In an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus, Harvard placed a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in the dorm room of Charlotte Moses and other residential students. The filters are designed to trap airborne particulates — like respiratory droplets that could contain the highly infectious virus.
Having a HEPA filter running might bring Moses and her peers some peace of mind, but how well do they actually work?
Thanks to “Science and Engineering for Managing COVID (ES20r),” Moses had the opportunity to find out. The first lab in the new Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences course challenged students to use particle generators to put their dorm room HEPA filters to the test, just days after they arrived on campus.
Hands-on, real-world lessons are at the crux of ES20r, which was developed by Michael P. Brenner, Michael F. Cronin Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics and Professor of Physics, John Doyle, Henry B. Silsbee Professor of Physics, and Evelyn Hu, Tarr-Coyne Professor of Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering, to examine the scientific and engineering basis of COVID-19 policies.
Moses, a first-year student, swung by a physics building for a socially-distanced pickup of lab instruments and then got right to work.
After using a sodium chloride solution and particle generator to fill the air inside her room with tiny salt particulates, Moses utilized a particle counter to see how long it took for the particles to dissipate, with and without the HEPA filter running.
“My dorm received our HEPA filters late with no instruction on how to use them, so many of my hallmates weren’t really sure if they should be turning them on and if they really would make a difference,” she said. “But our results showed that HEPA filters aren’t over-hyped. They really do work if you are concerned about disease transmission through aerosolized particles. While my hallmates were a little confused in the beginning, I’m happy to say they’ve now all turned their filters on.”
The students’ observations were summarized in a letter the instructors sent to Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana, outlining some suggestions to improve the communications related to HEPA filters to help ensure they are being used properly.
That outcome comes as no surprise to instructors Hu, Brenner, and Doyle, who conceived the course as a way to educate students while generating important information University administrators can incorporate into campus COVID-19 policies and plans.