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Our Lungs Our Air Our Health

Activity 7 (Elaborate): Asthma & the AQI

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Activity Overview

Activity Summary

In this activity, students learn how the EPA summarizes air quality using the Air Quality Index (AQI) and what behaviors are recommended when air quality is bad. They also learn what an asthma inhaler does (optional).

Activity Objectives & Materials

Approximate Time: 45-60 minutes



  • Students will learn how to determine if air quality on a given day is good or bad

  • Students will learn about how asthma inhalers help people to breathe (optional) and how to help someone who is having an asthma attack



  • Student smartphones (if permitted)

  • Computer & projector

  • Student computers (optional)

  • Markers/colored pencils (optional)



  • Understanding the AQI

Standards Connection

DCI: LS 2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems



What do you think you can do to protect your respiratory system from pollution?

  • Stay inside if the pollution is bad, play in places that have less pollution, wear a mask


1. Frame the Activity

Now that we know Tatiana and Calvin have trouble breathing because of asthma and air pollution, what recommendations can we make to them? As medical professionals, we need to find ways to help them stay safe and let them stay active.

2. Looking Up the AQI

Show students the Clean Air Partners website for current and forecasted AQI (either on the projector, or their own computers). Click on current to show the current air quality. Ask students what they can tell from the website about the current air quality where they live. Students should be able to use the scale to determine the current air quality near where they live.

Current Air Quality.jpg

If you click on any one of the dots on the map, you can also see AQI data for a  specific sites:

Current Air Quality - specific.jpg

3. Looking Up the AQI Forecast

Click on “forecasts” and ask students what they can tell from the website about the forecast for the air quality for the next two days.

Air quality is likely to be good (green) unless it is ozone season (late spring to early fall) or there are local events that cause PM2.5 to be high. AQI in the United States rarely gets into the red zone, although localized air quality can be bad, especially due to particular events.

AQI Forecast.jpg
Step 4

4. Finding the AQI

Share other ways that students can look up the AQI, for example using apps on their phones such as Clean Air Partners Air Quality app, and the Air Visual app. If students are allowed to use their smartphones at school, show them how they can add these apps to their phones.

Teacher Tip: Be sure to follow your school’s technology policy with regard to student devices, and remind students to talk to their parents about installing any software on their phones. This is also a good way for students to teach their parents how to monitor air quality.

5. Understanding the AQI Scale

Give students the “Understanding the AQI” handout and project it. If the student copies are in black & white, they can color in the AQI levels (optional). Note that the color names are written on the chart. Tell students that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses the AQI scale to let people know how safe the air is to breathe. Briefly review with students what the colors mean, and what steps should be taken for each color level.


6. Stay Safe Scenarios

Divide the class into 5 groups and tell students that they are going to be creating and presenting short scenes (30-60 seconds) showing what people should do to be safe when the AQI is at different levels. Each group will present their scene, and the class will have to guess what the AQI level is for the scene. You may want to provide an example of a scene (ex. holding soccer practice indoors if AQI is orange).


In secret, assign each group one of the AQI levels. Circulate around the class to help students brainstorm their scenes. Once each group has a scene, and they have had a chance to practice, give each group time to present their scene, and have the other students use their AQI charts to try to guess what the AQI level is in the scene. If students are stuck about what kinds of scenes they can do, consider asking some of these questions:

  • Can you go outside at all at this AQI level? If not, what indoor activities can you show people doing?

  • Is the AQI unsafe for all people? How can you show that someone in your scene is in a sensitive group?

  • How can you show that you can go outside for short periods of time?

Differentiation:  Create student scenes in advance, and have groups add details before presenting OR have all students read the scenes individually and decide what the AQI level is.

Modification/Extension:  Instead of (or in addition to) having student group create fictional scenes, have them create short presentations about their AQI level. They can then give each other feedback on their presentations using a peer feedback rubric like the one on the Rubrics & Feedback page.

7. Understanding Asthma Inhalers

Show students a picture of an inhaler like the one below (or an actual inhaler if you have one), and ask them if they know what it is (at least one student will likely recognize it).

Asthma inhaler.jpg

Ask students if they know what the inhaler is for. They will likely respond that it helps you to breathe. Tell students that sometimes air pollution can cause people to have asthma attacks even if they follow the AQI guidelines.

Tell students that inhalers are a way to quickly deliver medicine into your lungs. The medicine in most inhalers is called a “bronchodilator”. Take a moment to break down this word for students by using the picture of the lungs from earlier in the unit so they can see where the bronchi and bronchioles are. Also explain to them what the word “dilate” means (expand) and ask them if they’ve ever had their eyes dilated at the eye doctor. See if they can figure out what a bronchodilator does (it opens up the air passages in your lungs).

Organs of the Respiratory System.jpg

8. What To Do If Someone Is Having An Asthma Attack

Ask students what they would do if someone they knew was having an asthma attack. Listen to their responses, and use questions to help them think through the best options. If they have not said the following steps, review them with students:

  • The best possible thing to do is to get the person their inhaler

  • Have the person sit upright

  • Talk to them calmly.

  • If they are having severe trouble breathing, call 911.

If you showed students the video “Between Life and Breath” for the phenomenon, this is a good time to show it again with the ending. If you didn’t show it, students will still benefit from the message in the video about how to help someone who is having an asthma attack and the importance of having an inhaler nearby.

9. Formative Assessment

Tell students to imagine that the EPA is predicting that tomorrow will be an orange AQI day. Have them make a list of 3 recommendations for Tatiana and Calvin to make sure they are safe from air pollution.

  • Possible responses: play a board game indoors instead of playing outside, taking their asthma inhaler to school, carpool to school instead of walking, play basketball in the school gym instead of outside, etc.

Looking ahead: This is the last activity in the module before the final assessment. You may want to have students review their KWL charts and add any details, or review their models before the end of module assessment.

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