Hands-on Activity: What Color is Your Air Today?

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A photograph of skyscrapers against a colorful streaky sky.
Visible air pollution in the sky above Denver, Colorado, on April 25, 2003 at 12:06PM.
copyright
Copyright © http://apcd.state.co.us/psi/chpark.html

Summary

Students develop awareness and understanding of the daily air quality using the Air Quality Index (AQI) listed in the newspaper. They explore what engineers can do to help reduce poor air quality.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers use the AQI to look for trends in air quality. With this information, they create technology to address air pollution mitigation and prevention. Engineers also suggest behavior and policy changes in response to air quality measurements.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Define Air Quality Index (AQI).
  • Read and interpret a graph or data table containing AQI information.
  • Create a graph of AQI information.
  • Explain why we collect/report AQI and how the information is used by engineers.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Represent real world and mathematical problems by graphing points in the first quadrant of the coordinate plane, and interpret coordinate values of points in the context of the situation. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Technologies can be used to repair damage caused by natural disasters and to break down waste from the use of various products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Display numerical data in plots on a number line, including dot plots, histograms, and box plots. (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop, communicate, and justify an evidence-based explanation about how ecosystems interact with and impact the global environment (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • The weather page from the local newspaper, providing the Air Quality Index. (Most schools can obtain free copies of the local newspaper. If not, find the information on-line at a local newspaper or TV news station website.)
  • How Clean is the Air Today? Worksheet
  • Air Quality Index Description handout OR overhead transparency or poster for class to share (Use the attached Air Quality Index Description, Figure 1 or find it in the newspaper with the daily air quality information.)
  • Daily AQI Collection Sheet and Graph attachment OR prepare a classroom bulletin board for class data collection and graphing

Introduction/Motivation

Sometimes the air is clean. At other times it is not. Scientists and engineers measure how clean the air is and call it the Air Quality Index (AQI) (see Figure 1) or the Pollution Standards Index (the names may be different but they mean the same thing). Engineers use the AQI to look for trends in air quality. With this information, they can more efficiently create technology to help address the problems of air pollution and air pollution prevention. Engineers also suggest behavior and policy changes in response to air quality measurements. For example, for times when the AQI is very high in Bethesda, Maryland, engineers developed a program to offer free buses to encourage people not to drive their cars and pollute the air.

An index with numbers can be a quick way to tell people how good or bad something is. For example, you might rate your school lunch is a 1 (very good), or a 5 (yucky). The EPA and your state environmental agency measure information about five main pollutants in the air to determine the AQI. Then, they use an Air Quality Index to tell the people about the air quality.

The AQI focuses on the health effects that can happen within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air. It uses colors, numbers (from 0 to 500) and words to describe the air. The numbers are used to decide the AQI color.

A table listing the associated color and level of health concern for six ranges of air quality index values.
Figure 1: The Air Quality Index.
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Copyright © http://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi

  • A number from 50 to 100 means smog is in the air. You should avoid playing or working outside around noon. It is best to go out early or later in the day. Do you know why? Polluted air can harm you. When you work or play you breathe in more air.
  • A number of 100 or more means the air is very polluted and dangerous. You should stay inside. Try to use an air condition or fan to keep the air moving, and if at all possible, rest.

There are many yellow, orange and red AQI color ratings issued in the summer months when air quality often is not at its best. Purple and maroon indicate the poorest air quality! Luckily we hardly ever see the AQI get to purple. Because of people working to clean up the air, the AQI has not reached maroon in many years! This is why maroon is often not included in the AQI.

Procedure

Before the Activity

  • Make copies of How Clean is the Air Today? Worksheet (one per pair of students).
  • Decide how you want to refer to the Air Quality Index, either by overhead transparency or group handout (one per pair of students, see the attached Air Quality Index Description). Prepare the transparency or copies.
  • Decide how (and for how long) you want the students to gather and graph AQI data, either on a classroom bulletin board, or by group using the attached Daily AQI Collection Sheet and Graph. Prepare the bulletin board or make copies (one per pair of students).
  • Obtain copies of the weather section of the newspaper (one per pair of students) or access to the information on-line. You may need to find the AQI for a nearby town or city if none is listed for your specific location.

With the Students

  1. Open discussion: Is the air clean today? How would you find out if the air is clean? What are you supposed to do if the air is dirty? Tell students they will find out more about this during the activity.
  2. Ask students to find a partner for this activity.
  3. Give each pair of students a copy of the weather section from the newspaper (or alternatively, have them view it on-line).
  4. Ask the students to find any information that relates to air. Ask them to share their discoveries. (Possible information: Wind direction/speed, air quality, air temperature, humidity, etc.)
  5. Ask students to look more closely at the Air Quality Index (AQI). What kind of information is provided there? (Answers: Written, numerical, colored-coded descriptions of air quality.)
  6. Ask students to describe in their own words, what the Air Quality Index tells them. What would it be used for? Why/how can it be helpful?
  7. Refer to the Air Quality Index Description (transparency or student handout).
  8. Discuss which pollutants/types of pollutants may be present at each level.
  9. Discuss what, if any, precautions people need to take at each level.
  10. Have students complete the How Clean Is the Air Today? Worksheet. Discuss the answers.
  11. Distribute the Daily AQI Collection Sheet and Graph handout OR direct students' attention to the class bulletin board display.
  12. Have students record today's AQI and the predicted high temperature for the day in their data table. Have them plot the point on their graph making the x-axis temperature data, and the y-axis the AQI index.
  13. Collect AQI data (for your time frame). Have students complete their data tables and graphs.
  14. Ask students to use their data tables and graphs to look for trends in air quality.
  15. Discuss the trends as a class. Ask students to suggest possible causes for the trends.
  • Do you notice any relationship between the temperature and the AQI?
  • Do you think the AQI index is better (in general) in the winter or summer? (Answer: Winter)
  • What other events might affect the AQI? (Possible answers: Wind, forest fires, temperature inversions [which contribute to smog], etc.)
  1. Collect students' completed Daily AQI Collection Sheet and Graph handouts.

Attachments

Troubleshooting Tips

Depending on how familiar students are with graphing, they may need more support in this area.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Question: Ask the students and discuss as a class:

  • Is the air clean today? How would you find out if the air is clean? What are you supposed to do if the air is dirty? Tell students they will find out more about this in the activity.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have students complete the How Clean Is the Air Today? Worksheet as directed in the Procedure section.

Data Table and Graphs: Have students record daily AQI information in their data table as instructed in the Procedure section. Periodically check student data tables and graphs for completeness and accuracy, and collect and assess the tables and graphs at the end of the data collection period.

Post-Activity Assessment

Discussion: Ask students to use their data tables and graphs to look for trends in air quality. Discuss the trends as a class. Ask students to suggest possible causes for the trends.

Engineering Recommendations: If the students were engineers for your town, would they need to implement pollution prevention measures (i.e., are the majority of the AQI values higher than 100)? If your students were in a city that often had AQI values higher than 100, what type of programs might they implement to decrease air pollution on high pollution days? (Possible answers: Increasing use of public transportation, more carpooling, developing air cleaning technologies, decreasing factory hours on high pollution days, etc.) Have the students write a letter to the city mayor from the Clean Air Engineering Firm that explains the air pollution quality trends in the city and makes recommendations for prevention measures.

Homework: Collect and review the How Clean Is the Air Today? Worksheets.

Activity Extensions

Go to the Environmental Protection Agency's AIRNOW Air Quality Forecast website, http://www.epa.gov/airnow/. On the U.S. map, click on your city or state to see if the air in your area today is clean or not. More information may be found at EPA's AIRNOW website

Read the Air Quality Index in the local paper each day for two weeks. Plot the data on a graph. Retrieve data from 3 months, 6 months and 9 months earlier. Compare the data. Does the air quality change with the seasons? Are there other factors that significantly affect the air quality?

Keep track of other data relating to the air. For example, the UV index, the temperature, the wind speed and direction, the barometric pressure, the humidity, etc. This information may be helpful in Air Pollution unit, Lesson 4.

Have different pairs of students track the AQI for different cities and then present their data/graph to the class. What are the similarities/differences between the cities? Develop a hypothesis for why you think these similarities/differences occur.

Activity Scaling

For grades 1-2:

  • Conduct the air quality activity as a class. Have students pick a colored card to display on the class bulletin board that shows the AQI for the day. Have another card that shows the numerical value for the AQI for the day. Talk about whether the values have changed from the day before. Why do they think this happened? Compare the numerical values (greater than or less than) to the previous day. What was the AQI color most days? The fewest days?
  • Consider making a bar graph of the data.

For grades 3-4:

  • Most students this age should be able to collect and record the AQI data in a data table.
  • Students may need more assistance with the graphing portion of this activity. Consider making a bar graph of the data instead of a line graph.
  • As a class, discuss trends in the data.

References

Air Quality Index Transparency. Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Natural Resource Conservation Curriculum. Accessed October 13, 2004. Formerly available at: http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/assistance/education/k-12education/K12education.html

AIRNow - Kids' Air. Last updated September 13, 2006. A cross-agency U.S. government web site at which AIRNow, EPA, NOAA, NPS, news media, tribal, state, and local agencies work together to report conditions for ozone and particle pollution. Accessed September 13, 2006. http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/assistance/education/k-12education/lessonplans.html

Environmental Science Lesson Plans. Last updated May 15, 2006. Lesson Plans for Teachers, TCEQ, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. (Air quality activity source: 4th Grade Earth's Natural Resources Curriculum) Accessed September 18, 2006. http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/assistance/education/k-12education/lessonplans.html

Contributors

Amy Kolenbrander; Daria Kotys-Schwartz; Janet Yowell; Natalie Mach; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise Carlson

Copyright

© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Acknowledgements

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: May 25, 2017

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