Hands-on Activity The Search for Secret Agents

Quick Look

Grade Level: 5 (4-6)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $0.00

Group Size: 4

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Chemistry

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

A spray mist cleaner squirted in front of a black background showing its mist.
Students investigate indoor air pollution
Copyright © Pixabay http://pixabay.com/p-316524/?no_redirect


Students embark on a scavenger hunt around their school looking for indoor air pollution and mapping source locations.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers research indoor air quality to identify and characterize the health risks associated with exposures to indoor air pollutants, individually and in combination. Once identified, engineers work to design technologies that improve indoor air quality. This might include designing better air filters, improving HVAC circulation in a new building design, making sure parking lot emissions do not enter a building's fresh-air intake, and designing materials that do not produce off-gases or pollutants.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Predict and observe sources of indoor air pollution (IAP).
  • Understand and give examples of technologies we use related to IAP.
  • Tabulate and graph sources of indoor air pollution.
  • Describe how engineers interact with indoor air pollutants.

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.

NGSS Performance Expectation

5-ESS3-1. Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment. (Grade 5)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Obtain and combine information from books and/or other reliable media to explain phenomena or solutions to a design problem.

Alignment agreement:

Human activities in agriculture, industry, and everyday life have had major effects on the land, vegetation, streams, ocean, air, and even outer space. But individuals and communities are doing things to help protect Earth's resources and environments.

Alignment agreement:

A system can be described in terms of its components and their interactions.

Alignment agreement:

Science findings are limited to questions that can be answered with empirical evidence.

Alignment agreement:

  • The use of technology affects the environment in good and bad ways. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

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Materials List

Each group needs:

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_air_lesson09_activity1] to print or download.


Do you know exactly what you are breathing in this classroom? Are all air pollutants outside of buildings? No, they are not! Not only can outdoor air pollution affect your health, but indoor air pollution can also have harmful effects. There are many potential sources of indoor air pollution in houses and other buildings. Gases such as carbon monoxide, ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, lead and particulate matter (small bits of material, like dust) flow into buildings from the cars and sources outside. Radon gas seeps indoors from the soil and rock around the foundation, and hundreds of other chemicals, dust, fibers, molds, bacteria and metals are released into the indoor air primarily from carpeting, wood products made with synthetics and combustion (heating) sources. Common sources of indoor pollutants include household cleaners, textiles, automotive supplies, furnaces, gas cooking appliances, pesticides and paint.

Engineers research indoor air quality because it is necessary for identifying and characterizing the health risks associated with exposures to indoor air pollutants, individually and in combination. Engineers study the indoor air pollution in restaurant and public building smoking areas, as well as pollutants from other sources inside schools, office buildings and houses.

One way you can prevent indoor air pollution in your house is to seal and properly store household cleaners, paints and other products to keep their fumes from leaking into the living area of the house. Providing fresh air into the house every day can help keep indoor air pollutants from becoming concentrated in one room. Are there other ways to minimize indoor air pollution? 

[Hold a class discussion about sources and hazards of indoor air pollution (IAP). Review the list, below, of indoor air pollutants commonly found in schools.] Can you predict the sources of these air pollutants?

Indoor Air Pollutants Commonly Found in Schools

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Dust
  • Lead
  • Pesticides
  • Mold
  • Radon
  • Allergens
  • Pet dander
  • Nitrogen oxides
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Formaldehyde

Indoor Air Pollutant Sources Common in Schools

  • Cleaning supplies
  • Insects, pests and pets
  • Art supplies (markers, inks, paints, glues, solvents, thinners)
  • Photocopy and printing equipment
  • New carpets and cabinetry
  • People with communicable and contagious diseases (flu, colds, etc.)
  • Cafeteria and food preparation areas
  • Odors and emissions from trash
  • Science laboratories
  • Teacher lounges (smoke)
  • Vocational art areas
  • Equipment and furnishings
  • Dust-producing or water-damaged materials
  • Major source of air pollutants in schools: Improperly designed, installed, operated and maintained ventilation systems


Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Tell students that they are going to be investigators and search the school for sources of indoor air pollutants (IAP).
  2. Divide the class into teams of four students each.
  3. Clearly delineate the limits allowed for the students' search. If possible, this area should include more than the classroom. Gyms, cafeterias and bathrooms are good places to search.
  4. This activity can be a competition between teams or a collaborative effort to identify all the IAP hazards in the school. The results are the same in either case, but student attitudes may differ in how they approach this activity. If it is a collaborative effort, it may be helpful to assign groups to certain areas of the school (this also minimizes groups of students stampeding through the halls, which might occur under a "competitive" scenario).
  5. Instruct students that they must clearly document where they found the source of pollution by writing it on the Scavenger Hunt Worksheet. They should be very specific (not "the cafeteria," but "on the ledge under the third window from the left as you enter the cafeteria"). This eliminates cheaters, because the teacher can verify pollutants at these locations, if necessary.
  6. Students should not attempt to bring sources of pollution back to the classroom. What they might find — chemicals, asbestos, mold — should not be touched at all.
  7. Review with students the best places to look.
  8. Send students on the scavenger hunt.
  9. After students return, tabulate the results on the chalkboard or poster paper.
  10. Construct a bar graph of the data.
  11. What types of IAP were the most common/frequently noticed? Which were the least? Which are the most hazardous?
  12. Brainstorm a list of ideas about how to remove or minimize the pollutants found in your school.
  13. (Optional) To gauge students' understanding of the material covered, assign them the House Hunt Worksheet, having them find and circle as many potential indoor air pollution hazards as they can find. Or, as a homework project, have them make a map of their own homes, noting potential indoor air quality hazards as well as preventative measures to keep the air quality good.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Question: Hold a class discussion about sources and hazards of indoor air pollution. Review the list of pollutants commonly found in schools, as provided in the Introduction / Motivation section. Can the students predict the sources of these air pollutants?

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have the students use the Scavenger Hunt Worksheet as an aid to help them clearly document exactly where they found the pollution source.

Post-Activity Assessment

Question/Answer: After students return from the scavenger hunt, tabulate the results on the chalkboard or poster paper. What types of IAP were the most common/frequently noticed? Which were the least? Which are the most hazardous?

House Hunt: Have the students find and circle as many potential indoor air pollution hazards as they can find on the attached House Hunt Worksheet. Or, as a homework project, have them make a map of their own homes, noting potential indoor air quality hazards as well as preventative measures to keep the air quality good.

Roundtable: Have the class form into teams of 3-5 students. Ask the class a question with several possible answers. Have the students on each team make a list of answers by taking turns writing down ideas on a piece of paper. Students pass the list around the group until all ideas are exhausted. Have teams read aloud the answers and write them on the board. Ask the students:

  • How would you remove or minimize the pollutants found in our school?

Safety Issues

  • If students are going to separate and distant (from the classroom) school areas during the scavenger hunt, provide adequate adult supervision.

Troubleshooting Tips

Students should be very specific about describing the IAP locations.

If it is too hard to have the students investigate around the school, have them perform the scavenger hunt within their own homes.

Activity Extensions

Consider playing Indoor Air Pollution Bingo (see attachment) using the sources the students found either in the school or at their homes. Alternatively, reinforce the concepts learned by asking the students to name a place where you could find each type of air pollutant listed on the bingo sheet.

For more in-depth information about indoor air quality or for advanced readers in your class, refer to the attached Indoor Air Quality Reading.

Activity Scaling

  • While this activity is appropriate for all ages, for younger students, reduce the number of scavenger hunt pollutants to the most obvious ones, and/or limit the search area(s).
  • Have younger students complete the Matching Air Pollutants Worksheet as an alternate activity and assessment.


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IAQ Tools for Schools Bulletin, Asthma & Allergy, Volume 3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed September 1, 2020. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/schools/

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Updated July 24, 2004. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed September 1, 2020. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/

Kids Home Tour to Learn about Chemicals around the House. Updated April 10, 2003. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed July 26, 2004. (Source of House Hunt Worksheet image) Formerly found at: http://www.epa.gov/kidshometour/


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.


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

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: September 1, 2020

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