Hands-on Activity: Is That Legal? A Case of Acid Rain

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

Photograph of a forest of dying trees, with a quote from Dr. Gene Likens, "We still have a very major problem with acid rain. That is a scientific fact. In that regard the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments have not worked very well."
Trees are weakened over time by acid rain, leaving them more susceptible to factors that would otherwise be harmless. The spruce and fir trees in this photograph are so stressed by the acid pollution that they have succumbed to severe cold, drought, insect infestations and/or diseases. According to the U.S. Forest Service, death rates for many tree species have doubled or tripled in the last decade.
Copyright © http://classes.colgate.edu/aleventer/geol101/acidadir/acid17.htm


The goal of this activity is to understand how techniques of persuasion (including background, supporting evidence, storytelling and the call to action) are used to develop an argument for or against a topic. Students develop an environmental case study for presentation and understand how a case study is used as an analysis tool.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers who know the science and technology behind environmental issues often educate the public and government institutions about the health of our environment and the consequences of our industrial, technological and manufacturing processes. As subject matter experts, engineers use persuasive techniques to develop arguments, provide background and supporting evidence, create case studies, and tell a story as they advocate for industrial guidelines and laws that prevent or limit factories and plants from releasing pollutants into the air, soil and water.

Pre-Req Knowledge

pH scale, acids, bases, acid rain (see Air Pollution unit, Lesson 6: Acids, Bases & Acid Rain: Not So Neutral Views)

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Develop an environmental case study for presentation and understand how a case study is used as an analysis tool
  • Apply skills in analysis, synthesis, evaluation and explanation to their writing and speaking.
  • Write and speak in the content areas using the technical vocabulary of the subject accurately.
  • Use reading, writing, speaking, listening and viewing skills to solve problems and answer questions.

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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.

  • Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth's systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Decisions to develop and use technologies often put environmental and economic concerns in direct competition with one another. (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

  • paper and pencils
  • access to the Internet
  • Microsoft PowerPoint® software or poster-making materials


A case study is an analysis that serves as an example. In this activity, you will read and analyze a case study in the form of an online presentation. It will serve as a model for a case study on an environmental issue that you will develop as a class project.


acronym: A word formed from the initial letters of a name, such as EPA for Environmental Protection Agency, or by combining initial letters or parts of a series of words, such as NIMBY for Not in My Backyard.

allowance trading: A market-based way to reduce pollution in which companies buy and trade the right (allowance) to emit a fixed amount of a pollutant.

analysis: The separation of a whole into its parts for individual study; the study of the parts and their interrelationships in making up a whole; a spoken or written presentation of such study.

argument: A course of reasoning aimed at demonstrating truth or falsehood; may include background information, supporting evidence and examples.

broker: One that acts as an agent for others, as in negotiating contracts, purchases or sales in return for a fee or commission.

call to action: A suggestion or plea for specific action to be taken towards a solution.

case study: A detailed analysis of a person or occurrence, often used as an example or cautionary model.

emission: A substance that is emitted or released into the air.

inference: A reasonable conclusion based on something known to be true.

persuade: To influence someone to take a course of action or embrace a point of view by means of argument, reasoning or appeal.



Excellent background for this activity may be found in Air Pollution unit, Lesson 6: Acids, Bases & Acid Rain: Not So Neutral Views. In addition, the case study, Acid Rain in the Adirondacks (see: http://classes.colgate.edu/aleventer/geol101/acidadir/acid.htm), serves as background on the topic of acid rain. Although prepared by college environmental geology students, it is directed to a general audience. Fifth-grade students who have completed Air Pollution unit, Lesson 6, should have no difficulty understanding the case study, but may need some vocabulary reinforcement.

The subject of allowance trading, for example, which is mentioned in the case study, may give rise to some confusion if students think in terms of trading in the way they trade Pokemon cards or marbles. Allowance trading is more like stock trading, with the allowance as a type of share.

Students will be asked to prepare an online presentation as a group using PowerPoint or other software application. If they do not have access to such programs, they can prepare poster presentations. Writing tasks may be assigned using the three-part case study model (see the Observing section). Other tasks include gathering images to include in the presentation (see the attached Finding and Downloading an Image from the Internet) and formatting the image using presentation software or posters.

As an extension to the case study presentation activity, consider inviting an environmental lawyer to visit the class, if one is available locally, to describe how legal briefs are used in arguing a case or to discuss relevant issues of environmental law.


For background reading and research, have students read the Acid Rain in the Adirondacks case study at: http://classes.colgate.edu/aleventer/geol101/acidadir/acid.htm. Notice how the argument of the presentation is developed in three parts, concluding with a call to action. The author uses background information, supporting evidence, storytelling and a call to action to develop the argument that more needs to be done to protect the environment from the effects of acid rain. Below is the outline of the three-part case study model:

Part 1 - Background of the Problem

  • Historical background and definition of the term acid rain
  • How acid rain works
  • Main causes: Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions from power plants
  • Areas most affected
  • Effect of the1990 Clean Air Act — allowance trading system

Part 2 – Development of the Case: Effect of Acid Rain on Adirondack Park

  • Map of affected area
  • Before and after photographs showing park damage
  • Discussion of how acid rain stresses the environment
  • Impact on plants and animals
  • Impact on human beings — blue baby syndrome, increase in black fly population
  • Human-interest story — a fisherman remembers "back when"

Part 3 - Call to Action – What Can You Do?


Below are some questions to think about and discuss with the class:

  • If you are not from upstate New York, you might wonder why the problem of acid rain in that part of the country should concern you. Why do you think you should be concerned? NIMBY is an acronym meaning Not in My Backyard. Why should you be concerned about a major environmental issue even if it is not a big problem in your own community?
  • Drawing a general conclusion from a particular case is called making an inference. What inferences do you think you might reasonably make from the case study? How does this particular case serve to illustrate a more general problem of air pollution?
  • As you learned in the presentation of the case study, the problem of acid rain was not caused by conditions in the immediate area. It was caused by emissions from power plants in midwestern states. How has that fact made the problem more difficult to solve?
  • How does allowance trading work?


Following the model outlined above for the acid rain presentation, prepare your case study using presentation software (such as PowerPoint), if possible.

Keep in mind that a case study focuses on a particular example, using that to illustrate a general problem. The study of the effects of acid rain on Adirondack Park serves to explain the problem of acid rain pollution in general.

In selecting a topic for your case study, it is always good to start with what you know or are familiar. Think of a local problem that could be used to focus on a broader issue. Students who live at high altitudes or near mountains, for example, might want to do a case study on the special problems of air pollution when air is thin or during winter temperature inversions.

Provide sufficient background so that your audience understands the origins of the problem. Give sufficient supporting evidence to develop your case and demonstrate the seriousness of the problem. Remember to include a human-interest or animal-interest story in your presentation; that brings it home to your readers or listeners. And, don't forget the call to action. Leave your audience with a feeling of hope that something can be done to solve the problem and that they can play a role in the solution.

If your school has a website, see if you can post the presentation online so other students, teachers and parents can view it.



Pre-Activity Assessment

Use call-out questions or a quiz to reinforce the concepts that are introduced or refreshed in the introduction to the activity (see the Observing section).

Activity Embedded Assessment

Use call-out questions or a pop quiz during the Thinking discussion to reinforce vocabulary and understanding.

Post-Activity Assessment

Depending on the abilities of the students, the presentation of the case study may be developed as an individual activity, in teams of two or as a class project, and assessed accordingly with individual, team or group grades.

Activity Extensions

Let's Trade!

Allowance trading, also called cap-and-trade, is a way to reduce pollution. A cap (limit) is placed on the total amount of pollution that can be emitted (released) from all regulated sources (e.g., power plants). An allowance is an authorization from the government (EPA) to emit a fixed amount of a pollutant. Sources, such as power plants, can buy or sell allowances from each other on the open market. The EPA keeps track of the accounts, but the actual purchase can be made through a broker. (Note: Although the cap-and-trade program has worked well overall, it has not successfully reduced the effects of acid rain in areas of especially high concentration such as Adirondack Park.)

Develop a skit that demonstrates how allowance trading (cap-and-trade) works. Five to 10 students, or more, can participate. One person takes the role of the government official who authorizes the allowances and keeps an account of allowances for each company. A second student represents the market (broker) where the allowances are traded. The other students act in the role of power companies or other sources that buy and sell the allowances from each other through the brokering service. Your script should develop a believable storyline that includes reasons why the companies need to trade. Introduce conflict into the skit by having one of the companies fined for emitting more than permitted by the allowance that has been traded.

Props can be simple. An allowance can be represented by a card or other object. But, remember that it must be bought and sold. Play money can represent the purchase. Use a chalkboard, whiteboard or poster to record the accounts and transactions. The different roles can be signified by caps or jackets of different colors or hats with symbols that stand for the roles, such as the EPA logo, a big dollar sign for the broker, and drawings or cardboard cutouts or models for the power plants.

Activity Scaling

  • Depending on the abilities of the students, background research and presentation of the case study may be an individual or team activity or a class project.


Acid Rain Information. Environmental Health & Safety Online, Atlanta, GA. Accessed September 22, 2004. http://www.ehso.com/AcidRain.htm

Allowance Trading Basics. Updated October 29, 2002. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed September 22, 2004. http://www.epa.gov/airmarkets/trading/basics.html

Clean Air Market Programs. Updated September 22, 2004. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed September 22, 2004. http://www.epa.gov/airmarkets/

Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed July 18, 2004. (Source of vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation.) http://www.dictionary.com

Goodman, Brianne and Rapaport, Josh. Acid Rain in the Adirondacks, Student Case Studies, Fall 1999. Geology 101: Environmental Geology, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY. Accessed September 22, 2004. (This slide presentation of a case study prepared by students at Colgate University provides an excellent introduction to the subject of acid rain for a general audience.) http://classes.colgate.edu/aleventer/geol101/acidadir/acid.htm

Guilford, Chuck. Argumentative Essays, Form: Tradition and Innovation. Updated June 27, 2004. Paradigm Online Writing Assistant. Accessed September 22, 2004. (An excellent, award-winning site. Useful for teacher background on the general topic of how to construct an argument.) http://www.powa.org/index.php

Teaching Multimedia Skills: Telling Stories in Words and Pictures. Youth Learn Initiative at the Education Development Center, Newton, MA. Accessed September 22, 2004. (Another excellent site, not to be missed. Includes planning guides and teaching techniques for working with youth and technology.) http://www.youthlearn.org/


Jane Evenson; 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: February 8, 2018