Sludge is in the Air

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SWBAT describe causes and effects of air pollution.

Big Idea

In this lesson students students generate design solutions by first identifying examples of particulate matter in the air and then design a particulate matter collector.

Day 1: Engage

15 minutes

I open the lesson by handing out one strip of the Air Sayings (either a saying or a meaning) to each student as s/he enters the classroom. I tell the students that some of them have received a strip with a "saying", while others have received a description of what the saying means. I ask the students to walk around and find their partner. Each pair should consist of a matching "saying" and "meaning". After all the students have found their partners, I have the students return to their seats and ask them to read their sayings and meanings aloud to the rest of the class.

Next, I discuss the following questions with the students.
  • What do all of these saying have in common? (They all relate to air.)
  • Why do you think we have developed so many sayings that relate to air? (Because air is important to us.)
  • Why air is so important to us? (It contains oxygen, which is essential to life.)
  • Can air get dirty? (Yes!)
  • How does air get dirty? (Answer: It can get polluted by exhaust from cars, factories, fires or burning trash, and other human actions.)
  • Does the quality of our air matter? Is clean air important? (Yes, polluted air can cause serious problems for our environment and our health.)
  • What could happen if you breathe polluted air? (Polluted air can cause itchy eyes, coughing, asthma, and other illnesses.)


In order to build relevance and activate background knowledge, I ask the students if any of them ever watch or have dreams of participating in the Olympics. I explain that, in 2008, there were huge concerns over the health of the athletes and spectators at the Beijing Olympics due to extreme air pollution in the city. I read the article, Bad Air in Beijing aloud to the students to provide a description of the air quality during this event. I also play the video Hazardous Air Pollution Shrouds Beijing to show the current status of the air quality in China.



Next, I explain that the city officials in Beijing have submitted a bid to host the 2022 Olympic games and are working to improve the air quality. In fact, they have guaranteed that a significant improvement will take place well before the games. I ask students to discuss whether or not they feel that Beijing should be allowed to host again.

Day 1: Explore

40 minutes
I start the next part of our lesson by passing out the Air Pollution Poster, provided by the NY Department of Environmental Conservation. I have students read and discuss the poster in pairs, highlighting the causes of air pollution in one color, and the effects in another.
Next, I pass out the Air Villain Trading Cards. I have the pairs of students play a version of the classic game, "Memory", placing the cards face down and turning over two cards at a a time, trying to match up the "villain" with their corresponding "crime".
Now that we know a little about air pollution, we continue our exploration by constructing air pollution collectors. To make their pollution collectors, students should do the following: (Directions are also written on the attached handouts.)
  1. Cut a hole in an index card. The hole can be square, round or any other shape that students like, but it should have at least one area that is as large as a 2" x 2".
  2. Punch a hole in the index card near one end. Thread the length of string through the hole and tie it in a loop. The pollution detector should hang loosely from the string.
  3. Write information on the index card for future identification (i.e., name, date, class period). Label the index card with a phrase such as "Pollution Monitor – PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE" so that the collector will not be thrown away by someone who thinks it is trash.
  4. Put a piece of packaging tape over the larger of the holes cut in the card. The sticky side of the tape will collect airborne particles, so students should be careful not to touch the sticky side or to stick the tape to their desk, paper, their clothes or anything else.
  5. Hang the pollution detector at a location that they would like to investigate. More particles will be collected at areas of greater airflow, such as near vents. Other interesting places could be nearby classrooms, the cafeteria, the kitchen, the teacher's lounge, a copy machine, a bus stop, on the playground, or just about anywhere (Note: Remind the students not to interrupt other teachers' classes or go places that they are not allowed.)
  6. Leave the pollution detectors hanging for at least 48 hours, preferably longer (over a weekend is good).

Sludge is in the Air

Day 2: Explain

20 minutes
After the pollution detectors have been collecting particles for some time, they are ready to be analyzed. To analyze the pollution detectors, students should:
  1. Place a blank index card on a microscope stand. Place the pollution detector over the paper on the microscope stand, sticky side up. Choose an area with few particles, an area with many particles and an area with an intermediate number of particles.
  2. Count the number of particles in each area chosen. Record the number on the Pollution Detector Worksheet.
  3. Identify at least three different kinds of particles.  Describe and draw three of the particles seen through the microscope. Hypothesize what types of particles might be present.
  4. Count the number of particles on each of the three areas of the pollution detector. Calculate the total and average of all three areas on the worksheet.

After each student on group has looked at their own data, we compile data from all the student groups to identify and compare areas with high and low amounts of particles in the air. I have students hypothesize where the particles in each area might come from that float in the air.  

Day 2: Elaborate

20 minutes

Now that students are more aware of what is in their air supply, I want them to see how it can actually affect their health. I introduce the students to the Lung Attack Simulation, which demonstrates the effect of particulates and carbon monoxide on the lungs. I provide them with approximately 10 minutes to run the simulations.

After running the simulation, I direct the students back to the handout to work on the reflection questions. (These questions are the same ones we discussed during the "engage" section of the lesson, but students should now be able to respond with greater detail.)

Next, we discuss the questions as a class. I select a random student to respond to each question, and then select another random classmate to elaborate on what their peer has said. This holds all students accountable for potentially providing a response, for actively listening to their peers, and for preparing additional information to share in response to their classmates' answer. 

Day 2: Evaluate

15 minutes

As a final demonstration of understanding, I pass out the bookmark containing Clean Air in 10 Easy Steps and have the students read through the steps on their own and explain (in writing) why each of the tips will contribute to the reduction of air pollution. I also have them add three of their own tips that are not mentioned on the bookmark.