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What's The Air Forecast?

Activity 3 (Explore): Pollution, Power Plants, and People

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Activity Overview

Activity Summary

In this activity, students look at maps of air pollution sources, air quality, and population to see how humans impact the environment. They will use this information to determine if the haze in their phenomenon photographs could be man-made.

Activity Objectives & Materials

Approximate Time: 45-60 minutes


  • Students will use maps to identify connections among air quality, population, and electricity production


  • Computer & projector

  • Chart paper (for research sources list)

  • Student computers (optional)


  • Humans Activities and the Earth

Standards Connection

DCI: ESS 3.C – Human Impacts on Earth’s Systems

SEP: Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

CCC: Patterns



What kinds of things do people do that affect the Earth? For example, we cut down trees to make room for farming. What other things do humans do that change the planet?

  • Students answers may include: we build houses and other buildings, we pave over the grass, we put dams on rivers, we put pollution into the air and the water, we dig resources out of the ground, etc.

  • Use this warmup to activate student prior knowledge on human activities that might affect the planet (and potentially cause our phenomenon)


1. Frame the Activity

Remind students that in the last activity, they decided that the haze in the pictures is unlikely to be natural. That means that it’s probably man made. But they still don’t know what kind of activities could create a haze like that. In order to investigate how humans affect the planet, they’re going to look at a series of maps to look for patterns in human activities and how they affect the atmosphere. Hand out the Human Activities and the Earth sheet.

Step 1

2. The World Air Quality Globe & Map

Display the live world air quality globe for all students to see:, but don’t tell them what it is.

Tech Integration: If student computers are available, you can have students look at the globe and the other maps below using their own devices.

Air Quality Globe.jpg

Rotate the globe to show students different parts of the world and zoom in to different places. Ask students what they think the globe shows. Some may say it has something to do with temperature, weather or air pollution (if they’ve done Module 1).

Next go to the World Air Quality map:

World Air Quality Map.jpg

Teacher Tip: The IQAir map shown here focuses on particulate matter pollution (PM). The World Air Quality Index project has another good world air quality map. It has more data and more options, but is somewhat less visually appealing. You can find that map at: For ozone information, use the waqi map and choose ozone from the pollutant menu.

Have students jot down some observations of what they see on the map on their handouts. Key observations:

  • There are a lot of data points/numbers

  • The data points have different colors

  • Something is flowing around (if you have wind map on)

  • The colors tend to be grouped together


Ask the students why they think the data points are in different colors. Students may look at the scale at the bottom right, or they may think that green is good and red is bad because many scales use this coding.


If students haven’t made the connection yet, tell them that this is a map of air pollution. Point out the scale and make sure students understand the scale in general (low numbers and green are good; high numbers and red/purple are bad). Have them add this information on their handouts.

3. Identifying Pollution Sources

Ask students what patterns they see in where the good and bad air quality is around the world. They should see that there is more air pollution in certain parts of the world compared to others. Have them write down what parts of the world have more air pollution (ex. China, India, and parts of Africa), and what parts have less (North and South America and Europe). Help students identify geographical areas and countries to use in their description. You may also need to zoom in to certain parts of the map to make this clearer.


Have students turn and talk to a partner about why the air pollution might be better or worse in different parts of the world. After they’ve discussed, have groups share their hypotheses, but don’t tell them whether their answers are correct or not. Use probing questions to help clarify their thinking.

Cultural Awareness: Different parts of the world are in different stages of development, and therefore are in different stages of pollution control. Keep this in mind when talking about parts of the world, especially if you have students from these regions. Having poor air quality is a challenge all developing nations have faced; it does not make them bad countries.

Personal Connection: Have students think about what it might be like to be a middle school student in these different places. Do they think that it would affect their health? How would they feel to live in a place that had high levels of air pollution?

Next, show students the map of world coal power plants from Carbon Brief. Have students look at the scale to understand what the different size circles represent and the different colors. Have them use this information to answer the questions on their sheet.

Carbon Brief Map.jpg

Size of circles = capacity of power plant (bigger circle = more power)



Color = stage of operation

Carbon Brief scale.jpg

Next have students look at where power plants are opening vs. closing and ask them what they notice. Then have them look at the size of the power plants and ask them what they notice. Key takeaways:

  • Most new and big coal plants are in India and China

  • Many other parts of the world are closing their coal plants

Have students turn back to their partners to see if this new information confirms their hypotheses, or if they have new ideas about the cause of good/bad air quality in different parts of the world.

Air Pollution in Africa: North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa have significant air pollution but few large power plants. Much of this pollution comes from Saharan dust storms, household fuel burning, and transportation. The large population sizes of sub-Saharan African countries result in significant burning of wood, charcoal, and kerosene for fuel. In other words, these countries burn fuel much like other countries, it just happens locally instead of in large power plants.

Step 4

4. Identifying Large Human Populations

Show students the map of world population and make sure they understand what the colors represent.

Teacher TipIf you follow the link provided for the population map, you will need to download the map needs before it can be shown

Population Density Map.jpg

Have students look at the scale and identify what the colors mean (lighter colors = less population, darker colors = more population). Have them answer the questions about the scale on their handouts. Then ask what they notice about the world population map. Key takeaway:

  • There are large populations of people in India & China, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, the eastern US, and parts of central America.


Have students write down on their handouts where there are large populations of people.

Math connection: This map shows population density in persons/km2, not raw population. If you have time, write the units for population density and take a moment to review with students what the unit means and how it can be used to show where there are large concentrations of people in one place.

5. Putting the Pieces Together

Tell students that in order to think about how humans affect the Earth, they need to look for patterns across the three different maps they looked at. In small groups, have them look back at their notes and identify and patterns (similarities) that they see. Give students time to work. While they are talking, circulate and ask questions to help push their thinking. The key point that students should recognize:

  • In general, places where there are a lot of people and a lot of power plants, there is bad air pollution.


After small groups have had a chance to talk, bring the whole group together and have them summarize what they noticed.


This concept – that high population and power generation often results in air pollution – is an incredibly important point for students to grasp, so make sure that they understand before moving on.

Use follow up questions to push their thinking on why the air pollution is worse in places where there are more people and more power plants. Students may not understand that coal plants emit large amounts of air pollution, and high population means other source of pollution like transportation, fires, etc. This connection will be much more explicit in the next activity, but get their minds thinking about this in the meantime.


Have students write a short summary about this pattern in the space on their handout.


Ask students if this pattern is true everywhere in the world. They should be able to recognize that in some parts of the world, there are higher populations (like Europe) that don’t have a lot of air pollution. The US has coal power plants and a relatively high number of people, but not bad air pollution. Ask students why they think this is (there is a space for them to write some ideas on their handouts). As with the sources of air pollution, students likely will not know for certain, but tell them that they will try to figure out why that is on another day. Note: When talking about the Clean Air Act in later lessons, you may want to come back to this map to help them remember.

6. Check for Understanding

Show students the two portions of the Carbon Brief map below showing the location and size of coal power plants.

Carbon Brief Area A map.jpg

Area A

Carbon Brief Area B map.jpg

Area B

Ask students which area they would expect to have better air quality?

  • Air quality will likely be lower in Area A because of the high number and concentration of coal power plants

Teacher Tip: These two areas are both from northern China. If you bring up these maps (or any others) using IQAir, CarbonBrief, and the population density map, you can have students look for additional patterns in power plants, population, and AQI.

Actual air quality for these areas (as of June 2020):

AQI for Area A map.jpg

Area A

AQI for Area B Map.jpg

Area B

7. Return to the Phenomenon

Remind students that they have been looking at these maps to determine whether the haze in their photos could be man-made. Tell students that the first picture from their phenomenon comes from China (the top right corner of Area A) and the second picture comes from Washington, D.C. Show students the CarbonBrief images of power plants in these two areas. Ask them: based on this information, do they think their hazy day could be cause by air pollution? Hold a short discussion to let students share what they think.

Carbon Brief map Tieling.jpg
Carbon Brief Map DC.jpg

There is some evidence that it could be air pollution, but this is likely not enough. They will need more evidence to be sure.

Data Sources to Keep Track of: Students will use a variety of data sources throughout this module. To help them keep track, you may want to create a poster that lists the data sources and what they’re used for. In this activity, they looked at IQAir for AQI data, CarbonBrief for power plant data, and a NASA website for population data.

8. Formative Assessment

Return to your Investigation Tracker from Activity 1. Based on what you learned today, what important information can you add to your tracker that helps you to understand our hazy day? Key points students could add:

  • The haze could be caused by humans because humans can affect the atmosphere by creating air pollution

  • It could be air pollution from things like coal power plants.

  • There are some power plants near DC, but not a lot

  • There are a lot of people in the DC area


Afterwards, have students share what they wrote, and encourage them to add good ideas from their peers. You may want to highlight some of these based on the key takeaways above.


Differentation: If you are unsure that students will pick up on key points from the lesson before they write in their Investigation Trackers, have a short discussion about big takeaways before the formative assessment instead of after.

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