Land & Environment

Contest Shows Teens are Wise to Air Quality Issues and are Talking about It

Finalist poster designed by Mountain Crest High School students Lauren Haslam and Jordan Flippence.

Idle vehicles pump unnecessary pollution into Utah’s air … and your teen wants in on the discussion.

An innovative contest spearheaded by Roslynn Brain McCann, associate professor of Environment and Society on the USU Moab campus, and Edwin Stafford, professor in the Marketing & Strategy Department at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, used an engaging trio of skills … art, science and marketing … to encourage teens to learn about air quality issues. The Utah High School Clean Air Poster Contest was initially designed to engage youth, but research shows that teens are also communicating what they learned to their parents. 

The 2019 contest drew more than 400 participants from an ever-growing number of high schools. It also garnered widespread grassroots and media interest – McCann and Stafford’s research on how teens engage and influence their parents was featured in national publications such as Forbes and Fast Company

“Poster entries are often funny, edgy, and tied to teen pop culture,” Stafford said. Others are “terrifying.” 

From ominous apocalyptic warnings to inspiring artwork, this year’s entries had no shortage of creativity. Among the finalists included entries that featured skeletal vehicle emissions reminiscent of the German Krampus, and artwork showing the effects of air pollution on Utah’s viewshed. The top winning poster by Tatum Scow of Grand County High School featured a healthy environment and human lungs contrasted by one marred by pollution with the slogan “Choose the Right Path. Stop idling and let yourself breathe to the future.”

The contest does more than engage teens from multiple aptitudes. McCann and Stafford wondered if promoting a social-change message about air quality with young people could transfer to parents – who likely do most of the driving. They surveyed parents of teens who submitted posters and found that 71 percent reported that their teens initiated conversations about Utah’s air pollution. 

Whether or not this communication was welcome was initially unclear. A phenomenon sometimes called the “inconvenient youth” effect notes that some adults (especially parents) feel uncomfortable having youth instruct them about social behaviors, making them feel pressured to comply in order to maintain respect. But this research showed that the more specific the message, the more influential the effect.

“Our parents reported that they were most influenced into changing their own driving behaviors when their teens talked to them about specific actions for preserving air quality, such as refraining from idling, compared to more general conversations about air pollution or the contest itself,” McCann said.

The survey showed that teen communication can have a measurable effect on moving parents toward positive behaviors (carpooling, refraining from idling, trip-chaining, or riding the bus). Only a few parents described their teens’ social influence as pestering or inconvenient. Rather, most reported that their teens simply initiated a reasoned conversation about local air pollution and solutions, and some even described it as welcome.
The amplification effect of the poster contest may be just beginning. Some Utah-based clean air advocacy groups like Breathe Utah and the Utah Clean Cities Coalition featured winning posters in their outreach, and some posters have been distributed or made available online. McCann and Stafford are interested in knowing more about the longevity of the message and the effectiveness of the poster for engaging the broader Utah public. 

The 2019 Utah High School Clean Air Poster winning poster by Tatum Scow of Grand County High School. The contest engages teens to understand air pollution and to use strategies that help to preserve air quality (refrain from idling, carpooling, trip-chaining). Researchers hope the message spreads beyond participating teens to their parents.


Ed Stafford
Marketing & Strategy Department

Traci Hillyard
Public Information Officer
S. J. Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources



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