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5 Ways to Teach About Air Pollution

By: Elizabeth Wade

Aug 11, 2021 | 5 minute read

Reducing air pollution will not only benefit human health, but it will reduce the amount of toxic pollution affecting other species and help combat climate change. If you’re looking to start off the school year with some new resources that easily integrate into your lesson plans, then look no further!  The topic of air pollution fits into a number of different subjects, including history, social studies, science, and math. 

Air pollution is also a significant concern for the vast majority of people on the planet because it can cause many health conditions. In fact, according to the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, approximately 18 percent of all human deaths in 2018 were caused by exposure to air pollutants released by burning fossil fuels. Reducing air pollution will not only benefit human health, but it will reduce the amount of toxic pollution affecting other species and help combat climate change. So, how can you integrate content about air pollution into your lessons? Here are 5 ways to teach about air pollution in history, social studies, science, and math classes.

World's Air Pollution: Real-time Air Quality Index

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Earth and Space Sciences, Geography

Resource Type: Interactive Media, Data

For an interactive experience, students can use this air quality map to explore real-time air pollution and air quality measurements worldwide. Your class can identify where air quality is the best and worst or see how your local air quality compares to other areas, then develop hypotheses to explain those observations. Can your students spot any trends in the data or determine if any events (such as wildfires, power outages, or travel restrictions) might be influencing the results? How might more extreme weather be impacting the levels of ozone or particulates?  

Not finding enough data for your area? Here’s another interactive map with real-time data that you can explore. These two resources are great for science, geography, and social studies classes!

Youth Climate Story: Air Pollution in Los Angeles

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Earth and Space Sciences, Justice, Health

Resource Type: Activity

Need a video or activity about how air pollution and heat can affect students and their communities? In this video, a student-athlete recounts her experience with extreme heat and air pollution. The accompanying worksheet (available in PDF and Google Sheets) allows students to measure and map out air pollution levels along freeways in Oakland, CA, providing an empirical complement to the video’s personal narrative. Students will apply their knowledge and think critically about the ways that local and national policies can have immediate impacts on communities. This video and worksheet could be implemented for virtual learning or for in-person group work, and the content could be tied into geography, science, civics, and social studies lessons.

One Reason Why Coronavirus Hits Black People the Hardest

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Social Studies, History, Justice, Health

Resource Type: Video

This video shows the connections between air pollution, race and place in America, and disparities in COVID-19 deaths. Even though air pollution affects all of us, it does impact some people more than others. This video about air pollution near “cancer alley” in Louisiana provides students with a concrete example of one community that is significantly more affected by air pollution than other localities. It also relates the health conditions caused by air pollution to the disproportionate effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on Black communities. The video links this disparity to systemic racism and discriminatory practices, such as redlining. In a class discussion, students could use their critical thinking skills to explore the potential solutions to this problem.   

The No Idling Campaign 

Grade: 3rd, 4th, 5th

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Earth and Space Sciences, Civics

Resource Type: Lesson Plan

Once students see how air quality can affect their health and the planet, they might be interested in developing an idle-free school campaign to reduce vehicle emissions near their school. This resource walks them through gathering and analyzing data, planning their campaign, and implementing their plan. This could be a whole-class activity or an initiative for an environmental club. Students will use their planning, data collection, data analysis, collaboration, communication, and artistic skills in this activity.

Whirling Swirling Air Pollution

Grade: 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Biology, Health, Climate Action

Resource Type: Experiment

In this activity, students investigate particulate air pollution from individual activities.

The teacher narrates a made-up story, and students work in pairs to drop food coloring into their cups of water. Different colors represent different sources of air pollution and the water represents an air shed. Students evaluate this environmental impact and consider how they can reduce it.

As teachers, we understand how valuable your time is, and we know the challenges you face finding new content that fits into your subjects’ standards and curriculum. Take advantage of these teacher-reviewed and scientist-approved resources about air pollution, and bring some new articles, lesson plans, videos, interactive resources, and activities into your classroom today!

About the Author

Elizabeth Wade has experience in teaching, scientific research and lab work, self-publishing books, and working for environmental nonprofits. She is passionate about climate education and protecting what's left of nature.