MAP LAB: Toxicity in Sunset Park

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Students will be able to 1) define toxicity; 2) identify sources of toxicity in the Sunset Park neighborhood; 3)develop a toxicity map of Sunset Park; and 4) develop an argument for or against the idea that proximity to toxic pollution leads to negative human health outcomes.

Big Idea

Toxic pollution negatively impacts human health. How might we explore the relationship between human proximity to toxicity and negative health outcomes in the Sunset Park area?

FRAME: Qualitative or quantitative?

How can we begin to approach Sunset Park as a CASE STUDY of environmental justice? In this MAP LAB, students will shift their focus back to the local Sunset Park community. The goal is to develop maps of potentially toxic threats to public health that environmental scientists might evaluate with mathematical models. What are the proximate sources of toxicity in our community? What impacts might these toxic pollutants have on human health? Advanced versions of this course would apply statistical methods and toxicity frameworks to assess neighborhood toxicity through numerical modeling. (See this reflection for lesson ideas that also include quantitative analyses.) However, the link between proximity to toxicity and negative health impact is not firmly established. As such, any such quantitative analytic framework should not necessarily be considered a strategy that "proves" a link between proximity to toxicity and negative health outcomes. 

In this MAP LAB, students will first explore the idea of deadly chemicals through a FLIPPED exploration of a documentary about poison. Students build on this initial activity to develop refined definitions of "toxicity" and to locate sources of toxicity in the community. Students next apply skills from a previous SKILL BUILDER to develop toxicity maps of Sunset Park. Finally, students explore the idea that proximity to toxicity leads to negative human health outcomes.  By the end of this lesson, students should be able to define toxicity, identify sources of toxicity in the Sunset Park neighborhood, develop a toxicity map of Sunset Park, and develop an argument for or against the idea that proximity to toxic pollution leads to negative human health outcomes.


  • The attached PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE  is a basic template that might be differentiated for a a group of diverse learners.
  • The attached PROFESSIONAL READING explores the connection between proximity to toxic substances and human health. 

TIMING NOTE: This MAP LAB is presented as a single lesson because it should be modified to meet the needs of students. In my classes with English Language Learners, for example, this was a one unit lesson that covered only the ENGAGE and EXPLORE activities and a whole class discussion of whether or not living near toxic substances caused poor human health.

FLIPPED: The Poisoner's Handbook

What is the purpose of this activity?

Student develop an understanding of toxicity from a film about poisons and conduct basic research about a chosen poison. By the end of this section, students should have a working definition of toxicity as well as an example of a toxic substance.

What will students do?

Students first identify one poison from this interactive. (This resource is from The Poisoner's Handbook, a film developed by PBS; students are encouraged to watch as much of it as they would like for this assignment, although watching the film is not required. An embedded version is also below.) Next, students describe how this poison affects the human body.  Finally, students research the poison in the Toxic Exposome Database and add one additional fact about the poison to their initial description.


ENGAGE: Lesson frame and the perfect crime

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students continue the important college ready habit of understanding the purpose of a learning activity by paraphrasing the big idea for the lesson. Additionally, students share ideas about how they would commit the perfect crime using one of the poisons research during the FLIPPED lesson. By the end of this section, students should be able to explain the objectives for this lesson and should also be able to describe why arsenic, carbon monoxide, cyanide, and radium are lethal to humans.

GROUPING NOTE: Student groups will develop digital toxicity maps of Sunset Park in this lesson. Due to the wide variety of student needs, teacher may want to group students so that students with similar needs will be using the same research resource. This process is described here.

What will students do?

First students develop a personal understanding of the goals of this lesson. (See this description to understand one way to do this in a blended learning environment.)

Second, students write a short paragraph describing how they would you commit an undetectable murder and then share ideas with peers. 

Finally, each student group will share out a favorite version of the "perfect crime." What would we do? Which poison would we use?

What will teachers do?

Students should be able to successfully run this activity. The teacher will most likely need to address the potential problem of students not having completed the FLIPPED assignment. For students that are not ready to discuss, computers should be made available so that they can explore the FLIPPED activity before the group discussion. I always have a station of five laptops available for students that were not able to complete the FLIPPED assignment for some reason. This is not a perfect solution, but often the missed opportunity to work with peers on an engaging problem, such as the "perfect murder" will motivate students. Over time, once students realize that FLIPPED assignments lead to fun and challenging in-class work, the rate of incompletion drops dramatically.  By the second semester of my class, it is rare to have more than one student at the in-class FLIPPED work station.

EXPLORE: Is my neighborhood toxic?

20 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students develop definition for "toxicity" and explore online resources to develop an evidence-based idea of the toxicity of their neighborhood. By the end of this section, students will be able to define "toxicity", identity sources of toxicity on a world map, and cite evidence to support claims about the level of toxicity in Sunset Park.

What will students do?

Student will work in collaborative groups to accomplish all tasks. They will record answer in shared Google docs that they have submitted to their teacher.

First, students read and paraphrase this short article.  What is the definition of "toxicity"?

Second, students will identify sources of toxicity in the world and in the Sunset Park neighborhood using two digital map resources:

Third, students will choose one of the following resources to research the toxicity of their neighborhood.

They will use this research to write a claim in this format: Sunset Park is/is not a toxic threat to humans because... Students will vet claims within groups and write a best claim on the whiteboard at the front of the room.  

Finally, each group will read the written claim aloud to the class.

What will teachers do?

Students are most likely to struggle with the user interface of provided resources. Teachers may want to model at least one map resource and one toxicity information resource. Additionally, students should proactively stop the class and model proper use if subgroups of students demonstrate the same difficulties with an online user interface. 

MAP LAB: Mapping toxicity in Sunset Park

55 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students use map sample from the EXPLORE activity as well as skills from a previous SKILL BUILDER to develop toxicity maps of the Sunset Park neighborhood that support the claim read at the conclusion of the EXPLORE section. Teacher support students' skills constructing digital maps, push students to consider the strength of evidence, and facilitate peer feedback.  By the end of this activity, students will have built a digital map of toxicity in Sunset Park that uses appropriate evidence from online research resources.

What will students do?

Students will create a digital map that supports a claim about the nature of toxicity in Sunset Park from the EXPLORE session. Detailed directions are in the PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE. Here is a summary: 

  1. Draw a map of your local neighborhood by hand; this is the area that you will build out as a digital map.
  2. Create a new Google digital map.  Label it “Toxicity in Sunset Park.”
  3. Use at least THREE resources to identify the location of 10 potential sources of toxicity in Sunset Park.
  4. Write a description of each toxicity source in the text box underneath the title.
  5. Compare your map with TWO other students.  What was similar?  What was different?  What questions do you have?
  6. Copy and paste the link for your that you create in the table below.
  7. Complete the debrief questions. 


Once students have completed maps, they should share with at least TWO peers and make revisions. After all students have had an opportunity, the class discusses how the maps do or do not demonstrate environmental injustice in the local low-income, predominantly minority community.  Some guiding questions for this discussion include:

  • What evidence of environmental toxicity do these maps include?
  • Are there more environmental threats in this neighborhood compared to other neighborhoods?
  • Can we conclude that these toxic threats are causing poor health?
    What other factors might be contributing to poor environmental health? 

What will teachers do?

Because students have developed digital mapping skills previously, teachers will not have to do much work supporting students use of the mapping user interface. The key challenge will be assisting students with the open-ended challenge of selecting evidence from the curated resources. Teachers will ideally come prepared with a concrete idea of which resource will best serve each student as well as the level of autonomy that each student can successfully take on.  One strategy to manage this process is to group students by the resource that will best meet their needs at the beginning of class.

RESOURCES NOTE: Because of an issue with sharing permission (students shared maps with me, but did not share them publicly) actual student maps are not available. A sample map of what a student might have created was included instead.

EXIT and EVALUATE: Community health data

20 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students examine community health data and an EPA literature review to refine their understanding of the relationship between neighborhood toxicity and human health. Nearly every student will have claimed that toxicity in Sunset Park causes poor health and will have created maps that appear to support this claim. By the end of this section, students will have reviewed additional research materials in order to understand that toxicity maps, at best, suggest a strong correlation between toxicity within a community and diminished human health.

DIFFERENTIATION NOTE: This is a reading intensive activity that will require high-level proficiency with 11-12 Common Core skills.  As such, it should be considered as an evaluation for only a subgroup of all students. For the majority of students, teachers can focus on students' ability to develop toxicity maps that effective make a claim about environmental justice in the local community.

What will students do?

Students will use research resources to grapple with this guiding question: Does proximity to environmental hazards result in adverse health outcomes and account for health disparities?

To answer this question, students will first examine the Sunset Park community health profile. How healthy is the community? Is there evidence from our maps that we can use to make a claim about potential causes of community health problems? (Students are most likely to make a connection between air pollution and high rates of asthma.)

Next, students examine an EPA literature review to develop a claim that answer the guiding question. 

RESOURCE NOTE: The attached document is a well-developed example of student work for this assignment. It is extremely detailed and effectively synthesizes information. It is also the result of more than two hours of additional work.

ENRICHMENT: Toxic Brooklyn

For educators interested in learning more about toxicity in the Greenpoint and Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, here is a documentary that some of my students found while exploring more about this MAP LAB.