Whether you’re teaching human impact on the environment, ecosystems, Earth’s systems, climate change, or even chemistry, it’s easy (and important) to add an air pollution activity to your curriculum. Air pollution has natural ties to so many aspects of science, health, and even social issues. Students should understand how air pollution affects them and their local and global communities in a multitude of ways.
Over the years, I developed tried-and-true ways to teach air pollution in my science class. I’ll explain it all in this blog post. And read until the end, when I explain the new activity I’ll be adding this year!
Visualizing Air Pollution
If kids can’t see it, if they can’t feel it, if they can’t experience it… it’s hard to get them to care. So, the first step to teaching air pollution is to give kids VISUALS that grab their attention.
First, give kids actual, tangible (kind of!) evidence of air pollution, specifically particulate matter, from their own surroundings. If you have access to microscopes, this activity is a “must” to get kids’ attention for an air pollution lesson. The procedure is pretty simple:
- Give each pair or group of kids 2 microscope slides. (They can be flat or concave – it doesn’t matter.)
- Have students smear a little bit of Vaseline on each slide using a Q-tip or clean popsicle stick. (I saw on Instagram that this can be done with double-sided tape, too, but I haven’t tried it myself.)
- Students put one slide inside the classroom and one slide somewhere outside. I have the kids put their “outside” slides on an outdoor windowsill outside the school.
- After a day or two, the kids collect the slides and put a cover slip over the Vaseline.
- Students use microscopes to view and compare the indoor and outdoor slides.
- Students draw what they see.
It’s time to discuss! Ask questions like:
- Was there a difference between the indoor and outdoor slides?
- What do you think those particles are made of?
- Where do you think the particulate matter on the outdoor slides comes from?
- Where do you think the particulate matter on the indoor slides comes from?
- Do you think our results would be different if we lived in a different city/town/country/county?
- Do you think these particles could affect our health? How?
Next, bring up the website https://www.airnow.gov/ for the students to see. This website allows you to plug in your school’s zip code and get real-time air quality for your area. There’s also a real-time fire map to view where smoke is an issue and an interactive map with overlays of current particulate matter and ozone levels. This activity doesn’t take long, but it’s another way to personalize air pollution as a local issue.
Get the Basics Down
After getting the kids’ attention and interest with the visuals, I assign a very simple air pollution reading and questions. It’s not flashy, but it gets the job done! Students read a simple 1-page article about the top 10 sources of air pollution and then answer text-dependent questions.
Students will learn that the largest source of air pollution is the combustion of fossil fuels, how industries and agriculture contribute to air pollution, what VOCs are, and even how Earth’s natural processes contribute to air pollution. This reading gives kids a solid understanding of where air pollution comes from before we move on.
Air Pollution Activity
To get kids up and moving in my air pollution lesson, I created a stations activity. Students move from station to station, gathering information and answering questions on a worksheet. Eight air pollution stations are included. Students practice different skills at each station, all while learning about different aspects of air pollution. Station cards may include text passages to read, diagrams to analyze, data and graphs to explore, a map to interpret, or a timeline. Each station is unique and has its own focus question:
- What is air pollution?
- Where does it come from?
- What are the main types?
- How does it affect people?
- Is it distributed evenly globally?
- What does the data show?
- What is the Air Quality Index?
- Are there air pollution laws?
Kids love doing work like this because each task makes them feel accomplished. Put together, all of these stations have a ton of information and might be overwhelming. But when it’s broken up like this, each piece is manageable. Kids are reading text passages, they’re analyzing diagrams, they’re analyzing data – but they’re highly engaged, they’re discussing that material, and they’re collaborating. And I’m not the only teacher to say this… check out these reviews of my air pollution stations activity!
Another excellent resource! The variation in stations means students aren’t doing the same thing over and over and it also allows them to collaborate and move around the classroom. The product is high quality and helps students practice higher-order thinking skills using real-world data. – Chloe G.
LOVE LOVE LOVE! This resource was extremely easy to use and the students were very engaged. It is actually content-packed but my students were loving working on it. I especially like that they had to use their critical thinking skills at each station. Highly recommend! – Diana W.
Stations for the win! (Click the image below to view the product.)
Make it Personal
This spring, I’m excited to add a new element to my air pollution lesson. As you may have figured out by now, I am a big fan of the activities that Karen of Science by Sinai offers. She and I discussed how we each cover pollution, and she told me about how she personalizes air pollution for her students. I’m in!
The premise behind this activity is that the students track their family car for a week, recording their trips and approximate mileage. They then classify the trips into 3 categories; necessary, luxury, or semiluxury. (Because I teach in a rural-ish area, driving is a part of every student’s life. However, Karen provides data for students who don’t have cars.)
Using this data, students do multiple graphing activities to visualize their habits. They break the information down into bar and pie graphs with daily averages and weekly averages. This naturally sparks a discussion about individual contributions to air pollution.
You know I love any opportunity to add graphing to my lessons, so I am excited to try this with my students!
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