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Equal Access to Healthy Indoor Air


Children play in a school gym.

                                           Photo by RTA Architects, David Lauer Photography.

The objective of this challenge is to develop a holistic solution to address indoor air quality (IAQ) inequities in the United States. This topic relates to both the technical aspects of IAQ as well as other areas including IAQ-related policy, epidemiology, environmental justice, community economic impact, commercialization, codes and standards, and appropriate metrics development.


Poor IAQ in buildings can result from the infiltration of outdoor air pollutants as well as from the generation of air contaminants from indoor sources. Outdoor air pollution can be generated by sources such as power plants and industries, traffic emissions from major highways or roads, and wildfires. Indoor sources include combustion equipment and appliances, installed or stored products and materials (e.g., off-gassing of volatile organic compounds from furniture, cleaning products, and building materials), mold, pests, pets, indoor smoking, radon, legacy building materials like lead and asbestos, etc. The degradation of IAQ is exacerbated by poor ventilation.

Most Americans spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, where air pollutants can be two to five times more concentrated than outdoors.1 Consequently, prolonged exposure to poor IAQ can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular health problems including respiratory infections, allergies, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, sick building syndrome, and lung cancer.2 Acute exposure (over hours) to air pollutants can cause irritation to the nose, throat, and eyes and aggravate asthma, lung disease, bronchitis, and respiratory disease in susceptible individuals.3 In addition, poor IAQ may also lead to increased school and work absenteeism and loss of work productivity due to reduced cognitive performance.4 In extreme cases, serious and life-threatening situations can arise due to poor IAQ. More than 100 people die each year in the U.S. from unintentional exposure to carbon monoxide gas from portable generators and other fuel burning appliances and products.5 Throughout the United States, radon is the number one cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of lung cancer, responsible for an estimated 3,000 lung cancer deaths every year.6

Prior research has shown that households with lower socioeconomic status encounter greater concentrations of indoor air pollutants based on multiple factors such as age of the house, area of peeling paint, water leaks, neighborhood street noise and traffic density, proximity to factories, presence of rodents, mean floor area, occupant density, presence of cracks in floors and walls, etc.7 A study from Peters et al.8 showed that holes in the wall or ceiling that are found more often in the houses occupied by lower socioeconomic status households were associated with a 6- to 11-fold increase in kitchen cockroach allergen concentrations. The official poverty rate in the United States in 2019 was 10.5% of the total population—approximately 34 million people.9 A substantial body of literature demonstrates that poor housing conditions, which are often directly associated with socioeconomic status of the household, can contribute to increased infectious disease transmission, injuries, asthma symptoms, lead poisoning, and mental health problems—both directly (e.g., because of environmental hazards) and indirectly (e.g., by contributing to psychosocial stress that exacerbates illness).10

Besides socioeconomic status, vulnerability to poor IAQ can depend on several other factors including age of the occupants, density of housing, home ownership status (renter versus homeowner), race, ethnicity, occupation, and infrastructure dependence.11 The interplay of these multiple factors leading to IAQ inequity will collectively affect the solutions used to address the problem.

Improvements in IAQ could dramatically improve overall human health; however, to be implemented widely, solutions should not add significantly to the building’s energy use or to homeowner or renter energy bills. IAQ improvement solutions such as increased ventilation rates in buildings can even reduce the incidence and transmission of respiratory diseases including COVID-19.12 Due to the multi-faceted impacts of IAQ improvement solutions, technological solutions alone cannot be realized impactfully without taking policy-related, economic, and other nontechnological considerations into account.

Examples of technological solutions for IAQ improvement include the use of portable air purifiers, upgrades to heating, ventilating, and air conditioning filters, kitchen range hoods that vent exhaust outside, heat recovery ventilators, and motion-activated mechanical exhaust fans. However, these solutions may be unaffordable to the economically disadvantaged population. Recent technological developments in indoor environmental sensing, modeling, and control capabilities can be leveraged to potentially optimize for IAQ and energy efficiency and improve the affordability and access of these solutions to a wider population. More innovation is needed to increase the affordability and widen the access of smart or sensor-driven and other recently developed IAQ solutions.

On the other hand, policies provide a basis for generating solutions at a nontechnological level. Examples of a policy-level approach include the health and safety inspections and necessary corrective actions built into the operating procedures of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs, and several other non-federal programs from the states, local governments, and non-profit organizations. Pathways are also needed to enhance the delivery of effective and impactful solutions to IAQ inequities to end users in a cost-effective and practical manner.


The Challenge

The JUMP into STEM competition asks teams to investigate holistic solutions and explore impactful factors (such as science, policies, awareness, information technology, codes and standards, and economics) behind inequities in IAQ. Teams must develop a problem statement to address IAQ inequities for a specific stakeholder group and present a holistic response that includes a technical solution or process as well as other components such as policy, awareness, information technology, and economic solutions.

Suggestions for student teams to work on include but are not limited to the following:

  • Characterizing indoor air quality to provide better guidance for policy development. (Examples include developing novel metrics related to IAQ based on established scientific findings and the relationship between IAQ and health. Analogous to the outdoor air quality index, such quantitative metrics could then highlight the status quo as well as guide intervention strategies or occupant behaviors for mitigating the harmful effects of indoor air contaminants.)
  • Managing IAQ in buildings through targeted sensing and ventilation strategies.
  • Focusing on a specific pollutant source, building type, or geographical location.
  • Generating or analyzing relevant data through mobile applications, machine learning, and databases that are helpful in making informed decisions at either the building or community level.
  • Developing innovative financing mechanisms to upgrade existing buildings with an improved IAQ solution, etc.
  • Developing new mechanisms of collaboration between existing programs and agencies that can co-address IAQ issues in tandem with other issues such as energy efficiency. For example, OneTouch program model that connects WAP, Lead hazard abatement, and HUD rehab funded programs through lead sharing in Vermont.13 WAP, Zero Energy Ready Homes (ZERH), and Home Performance with ENERGY STAR® (HPwES) are some of the existing federal programs funded by DOE that include IAQ as well as energy efficiency elements with respect to buildings.

Students should develop a problem statement and propose a solution related to building or community-scale IAQ issues. Student submissions should:

  • Describe the scope and context of the problem based on a real building and/or stakeholder group in the United States
  • Identify affected communities, making sure to include socioeconomically vulnerable communities when compared against groups with high socioeconomic status.
  • Develop a holistic solution including technical, policy-related, or economic aspects to address the IAQ problems at the building or community scale. At a building scale, solutions may focus on new building designs or existing building retrofits. At a community scale, the solutions may focus on community behavioral patterns, local infrastructures, community awareness, etc.
  • Discuss appropriate and expected impacts and benefits of the proposed solution. This should include a cost/benefit analysis of the proposed solution and should also include noneconomic impacts whenever possible. The noneconomic impacts could include items such as environmental impact, noise level, security challenges, logistical challenges, health risks, safety hazards, workmanship quality, and speed of implementation.
  • Develop a plan that describes how the team envisions bringing its idea from concept to a final implementation that is useful to the end user. Examples include a detailed plan to convert the idea to a commercially viable, market-ready product for existing buildings and/or communities; or a roadmap to integrate the idea into a new construction or retrofit project.

Downloadable Challenge Description


Competing in this challenge is open to student teams currently enrolled in U.S. universities and colleges. See the Terms and Conditions for eligibility requirements. Please note that all team members must have completed the Building Technologies Internship Program (BTIP) application or declined internship consideration when the idea is submitted.

Please submit the following as one PDF document.

  • Project Team Background (up to 2 pages, single-spaced)
    • Form a team of 2‒4 students. These students represent the project team and will all consult on the problem.
    • The Project Team Background should include:
      • Project name, team name, and collegiate institution(s)
      • Team mission statement
      • A short biography for each team member; this should include information such as major, level (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, graduate), and other relevant background information such as experience with building science, future career goals, and formative experiences that shaped each individual’s contribution to the Challenge.
      • Diversity statement (minimum 1 paragraph, 5‒7 sentences): One of JUMP into STEM’s key objectives is to encourage diversity of thought and background in students entering the building science industry. There is a diversity gap in STEM, meaning that certain groups are underrepresented or have been historically excluded from STEM fields. These groups include, but are not limited to, those based on race, ethnicity, and gender—and this gap needs to be addressed. Diversity of thought can be achieved through teams consisting of students from different majors and minors. If there are barriers to entry present that affect the racial, ethnic, and/or gender breakdown of your team, please elaborate. As part of the next generation of building science thought leaders and researchers, you have a unique opportunity to influence this industry. The diversity statement is your opportunity to describe your team’s diversity of background and thought, both generally and as applicable to your chosen Challenge.
    • The Project Team Background does not count toward the 5-page Project Challenge Submission.
  • Project Challenge Submission (up to 5 pages, single-spaced)
    • Select 1 of the 3 Challenges to address.
    • Investigate the background of the Challenge and consider related stakeholders. Stakeholders are those who are affected by the problem, a part of the supply chain, or manufacturing of the technology product(s), as well as those who may have decision-making power and are able to provide solutions (technical or nontechnical solutions, such as policies). For example, you could include stakeholders who have previously experienced environmental pollution or a high energy burden. Refer to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Justice and Environmental Justice initiatives, as DOE plans to deliver 40% of the overall benefits of climate investment to disadvantaged communities.
    • Write a 1- to 2-paragraph problem statement, focusing on a specific aspect of the problem and the stakeholder groups affected by or involved in the problem. The stakeholder groups can be from a specific location, socioeconomic status, age, or demographic (e.g., people living in subsidized housing). The problem statement should clearly identify the injustices (energy or environmental) that the stakeholder group experiences. Students should consider social implications related to the identified injustices.
    • Write a holistic solution that addresses or solves the specific problem from your problem statement. A holistic solution is one that includes a technical component as well as one or more of the following components, as appropriate: economic, policy, commercialization, codes and standards, and/or other. Address the requirements for your selected Challenge. Include graphs, figures, and photos. Discuss how your solution will impact your stakeholders, especially those who have experienced the injustices that you described in your problem statement.
    • Develop a technology-to-market plan or a market transformation plan, depending on the chosen Challenge.
      • A technology-to-market plan describes how the team envisions bringing its idea from concept to installation on real buildings, or integrated into the design of real buildings, and includes a cost/benefit analysis. This does not need to be exhaustive and should include comparing the solution to current or existing technologies or practices. Benefits, such as building energy reductions and improved occupant health or productivity, should be evaluated. The plan should also identify at least one key stakeholder barrier for implementation (in addition to cost) and address how the proposed solution will overcome that barrier. The plan should also discuss what key stakeholder(s) should be involved to commercialize the technology and then sell and install the technologies with your target market(s).
      • A market transformation plan describes how the team envisions increasing the adoption and use of the already commercialized idea in the market, including sales or distribution channels, outreach mechanisms, and other relevant details. The plan should also describe who the team would partner with to implement the idea (e.g., utilities) and how the collective team would increase market adoption.
    • Include references. References will not count toward the 5-page maximum.
  • Appendix (optional, no page limit)
    • Teams may wish to add an appendix. This is optional and might not be reviewed by the judges.
    • The appendix has no page limit.

Please submit the following information to the corresponding submission prompts on jumpintostem.org. The abstract and image for Challenge winners and Challenge finalists will be published on the JUMP into STEM website.

  • Abstract (up to 250 words)
    • Please include an abstract of your project. The abstract may be displayed on the jumpintostem.org website.
  • Image (file size limit: 5 MB; filetype: .jpg)
    • Please submit an image that represents your project. This can be a photo or a figure from your paper. The image may be displayed on the jumpintostem.org website.

Evaluation Criteria

Solution (40%)

  • Holistic Solution: a technical solution, as well as one or more of the following components, as appropriate: economic, policy, commercialization, codes and standards, or other. How well does the proposed solution address the problem?
  • Feasibility: overall feasibility and potential, including viability.
  • Novelty: the originality and creativity of the solution and how significant the contribution will be to the building industry.
  • Applicability to stakeholders: how well the solution addresses the problem statement and associated stakeholder community.

Market Readiness and Impact (30%)

  • Technology-to-Market Plan or Market Transformation Plan: depending on the Challenge, either a technology-to-market plan or a market transformation plan is required, including cost/benefit analysis and identified key barrier(s) for stakeholder implementation, along with how the proposed solution will overcome the barriers. In addition:
    • For technology-to-market plans: How feasible is the proposed plan to bring the solution from a paper concept to installation or integration with real buildings or building designs?
    • For market transformation plan: How feasible is the proposed solution at providing market intervention and increasing market adoption?)
  • Market characterization and readiness for proposed idea: description and understanding of the market and stakeholder group, and how the solution will create value, both economic and other, to drive industry adoption.
  • Impact: the overall potential impact of the solution. For example, can the solution be extended to communities, similar stakeholder groups, or a nationwide solution?

Diversity and Justice (20%)

  • Diversity statement and project team background: how well the team addresses the diversity gap in the building science industry in their diversity statement. This includes how the team brings perspectives from a variety of backgrounds including students from groups that are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This also includes students from many different disciplines—ensuring diversity of thought. (See the diversity statement section in the challenge requirements.) This also includes how well the teams connect their mission statement and biographies to their problem statement.
  • Environmental and Energy Justice: how well the proposed solution addresses environmental and energy justice.

Submission (10%)

  • Submission Requirements: how well the team follows all submission requirements. 


  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1987. “The total exposure assessment methodology (TEAM) study: Summary and analysis.” EPA/600/6-87/002a. Washington, DC.
  2. Sundell, J. 2004. “On the history of indoor air quality and health.” Indoor Air, 14(s 7), pp.51-58. DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0668.2004.00273.x
  3. Manisalidis, I., Stavropoulou, E., Stavropoulos, A. and Bezirtzoglou, E., 2020. Environmental and health impacts of air pollution: a review. Frontiers in public health, 8, p.14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2020.00014
  4. Zhang, X., Wargocki, P., Lian, Z. and Thyregod, C., 2017. “Effects of exposure to carbon dioxide and bioeffluents on perceived air quality, self‐assessed acute health symptoms, and cognitive performance.” Indoor Air, 27(1), pp.47-64. https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12284
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  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Health Risk of Radon”. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/radon/health-risk-radon#head (Accessed 8/3/2021).
  7. Adamkiewicz et al. 2011. “Moving Environmental Justice Indoors: Understanding Structural Influences on Residential Exposure Patterns in Low-Income Communities.” American Journal of Public Health, 101(Suppl 1): S238–S245. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300119.
  8. Peters, J.L., Levy, J.I., Rogers, C.A., Burge, H.A. and Spengler, J.D., 2007. Determinants of allergen concentrations in apartments of asthmatic children living in public housing. Journal of Urban Health, 84(2), pp.185-197. Available at: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11524-006-9146-2.pdf (Accessed 8/3/2021)
  9. Semega, J.L., Kollar, M.A., Shrider, E.A., and Creamer, J.F. 2019. “Income and poverty in the United States: 2019.” U.S. Census, Current Population Reports, pp.12-20. Available at https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2020/demo/p60-270.html (Accessed 7/1/2021).
  10. Saegert, S.C., Klitzman, S., Freudenberg, N., Cooperman-Mroczek, J. and Nassar, S. 2003. Healthy housing: a structured review of published evaluations of US interventions to improve health by modifying housing in the United States, 1990–2001. American Journal of Public Health, 93(9), pp.1471-1477. Available at https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.93.9.1471.
  11. Cutter, S.L., Boruff, B.J. and Shirley, W.L. 2003. Social vulnerability to environmental hazards. Social Science Quarterly, 84(2), pp.242-261. Available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002 (Accessed 7/22/2021).
  12. Morawska, L., Tang, J.W., Bahnfleth, W., Bluyssen, P.M., Boerstra, A., Buonanno, G., Cao, J., Dancer, S., Floto, A., Franchimon, F. and Haworth, C. 2020. How can airborne transmission of COVID-19 indoors be minimised? Environment International, 142, p.105832. Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412020317876.
  13. OneTouch Housing website, Vermont: https://onetouchhousing.com/

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