed two young girls wearing general conference name tags jumping in the air at the iconic Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Conference Center in Salt Lake City with the headline, “Jump to Cleaner Air.” Finally, two winning posters used straightforward appeals. One showed a majestic photo of Cache Valley on a non-polluted day with the simple headline, “Protect Cache Valley Air Quality.” The other showed the tail pipe of a car with the simple rhyme, “Stop the pollution… you’re the solution.”
A few entries not selected are worth mentioning as they did attempt to employ the two-step creative framework taught to the students. One potentially promising entry read “Stop the idling. Young lungs at work,” with the depiction of children in an elementary school yard. Though the message tied well into Utahns’ high regard for children, the poster was illustrated with clipart from the Internet, not original artwork. Another poster satirizing Nike’s slogan, “Just Don’t Do It. Be idle free,” included actual Nike ads and pictures from the Internet. One concept declared, “Eat more steaks,” which was supposed to be a sharp jab at reducing the valley’s methane emissions by ‘consuming’ local flatulent cows. The poster deviated from the contest’s focus on driving behaviors, and ultimately, was deemed to be too offensive for those local residents affiliated with agriculture. Another, “Don’t idle. It is in the Bible,” drew attention to the “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” religious reference. Finally, many posters attempted to tie idling and air pollution with death (e.g., “Don’t idle. It’s suicidal!”), including one entry with an image of the grim reaper beckoning a young girl over a polluted valley. Ultimately, the judges perceived that the gallows humor death messages would be a turnoff to skeptical valley residents and did not follow the spirit of positive messaging.
A formal awards night at Logan High School’s auditorium celebrated the posters, and winning students were presented with award certificates and prizes. The grand prize winner also received a commemorative jumbo check from Logan City’s mayor, and her picture was featured in the local newspaper along with her winning poster.19 The event also featured two short guest speeches from Logan City’s environmental coordinator and the local state representative from the Utah Legislature, who congratulated the winners and outlined emerging local and state air initiatives. Approximately 50 people attended the awards night (fewer than hoped), most of whom were parents. A few weeks later, Logan City’s mayor and the council members also officially recognized the winning students at a municipal council meeting.
In preparing the winning posters for public display, the advocacy group Sustainable America, based in Stamford, Connecticut, generously allowed free use of its “It’s Your Turn. Turn it Off.” anti-idling logo to be incorporated into some of the winning anti-idling posters. We liked Sustainable America’s slogan because “It’s Your Turn” conveyed a clever double-meaning, inviting drivers to turn their keys and take personal responsibility to act. We believed the slogan would resonate with teens and the local community. Dozens of reprints of the winning posters were displayed in the city and county buildings, businesses, libraries, schools, places of worship, and other public venues across the valley (and in the Salt Lake Valley as well). Poster images were also used in social media and displayed on websites of other Utah-based clean air/environmental advocacy groups. For example, the Northern Utah Clear the Air Facebook page featured a “Mother’s Day Wish” social media campaign featuring the “My mom idles less than your mom!” poster, which generated over 1,400 hits, likes, and shares over the 2015 Mother’s Day weekend. Some of the anti-idling poster images were used to create car air fresheners and bumper stickers for distribution among students taking drivers’ education courses at Logan High and at local elementary schools in order to encourage parents not to idle when they drop off or wait for their children at the curbside. In short, the high school students’ winning posters and images were used widely in local advocacy.
Impact on Student Participants
To evaluate the impact of the poster contest on participants, a survey was administered prior to the announcement of the winners. The survey asked students to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ to “Did this contest positively impact you?” It also asked, “Please rate your level of confidence before and, as a result of, this poster contest” on 12 specific skills related to the objectives of: 1) gaining awareness about local air pollution (e.g., “Explaining Cache Valley’s air pollution to others”); 2) gaining a sense of empowerment for working to make a difference on air quality (e.g., “Designing effective messages to encourage behavior change”); and 3) willingness to take action to protect air quality (e.g., “Engaging in behaviors that you promote in your poster to reduce air pollution”). Each skill was evaluated on a five-point scale (1 = Not at all confident, 5 = Completely confident). In an open-ended question, students were asked to explain how their personal behavior may have changed as a result of the contest, along with any additional feedback. Forty-five students completed the evaluation, of which 26 (about 58 percent) affirmed that the contest did indeed impact them positively. The pre- and post-contest mean scores and empirical analysis of the 12 skills are summarized in Table 1.
Paired t-tests revealed that the mean scores of students’ perceived confidence on each of the 12 skills were significantly higher after their participation in the contest. This suggests that the contest raised students’ self-reported awareness about local air quality, perceived abilities to make a difference, and willingness to protect air quality. Twenty-two students (slightly less than half) also wrote comments for the open-ended question about how the contest may have changed their behavior. Virtually all of the written comments indicated that post-contest, student participants were: 1) more aware about air quality (e.g., “I didn’t really know anything at all before. But, now I understand how it works more”); 2) more willing to engage in driving behaviors that protected the air (e.g., “I try to drive less so that I know I am not polluting as much,” “I try to carpool more often now”); and 3) more willing to educate others (e.g., “I tell my parents not to idle, and they haven’t as much”). In summing up the contest experience, one student wrote, “It was interesting!” while another said, “It [was] life changing.”
Analysis of the self-reported survey measures and comments suggests that the poster contest did have a positive impact on students’ understanding and willingness to act on preserving air quality. We believe that the ongoing coaching and recruitment of specific classes/groups of students to participate directly in the contest, with their faculty advisors acting as on-campus “champions,” were instrumental in the overall success of the initiative. Nonetheless, interactions with high school students did uncover some important lessons about working with them more effectively, as outlined below.
Plan to overcome student constraints. In one mentoring session, students talked about a popular song by the pop group One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful.” With the guidance of a USU faculty mentor, students identified several clean air actions (e.g., students biking, taking the bus, carpooling) that could be depicted in a poster and captioned with the popular song’s title to suggest that each action can be ‘what makes you beautiful.’ The students left the brainstorming session seeming excited and enthused. Frustratingly, these, and many other potentially creative ideas from mentoring sessions, never materialized into poster entries. We learned that several constraints hindered some students.
Early on, we learned that the students are busy! They face myriad demands on their time ranging from Advance Placement classes, homework, and exams, to extracurricular and after-school commitments, including athletics, clubs, and part-time jobs. Our clean air contest was simply one more activity competing for their attention. If it was not a required assignment, the poster contest became a lower priority.
The inability to get art and photography club students directly involved in the contest due to previous commitments proved to be a more significant hurdle than anticipated. While many of today’s teens are savvy with taking photos on their cell phones for social media, this proficiency did not necessarily empower them to develop images for educational posters. Feedback from university student mentors indicated that, while environmental science students had good poster ideas, they lacked the artistic skills and assurance to make them feasible. One of the university art student mentors held a special meeting with students in Logan High’s computer lab to help them with their posters’ graphic designs. It was here, however, we learned that the high school’s computer equipment and software were woefully outdated and difficult to use. Many less-privileged students who didn’t have smart phones, cameras, or home computers, and who had to rely on the high school’s inadequate equipment to create their posters were clearly at a disadvantage. This may account for many students’ use of images from the Internet rather than original art work as stipulated in the contest rules.
The lesson here is that recognition of high school students’ structural constraints is critical. In this case, more time could have been invested in photography and art (rather than just clever messaging), better access to graphic art software could have been provided, and we could have been more proactive in identifying high school students within our pool who possessed art, photography, and computer skills, matching them with others to develop posters in teams.
Have patience. Given the time and demands on high school teens, we found that ongoing mentoring was critical for reinforcing their understanding and application of the two-step message-framing tool. Additionally, having faculty advisors for the environmental science and Governor’s Youth Council serve as ongoing ‘champions’ of the contest kept students on task. Our faculty advisors warned us that it was not uncommon for high school students to procrastinate. Accordingly, it is advisable to set deadlines throughout the two-month development phase of the contest, requiring students to produce rough drafts and receive some small rewards for completing specific tasks with informal feedback. Two of the winning posters—”Idle be back” and “My mom idles less than your mom!”—materialized in mentoring meetings within the final days of the contest. Our experience suggests that creativity among high school teens takes time, reminders, and ongoing support.
Recognize students among their peers. One disappointment was that a rather small audience attended the awards night. To ensure that at least the winners and their families attended, we had to inform them ahead of time of their prizes, which diminished the element of surprise. One veteran Logan High teacher noted that students are motivated by recognition from their friends and peers, rather than just their parents. Thus, a better venue for the awards could have been an assembly during school hours. This may have attracted hundreds of students, increasing the visibility of our winners, their posters, and guest speakers.
Another educator recommended that we could have taken advantage of teens’ preoccupation with social media and hosted an online ‘Students’ Choice’ vote on Logan High’s Facebook page, further showcasing air pollution issues, the contest’s participants, and their posters. In summary, we learned to seek ways to let students shine before their peers and use existing school infrastructure, such as school assemblies and social media, to raise the visibility of students and their achievements.
Air pollution is not typically a top-of-mind issue for teens. However, given the persistence of air pollution problems in Utah (and elsewhere), educating teens on ways to improve it as they join the legion of drivers may help them learn lifelong skills to reduce their long-term personal impact. We made air pollution relevant to high school students by coupling it with a high-profile clean air poster contest. This involved students learning about effective green message framing and receiving ongoing mentoring from USU students and faculty. Results demonstrated that the contest led to better understanding about air quality and willingness to engage in driving behaviors to protect it.
In October 2015, students at Logan High School announced that they were launching a second Clean Air Poster Contest for 2016. The contest would be administered by students in the newly-formed Logan Environmental Action Force (LEAF) Club, which was being advised by the environmental science teacher who helped champion the initial contest. The club will distribute car decals and air fresheners designed from the winning posters to the drivers’ education classes at Logan High. As a result, the messages will go directly to the primary target audience we were hoping to reach. We are excited that students will continue this pilot initiative into subsequent years, building on the momentum of the pilot initiative. Our pilot poster contest and outcomes hopefully will help other educators and advocates seek ways to instill the value of social and environmental issues among young people, who as they mature, may help steer society onto a healthier, more sustainable path.
The authors thank Cathy Hartman, Alexi Lamm, Jacqueline Lowry, and Paige Gardner Young for their comments and suggestions.