Lung Power and Air Pollution


Grade Level & Subject: Grade 7; Science

Length: 3 – 4 Class Periods


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Explain the importance of good air quality
  • Describe how a Spiro meter functions
  • Understand how air quality is measured and defined

National Standards Addressed:[1]

This lesson addresses the following National Science Education Standards from the National Academies of Science:

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop:

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of:

  • Populations, resources, and environments
  • Natural hazards
  • Risks and benefits

Materials Needed:

  • For each student or group of students:
  • One color copy of Air Quality Index Chart: (
  • For the teacher (recommended):
    • Equipment to display web resources to class for Activities One and Two (i.e. interactive whiteboard OR internet-connected computer with scan converter and screen or TV OR individual internet-connected computers for students).  If this is unavailable, teacher will need to research appropriate information beforehand and write it on the board.
  • For Vital Lung Capacity Experiment (one per team):
    • One 2 or 3 liter plastic bottle
    • One large plastic dishpan
    • One metric ruler
    • One waterproof marking pen
    • One calculator
    • Masking tape (approx. 16”)
    • One graduated cylinder or beaker
    • Lung Capacity Experiment Directions( for each team to use in “Activity Three.”
    • Reproducible #2 – Determining Lung Capacity
  • Each student will need:
    • One 30 – 60 cm (1 – 2 ft) length of aquarium or surgical tubing (not to be shared, for safety reasons)
    • Reproducible #1 – Air Quality Investigators
    • Reproducible #3 – Grading Rubric
    • One clipboard
    • Internet-connected computer for monitoring pollution data and (optional) graphing experiment results

Students will be assessed through the following activities:

  • Building working spirometers and using them to measure their own vital lung capacity
  • Completion of Lab Reports
  • Scoring Rubric for “Lung Power and Air Pollution” Lab Report (used for all the activities in this lesson)



Relevant Vocabulary:

  • Acid Rain:Acid precipitation in the form of rain; formed by atmospheric moisture combining with chemical gases in the air[2]
  • Air Quality Index (AQI):A metric for reporting the daily air quality, factors how the clean or polluted the air is and what associated health effects might be of concern[3]
  • Asthma: A chronic lung disorder that is marked by recurring episodes of airway obstruction (as from bronchospasm) manifested by labored breathing accompanied especially by wheezing and coughing and by a sense of constriction in the chest, and that is triggered by hyperreactivity to various stimuli (as allergens or rapid change in air temperature)[4]
  • Ozone:a triatomic very reactive form of oxygen that is a bluish irritating gas of pungent odor, that is a major air pollutant in the lower atmosphere but a beneficial component of the upper atmosphere, and that is used for oxidizing, bleaching, disinfecting, and deodorizing[5]
  • Particulates:of, relating to, or existing in the form of minute separate particles <dust, smoke, and other particulate matter>[6]
  • Respiratory System:a system of organs functioning in respiration and consisting especially of the nose, nasal passages, nasopharynx, larynx, trachea, bronchi, and lungs[7]
  • Smog:a fog made heavier and darker by smoke and chemical fumes; also : a photochemical haze caused by the action of solar ultraviolet radiation on atmosphere polluted with hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen especially from automobile exhaust[8]
  • Vital Lung Capacity: The amount of air that can be forcibly expelled from the lungs following breathing in as deeply as possible. Also called respiratory capacity.[9]

Background Information:

Good air quality is vital to preserving the wellbeing of American citizens. Breathing in airborne pollutants can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses, or and could even result in death.. Air pollutants can also be the source of environmental detrimental phenomena such as acid rain and low atmosphere ozone formation. Until several decades ago, many pollutants were not regulated, but laws like the Clean Air Act gave government institutions the power to control how much of certain pollutants are released into the air.. However, air quality is not an issue that can be isolated to individual states, regions, or even countries. Due to the nature of the atmosphere, pollution emitted in one place could likely affect one many miles away. So in spite of national laws and regulations, air quality continues to be a pervasive problem throughout the world.

To inform the public about the state of the air quality, the United States government created a standard, color-coded labeling system to indicate how suitable the air is. This standard is known as the Air Quality Index and it considers the various air pollutants, their concentration in the air, and what affect they may have on human health. The pollutants that are considered include ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxides. The Air Quality Index chart can be found on the website:

When discussing air quality, it is also important to understand the impact that pollution will have on someone’s breathing capacity. The Vital Lung Capacity is a frequently used metric to determine how strong someone’s respiratory system is. It is defined as the amount of air that a person can exhale in a single breath. Vital Lung Capacity is often higher in physically active people, air pollution can limit the VLC of anyone. In a heavily polluted environment a higher vital lung capacity can actually be more injurious because more pollutants will be inhaled.


  • Local Air Quality Conditions and Forecasts Air Now

Provides information about the seasons and times of day when ozone and particulate matter

are most unhealthy, for each region of the U.S.  Enter your zip code for local conditions and


  • National Air Quality Forecast Capability  NOAA’s National Weather Service

Vision, strategy, background, and program overview of NOAA’s Forecast System, as well as links to related pages.

  • Air Now Students Air Now

This site includes an interactive game where students can manage the air pollution of a city by altering personal choices and environmental factors.  Also has videos about how pollutants are formed and links for students and teachers for more information.



Teacher Preparation Steps:

  1. Decide how to divide the class into six teams. Assemble supplies needed for the investigations (see “Materials Needed”).
  2. Print student copies of the Air Quality Index (AQI) Chart ( in color, for use in the Warm-Up, and Reproducible #1 – Air Quality Investigators for use in Activity One. Print a copy of Lung Capacity Experiment Directions ( for each team to use in Activity Three. Print out a copy of Reproducible #3 – Grading Rubric. 
  3. Teacher will need to find where real-time AQI data, including current levels of each of the 6 major pollutants are hosted online. This information is hosted in different places for each state, but is typically on the DEP website. NOTE: Some states do not provide date for each individual pollutant, and may only display the overall AQI index and the major pollutant of that day.  If this is the case, teachers must skip Activity One and Activity Two all together. 
  4. Find a suitable outside location where the lung capacity investigations can take place. Determine boundaries for students in that area, check for safety hazards, and identify or arrange for tables that can be used for the lab setup.
  5. Plan for the investigations in Activity Three to be done on a day when air quality is healthy and repeated on another day when air quality is unhealthy, to maximize differences between results. To help the teacher schedule the experiments, websites linked in the “Resources” section provide information about current air quality and air quality typical for various times of year, in both rural and urban areas. (Urban areas, where ozone is often the major pollutant, experience worse air quality late on summer days, as ultraviolet light combines with vehicle emissions to form ozone. In such locations, it may be ideal to conduct one investigation in the morning and one in the afternoon. In areas where coal-fired power plants produce the main pollutants, there will be less of an effect on lung capacity on a windy day, when pollutants are blown to other areas, than on a calm one).
  6. Arrange for equipment to show internet-based information to the class. (For instance, an interactive whiteboard may be used to display web pages or an internet-connected computer, scan converter, LCD projector, and screen or TV hookup. As an alternative, students may view the web resources individually on internet-connected computers, as a discussion is lead by the teacher.
  7. Shortcut Option:If time is short or internet-connected computers not available to students, the Pollution Detectives and Data Conversion activities in Activities One and Two may be omitted. To provide continuity for the rest of the lesson, however, the teacher must identify the current Air Quality Index (AQI) level and the major pollutant of the day.

Warm-up: Introduction

  1. Introduce the lesson by asking the class to define air pollution. Air pollution is unwanted and potentially unhealthy matter in the air.
  2. Then ask students how it is possible to know whether air is polluted. Responses may include sensing by sight or smell; proximity to apparent sources of pollution such as smokestacks, forest fires, and vehicles; or direct measurement of pollutants.
  3. Provide each student (or small group of students) with a color copy of the AQI Chart Have students identify the colors which reflect healthy or moderate air quality (green and yellow) as well as the colors which indicate unhealthy levels for sensitive groups (orange) and unhealthy for all people (red and purple).
  4. Ask the class to guess which types of air pollution the index measures. The six major pollutants measured for the AQI are ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter smaller than 10 ppm (dust), and particular matter smaller than 2.5 ppm (smoke and soot).
  5. Solicit opinions as to how the AQI is determined. Monitoring stations collect data on the six major pollutants. A formula is used to combine the levels of pollutants, but the index always identifies the specific pollutant that has triggered an Alert, if air quality levels are unhealthy. If none of the six pollutants are present in unhealthy levels, the AQI reflects healthy air quality.

Activity One: Pollution Detectives (Skip this step if Shortcut Option is selected)

  1. Hand out a copy of Reproducible #3—Grading Rubric to each student.  Advise them to read the requirements carefully so they know what is expected of them during this lesson.  Tell them that at the end of the lesson, they will grade themselves by placing an “x” in the left side box for each category.  Place the “x” in the “4” column if you feel you have completed that requirement with excellence, in the “3” if you completed it well, “2” if you completed it only fairly, and “1” if you completed it only fairly.  Students should NOT fill out the “Your Score” column or the “Final Grade” section; those are only to be completed by the teacher.
  2. Tell students that monitoring stations across the state collect data on pollutants every day.  Direct students to (on interactive white-board, computer screen projector, or  individual computers). Note the current Air Quality Index (AQI) level and the major pollutant of the day for the closest city. Alternatively, teachers may find more detailed AQI data for their state, especially for more rural areas, hosted by their state government, usually on the state’s Department of Environmental Protection website.
  3. Distribute a copy of the Reproducible #1 – Air Quality Investigators to each individual. Shortcut Option: If time is short or internet-connected computers not available to students, the balance of Activities One and Two may be omitted. To provide continuity for the rest of the lesson, the teacher will need to write the previously-noted AQI level and specific major pollutant on the board for reference.
  4. Divide the class into six teams and assign each team one of the following pollutants: ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, large particulate matter (PM10.0), and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Each team will determine the current level of an assigned pollutant by reviewing data from your state’s air quality monitoring program with an internet-connected computer. Conclude whether the assigned pollutant is present at an unhealthy level by comparing the standard to the measured level. For ozone, use raw data instead of backward-looking 8-hour averages. Students should observe whether the measured level is above or below standard. All data and conclusions should be recorded on the attached Lab Report.

Activity Two: Converting Air Pollution Data to Air Quality Index Values (Skip this step if Shortcut Option is selected)

  1. Take students to individual internet-connected computers, or do this on the teacher’s computer, with the screen projected.
  2. Using a special online formula-calculator (, students should enter their team’s pollution datum from the previous step and convert it to an Air Quality Index value. To accomplish this, students will use a pull-down menu to select a pollutant, enter the concentration level, and click ‘Calculate’ to convert to the Air Quality Index. Students should be sure to scroll down and read the corresponding health advisory. While everyone is still at the computers, the teacher will call for pollution AQI Values from each team and record this on the board or on a large chart.
  3. This information should be recorded on the table in the Lab Report.
  4. When all the data has been converted, review the results. Identify the overall air quality and major pollutant of the day (if any). This is important to know for the next part of the lab. Discuss factors which may affect pollution levels. Proximity to an urban area, season, time of day, proximity to power plants, type of fuel power plant uses, etc.
  5. Have students guess which two pollutants are most closely associated with vehicle emissions, and thus, most likely to trigger AQI alerts in urban areas. Ozone and particulates. Since ozone is only formed in the presence of ultraviolet light, ask students what time of day and in which season ozone is most likely to trigger an AQI alert. Afternoon and evening in summer.
  6. Optional:Segue into the next part of the lab by displaying or directing students to this animation ( of the Lung Capacity Experiment they are about to do. Click on “Try It Offline” to review materials and procedures for the lung capacity experiment.

Activity Three: Investigating Lung Capacity

  1. Students should stay in the previously-assigned six teams. Take students and materials outside for this investigation, so that the impact of air quality can affect results. Explain that each student will be conducting a hands-on investigation to determine his or her own lung capacity, using the water displacement method. Review any ground rules or safety considerations for working outside.
  2. Ask students why vital lung capacity is important to their health. Larger lung capacity allows more oxygen to be delivered to red blood cells and distributed throughout the body. Larger lung capacity also enables more carbon dioxide - the waste material of cells - to be removed from the body. Then ask students how they think air pollution could affect lung capacity.
  3. Students may predict that vital lung capacities will decrease or stay the same when the air is polluted, and may predict that it would depend on the type or level of pollutant, accept all responses.

            Ask whether every student would be affected the same way.

  1.  Because people with respiratory illnesses have damaged lung tissue, their vital lung capacity is already reduced. Air pollution is more likely to affect those people with previous respiratory conditions, those who are very old, or those who are very young.
  2. Using information from the previous steps, identify the current AQI value (and major pollutant, if any) and confirm for students whether the investigation conducted today will reflect a healthy or unhealthy air pollution level. (If teacher selected shortcut option and skipped Activities One and Two, or if this investigation is taking place on a day other than when Activity Two was completed, refer to your state’s air quality monitoring program website or quickly determine current air quality conditions).
  3. Distribute supplies and Experiment Directions ( to each team and instruct team members to take turns, assist each other, and share equipment (other than tubing, which each individual receives and should mark with initials). Refer students to the Lab Report (distributed during Activity One) on which all data should be recorded. Note that each student should conduct three trials of the experiment and average the results.
  4. Repeat the investigation of lung capacity on a different day or at a different time of the same day, when the Air Quality Index is significantly different. The two investigations of vital lung capacity must compare vital lung capacity measured one time when air quality is good, and one time when air quality is unhealthy.
  5. Students should graph the data from their lung capacity experiments. The Lab Report provides grid paper for this purpose. However, if access to internet-connected computers for the class is easy, the teacher may prefer to have students enter data at the Create A Graph website ( to easily produce full color graphs in an assortment of formats and styles.

Activity Four: Debriefing

  1. Ask each team to present their results. Review the Conclusions sections of the Lab Report. Poll students to see if there was a difference in their average lung capacities, on the day when air quality was good compared to the day when air quality was unhealthy.
    1. If results are unexpected, consider why. Not enough contrast in air quality from first experiment to the next, not enough time outside to make a difference, different pollutants present from one day to the next, etc.
    2. Challenge the class to think of reasons for variations in lung capacity among students, other than pollution. Different size, age, respiratory system condition, and athleticism.
    3. Ask why a runner might be at risk for respiratory health effects of air pollution. Athletic people have greater lung capacity and can therefore breathe in more polluted air. In addition, runners often exercise in afternoon or evening, along roadsides, causing greater exposure to pollutants.
    4. Ask students if they know anyone who has asthma. How can people with asthma be affected by poor air quality? Since it may be harder for them to breathe, having lower air quality may enhance the detrimental effects.
  2. Be sure to reserve time to discuss sources of air pollution in your area, brainstorm how air pollution could be reduced, and develop strategies for protecting lung health. The specifics of this discussion will vary according to your geographic location and the major pollutants in the area. For instance, in urban areas where ground level ozone may be the major pollutant, students could brainstorm ways to reduce vehicle emissions. In areas affected more by power plant emissions, students could brainstorm ways to limit emissions, conserve energy, or switch to sources of energy which produce less pollution. If convenient to display web resources for the class, refer to the Scorecard Pollution Locator ( for information on air pollution in your area. (Select Smog and Particulates or Hazardous Air from the left side menu; then type in your zip code and investigate the Map Locating Pollution Sources and the Air Quality Rankings for your community).
  3. Remind your students how the rubric works and to fill out their part of it. Tell them you will collect them and put your own estimation of their grades in the right hand box of each category, to be handed back to them the next day.

Wrap Up: Protect those Lungs!

  1. Reiterate for students the big ideas in this lesson:
    1. Vital lung capacity affects the ability to take in oxygen and distribute it to red blood cells. Vital lung capacity also affects the ability to eliminate waste (carbon dioxide) from the body.
    2. Lung capacity can be affected by changes in the environment, such as air pollution. Reduced lung capacity and impaired respiratory function can compromise the health of an individual and affect survival.
    3. Air quality is measured at monitoring stations located throughout the state. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a color-coded rating of the six major air pollutants, based on data received from monitoring stations.
    4. People can protect their respiratory systems by avoiding exposure when air quality is “unhealthy,” according to the AQI index.
    5. Air pollution can be reduced by cutting power plant and vehicle emissions and changing behaviors.

Extension: Getting Involved

  1. Have students write letters to their local politicians to support legislation for cleaner air. In the letters, students should talk about the experiments they performed and explain why clean air is important. Students can also make suggestions about what other laws and steps can be put into effect to help clean up the air such as restricting tailpipe emissions or limiting garbage burning.



In this lesson, students learned about the major air pollutants and the effect that they have on health and air quality. Students also learned about how the Air Quality Index is used to inform the public about daily air quality and practiced converting raw air quality data into an AQI number. Finally students tested their own lung capacity and learned how it affected by air pollution levels.  Finally, students thought about ways air quality can be reduced and wrote their senators encouraging them to support clean air legislation.



The Clean Air Campaign, Inc. – Author

Nicole Holstein – Contributor

            Education Intern, Earth Day Network

Maggie Ollove – Editor

            Education Associate, Earth Day Network

[2]“Acid Rain Entry.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 13 May 2011 from

[3]"Air Quality Index (AQI) - A Guide to Air Quality and Your Health." AIRNow - Homepage., 3 Sept. 2010. Web. 13 May 2011.

[4]“Asthma Entry.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 13 May 2011 from

[5]“Ozone Entry.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 13 May 2011 from

[6]“Particulate Entry.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 13 May 2011 from

[7]“Particulate Entry.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 13 May 2011 from

[8]“Smog Entry.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 13 May 2011 from

[9]The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.