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Introduction to Air Pollution

Photo from a GoPro on a weather balloon showing the Earth's atmosphere

The image to the left is from a camera attached to a high-altitude balloon. You can see the thin layer of our atmosphere that protects all life on Earth. 

The Earth's atmosphere is a thin sheet of air extending from the surface of the Earth to the edge of space. The thickness of the atmosphere is about 60 miles. Air is composed of approximately 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and small amounts of other gases. Though all of the components of the atmosphere are important, it’s the “small amount of other gasses” that we focus on for air quality. In today’s lab we will collect and investigate data from around our school and other areas.


Teachers:   Link to Printable Lesson Plan   Request an Answer Key

Lesson Overview: 

This lesson will provide students with an overview of the primary influencers that determine air quality. By completing the following activities, students will 1) develop an understanding of how to find and use data to determine the air quality of a location, and 2) analyze factors that influence a location’s air quality.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Students will understand common terms related to air pollution.
  2. Students will explain anthropological effects of various air pollutants. 
  3. Students will demonstrate an understanding of air quality data and be able to make conclusions and recommendations based on this data. 

Key Vocabulary:  Taking-wind-speed.gif

  • Aerosol
  • Particulate matter (PM)
  • Volatile organic compound (VOC)
  • Ozone (O3)
  • Photochemical smog
  • Air pollution









The Introduction to Air Pollution virtual lab begins with a lecture (link to presentation found under Materials section). Students will complete guided lecture notes (also found under Materials section) as they follow along with the lecture presentation. At the conclusion of this lecture, students will have defined the key vocabulary terms for this virtual lab, as well as understand background information related to air pollution. 


Following the Introduction to Air Pollution lecture, students will listen to, or watch, the podcast: Is this the Dustpocalypse? Students will answer guided listening questions to learn about atmospheric science research from a leading research scientist.     


Next, students will participate in an atmospheric data collection activity. Students should watch each of the videos explaining the three different data collection stations (video links found under Materials section). Students will divide into three groups. Groups will spend ten minutes at each station, then return to the designated “home base” before rotating to the next station. Students will need a pencil and data collection sheets for each station (found under Materials section). A clipboard can be used to help keep the data collection sheets organized during this activity. When returning to “home base” between each station, students will trade data collection tools.

Note: At the end of each video explaining the stations, we explain alternative ways to collect data and provide additional information for teachers. 


The data collected by student groups during the data collection activity provides information about one location during one specific time. However, to study the atmosphere on a larger scale, scientists need access to many more data points from many different locations.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a database of Air Quality Index (AQI) values that students will access to research a variety of pollutants for specific locations and time periods. Using the EPA’s Outdoor Air Quality database (link found under Materials section), students will compare Air Quality Index (AQI) values (link to student handout found under Materials section) for the pollutants PM2.5 and ozone for Bakersfield, California and Peoria, Illinois for the years 2002 and 2021. Accessing values from these locations and time periods will provide students with data to analyze changes in air quality over time, as well as provide a comparison between two parts of the country with different sized populations, types of industries, and geographic settings. 



After comparing AQI values for the pollutants PM2.5 and ozone for Bakersfield, CA and Peoria, IL, students will choose a third location and report the associated AQI values. Using what they have learned from this lesson, students will create a report comparing AQI values from their selected (third) location to the values from the first two locations, noting any conclusions based on this data. 


Additional Atmospheric Data Resources:

There are many Citizen Science groups, in addition to a variety of government agencies, that maintain open networks of data collected from the atmosphere. These databases are freely available to anyone that might be interested.  


PurpleAir makes sensors that empower Community Scientists who collect hyper-local air quality data and share it with the public. 

Try the PurpleAir real-time map  

The GLOBE Program 

View, graph, and export GLOBE data from around the world with the GLOBE Visualization System. You can use our various filters to find both contemporary measurements as well as historical data ranging all the way back to 1995. 

Learn more about the GLOBE Visualization System  


AirNow reports air quality using the official U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI). AirNow is a partnership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Park Service, NASA, Centers for Disease Control, and tribal, state, and local air quality agencies.

Try the AQI Calculator  

NASA Earth Venture Suborbital 3 Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere mission: (DCOTSS) 

DCOTSS is a scientific research project to investigate the impacts of intense thunderstorms, over the U.S., on the summertime stratosphere. This site has interviews with the science research teams contributing to this mission, as well as the supporting teams: safety, pilots, and ground crew.  

Content Expert Videos 


This work was supported by the Dynamics and Chemistry of the Summer Stratosphere (DCOTSS) project. DCOTSS is funded by the NASA Earth Science Division Earth Venture Suborbital 3 program, which includes grant NSSC80NSSC19K1058 to Purdue University

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