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Lesson Ideas

Teaching Activities About Pollution

This collection highlights teaching activities, hands-on lessons, and online simulations we found on the web that can help students learn about pollution. They are created by science educators and partner education organizations. Just as all our original content is free, we only recommend external resources that are free for teachers.

1. Air Particulate Activity

This activity set is offered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was created in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Kohala Center via an EPA STAR Grant. Students build an air particulate sensor similar to that used to monitor emissions from a Hawaiian volcano, including downloading and testing pre-built code.

Image from US EPA

  • Activities: web page, activities set, lesson plan (PDF)
  • Topic: air pollution, air quality, public health, technology, engineering
  • Level: high school

2. Air Pollution Lessons

This activity set is offered by the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Engineering Department through a program called Teach Engineering (TE). TE was launched in 2001 with the support of National Science Foundation and offers standards-matched STEM curricula focused on “engineering design and design thinking” from over 60 institutions. This lesson – with two activities – was published in 2005; it is the seventh in a unit on Environmental Engineering. Students are introduced to air pollution with extension activities of building particulate matter collectors and filters.

Image from Owen Byrne via UC Boulder

3. Environmental Justice Activity

This activity is offered by ArcGIS, a geographic information mapping software and analytics tool owned by the California-based software company Esri founded in 1969. This “story” on city planning was created in 2020 in collaboration with the Digital Scholarship Lab (DSL) of the University of Richmond and the Science Museum of Richmond. Students explore an interactive history of Richmond, Virginia, with comparative data presented about some other major U.S. cities. It discusses several factors contributing to environmental inequality including various forms of pollution.

Image from ArcGIS/DSL

  • Activity: web page
  • Topic: environmental justice, discrimination, urban planning, pollution, topography, heat islands
  • Level: high school

4. Air Pollution Game

BrainPOP was founded in 1999 by Dr. Avraham Kadar – a trained pediatrician and immunologist – as a creative way to explain difficult concepts to his young patients. The company hosts a huge portfolio of play-based learning about science, health, and other topics. This web-based game walks students through learning about the history of air pollution and legislation to help curb air pollution. A lesson plan complements the game.

Image from BrainPOP

  • Activity: web page
  • Topic: air pollution, environmental planning
  • Level: middle school, high school

5. Air Pollution Activity

This activity is offered by the Concord Consortium, a non-profit education research and development organization focused on STEM teaching. The activity was developed in 2020 in partnership with the National Geographic Society and the University of California, Santa Cruz, as part of the Consortium’s High-Adventure Science initiative. Students progress through a series of six online learning modules. It addresses concepts like the air quality index, how pollutants move through the environment, and how to curb air pollution.

Images from Concord Consortium

6. Plastic Pollution Lessons

This collection is offered by the Pennsylvania Sea Grant, hosted by Penn State University, Erie. It was developed circa 2018 as part of a broader set of activity-based curricula related to the Grant’s focus areas of coastal and watershed sustainability. This 78-page PDF collection offers 14 different activities on plastic pollution: five for lower elementary school, three for late elementary or middle school, and six for middle school and high school. They range from age-adapted waste audits (data collection), word-find extensions, and hands-on experiments.

Image from Penn State University

  • Collection: PDF
  • Topic: plastic pollution, waste management, watershed, ecology
  • Level: elementary, middle, or high school (varies)

7. Waste Audit Activity

This activity is offered by Clean San Diego, an anti-litter nonprofit founded in the city in 1954. Though a small part of what it does, the organization features several focused classroom activities about waste management and reducing waste. In this activity, students collect data on and analyze their own waste habits.

Image from Clean San Diego

  • Activity: PDF
  • Topic: waste management, recycling
  • Level: middle school

8. Recycling Game

This activity is offered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This interactive online game has existed for 25 years and is accompanied by additional activities and resources as well as two related games on recycling and energy. In this activity, students travel around a city figuring out all the different ways materials can be recycled.

Image from US EPA

  • Activity: web page
  • Topic: waste management, recycling
  • Level: middle school, high school

9. Microplastics Lessons

This collection is offered by the Oregon Sea Grant hosted by Oregon State University. It was published in 2016 by Marie Kowalski. A 70-page PDF, this set offers three lesson plans for middle schoolers to learn about microplastics and the impact they can have on animals and the environment.

Image from OSU

  • Collection: PDF
  • Topic: microplastics, environmental literacy
  • Level: middle school

10. Marine Debris Lessons

This collection is also offered by the Oregon Sea Grant. It was developed in 2014 in partnership with the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Lincoln County School District, with subsequent modifications in 2015 and 2016. As of April 2020, this project-based learning collection includes (with some overlap): 15 resources for elementary school, 21 for middle school, and 18 for high school. Across these activities students will investigate marine debris and the impacts of marine debris.

Image from OSU

  • Collection: web page
  • Topic: marine environment, water pollution, engineering, technology
  • Level: elementary, middle, or high school (varies)

11. Microplastics Lessons

This collection is offered by the Florida Sea Grant hosted by the University of Florida Extension Program. The site recommends to start with a 7-page overview (PDF) organized by Dr. Maia McGuire before exploring seven Sea Grant-funded resources and twelve other vetted sources, some of which are also highlighted in our list! Students of all ages will learn about microplastics using these resources.

Image from UF

  • Collection: web page
  • Topic: microplastics, marine debris, pollution
  • Level: elementary, middle, or high school (varies)

That’s Not All!

Check out our full collection of adapted research articles on Pollution. Each article comes with tailored teaching resources, lessons, labs, and other activities for your students.

Title image by Andrew Hill for the Geograph Project

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