Hands-on Activity: Dangerous Air

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

An HDR image of Sarcophagus in the Chernobyl zone.
Students investigate the Chernobyl accident and the air pollution that resulted
Copyright © Piotr Andryszczak. Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chernobyl_HDR.JPG


By tracing the movement of radiation released during an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, students see how air pollution, like particulate matter, can become a global issue.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

As they observed the pollution transport of the radiation release from Chernobyl, engineers and scientists worldwide compared measurements and predictions. Engineers analyze weather patterns to determine where air pollution is headed and predict pollution concentrations in specific areas. Understanding the weather and water cycles helps environmental engineers explore the human impact from pollutant transport and issue warnings and evacuations. Engineers also learn ways to make nuclear power plants safer for the people living near them.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Describe how air pollution travels from one area to another.
  • Chronologically sequence the progress of radiation transport from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
  • Use division to convert units of speed to discover how fast pollution can travel.
  • Recognize that environmental engineers must understand water and weather cycles in order to help issue warnings and evacuations in the event of a pollutant spill.

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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 to describe that energy and fuels are derived from natural resources and their uses affect the environment. (Grade 4) 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?
  • 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?
  • Examine, evaluate, question, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media to investigate how environmental conditions affect the survival of individual organisms (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each student needs:

For the entire class to share:

  • Colored pencils — a different color for each day — and to number the points. (Or, if students do this as a group, use sticky dots/stickers to mark the map, 1 per city per group.)
  • World maps, atlases, globes, etc., for reference


A cloudy mass covers a large portion on the top of a globe.
Figure 1. The spread of radiation from Chernobyl.
Copyright © 1988 - 2005 by Ingo Gunther. http://www.worldprocessor.com/images/chernobyl.jpg

Air does not abide by local, state, national or international boundaries. Wind carries pollutants hundreds of miles from their origins. The distance air pollutants travel depends on how high in the atmosphere they go. If the pollutants do not rise very high, they are generally deposited close to their source. However, pollutants that are lifted high into the atmosphere may travel thousands of miles before they drop back to Earth (see Figure 1).

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., Chernobyl became the site of the world's worst nuclear power plant accident. Radiation from the explosion entered air currents and traveled three miles up into the sky. Fires burned around the area for 10 days, releasing harmful pollutants into the air. These types of radiation pollutants, even at low levels, can increase the incidence of cancer.

Engineers looked at weather patterns to determine where the radiation was headed and predict pollution concentrations in various areas. They used this information to decide whether or not certain areas should be evacuated. From this experience, engineers also learned ways to make nuclear power plants safer for the people living near them.


Before the Activity

  • Gather materials and make copies of the three handouts.
  • Gather reference materials (atlases, globes, etc.) for student use.

With the Students

  1. Ask students for suggestions about how air pollution travels. Do they think all types travel? If not, what kinds do and how do they travel?
  2. Pass out the Explosion at Chernobyl Reading.
  3. Read and discuss the article (as a class, unless you have advanced readers).
  4. Pass out the Pollution Points Information Sheet and World Map Worksheet.
  5. Ask the students to plot the course of the radiation. The points should be plotted numerically and in chronological order. Make reference materials available to help locate the cities and countries. (If doing this on a class map, have student volunteers use sticky dots to track the path of pollution. You could also do this using an overhead projector transparency and colored transparency pens.)
  6. It took the pollutant 18 days to travel almost 10,000 miles from Chernobyl to Richland, WA in the U.S. Ask the students how they would go about finding how fast the pollutant traveled in miles per hour. Either as a class or individually, find the speed of the pollutant. (Answer: 10,000 miles /18 days = 555.55 miles per day. 555.55 miles /24 hours = 23.1 miles per hour.)
  7. See the Activity Extensions section for a more team-oriented variation of this activity.


Troubleshooting Tips

Depending on the ability of the students you may want to write the cities in on the map for the plots in advance.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Brainstorming: As a class, have the students engage in open discussion. Remind them that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have them raise their hands to respond. Write ideas on the board. Ask the students:

  • How does air pollution travel? Do all types of air pollution travel? If not, what kinds do and how do they travel?

Activity Embedded Assessment

Discussion Question: Solicit student reactions to the Explosion at Chernobyl Reading. Why was the explosion a big issue? How does it make you feel?

Post-Activity Assessment

Global Issue Boggle!: Have the class form into teams of 3–5 students each. Have the students on each team make a list of all the people, animals or situations that could have been affected by the Chernobyl blast by each person taking turns writing down ideas. For each item on their list, the students must describe one way in which it was affected. Students pass the list around the group until all ideas are exhausted. Have teams read aloud the ideas and write them on the board. Ask if any other teams came up with the same idea. If any other teams have the same idea on their sheet, they have to cross that item out on their list. The team that ends up with the most "unique" ideas, wins! (Possible ideas: 1. People [worsened health, become very sick with radiation cancer], 2. Farmers, milk and crops [spoiled], 3) Animals [could die], 4. Buildings [start deteriorating], 5. Water supply [become polluted], 6. Rain [contaminated]. At the end of the game, ask the students to reflect on whether a nuclear blast is a global issue.)

Activity Extensions

Split the class into two teams. Have each team work together to map the pollution points. Mark Chernobyl's location with a sticker. The mapping starts with someone from the first team reading pollution point location number 1 aloud. S/he has 40 seconds to find that city on the map and mark it with a sticker. Team members can help the player by giving directional tips, but they cannot point to any specific location. If the team member finds the location point within 40 seconds, that team gets one point. If not, the other team gets a chance to find the correct location. Teams take turns locating the points until all points are mapped.

Research other places where pollution is transported away from its source. This is not limited to air pollution. Pollution is transported in many ways, for example, by rivers and streams.

Have students read about the people affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Does anyone know someone who was affected by it? Invite a guest speaker to the class.

Activity Scaling

  • For upper grades, give the students latitude and longitude coordinates in addition to city names.
  • For lower grades, make one large class map. Have each student locate one city. Use different colored stickers for each day and number the stickers. Put the map on display in your school's media center or common area.


Chernobyl: A Nuclear Disaster. Updated 1996. Oracle ThinkQuest Education Foundation. Accessed July 23, 2004. http://library.thinkquest.org/3426/

Gunther, Ingo. Globe image showing radiation spread from Chernobyl. Updated February 15, 2000. World Processor, World Space Corporation. Accessed July 23, 2004.

The Path of Pollution. Last updated July 28, 2004. Lesson Plans for Teachers, TCEQ, Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. Accessed September 18, 2006. (Activity source; modified from Ranger Rick's Nature Scope Series: Pollution: Problems and Solutions, 1990http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/assets/public/assistance/education/air/path_pollution.pdf

The Physics of Chernobyl. Updated 2000. Oracle ThinkQuest Education Foundation. Accessed July 23, 2004.http://library.thinkquest.org/C002190F/

Pollution: Problems and Solutions. National Wildlife Federation, Ranger Rick's Nature Scope Series, 1990.

World Map. Printables. TeacherVision.com. Accessed July 23, 2004.http://www.teachervision.com/lesson-plans/lesson-4022.html


Amy Kolenbrander; Janet Yowell; Natalie Mach; Tyman Stephens; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise Carlson


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

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


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