top of page
Truck with Smoke Cropped

AIR POLLUTION IN the Community

Activity 5 (Elaborate): Particulate Matter

in the Community

Expand All

Collapse All

Switch to Dark Mode

Activity Overview

Activity Summary

In this activity, students analyze data based on real world studies of the health effects of living near a roadway. Through their data analysis, they are able to make connections between particulate matter and the health of an entire community.

Engineering Note: If students have not done any engineering in this class before, it is worth taking the time to teach them the engineering design process and to do a brief sample activity. Introductory information can be found here. A good sample activity to do with students is the parachute design activity here

Activity Objectives & Materials

Approximate Time: 1-2 class periods (60-120 minutes)


  • Students will analyze data in order to connect particulate matter pollution to health outcomes in a community

  • Students will be able to distinguish between causation and correlation



  • Computer & projector

  • Student computers (optional for graphing)



  • Citizen Science: How Particulate Matter Pollution Affects a Community

  • Graph paper

Standards Connection

DCI: LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience

SEP: Analyzing Data, Engaging in Argument from Evidence

CCC: Cause and Effect



Where does particulate matter come from?

  • Answer: power plants, fires, chemical plants, fields, vehicles, etc.

  • This is a review of content they’ve learned previously to focus their attention on sources of PM for this lesson.


1. Frame the Activity

Remind students that at the beginning of the last activity you asked if anyone lived in a neighborhood that had a busy road or a lot of trucks. Have them think about a community like that, even if they don’t live in one. Imagine you live in a place where there is a lot of particle pollution. Ask students what they would do about it. They may suggest things like wearing a mask or staying indoors. Tell students that one thing people can do is act as citizen scientists, just like they did in Activity 3. Citizen scientists help study the problems in their community and come up with solutions to solve them. In this activity, they will study how particulate matter pollution can affect a whole community.

Community Health is Serious Business: During this activity students will investigate some serious topics (ex. cardiovascular disease) which they may have personal experience with. Be sure to address this carefully and with the sensitivity and seriousness that topics like this deserve. While the data they are examining is fictionalized, it is based on actual results from a variety of studies. See the accompanying documents for the sources used.

Step 1

2. Monitors vs. Sensors

Remind students of the particulate matter devices they used or built in Activity 3. Tell students that scientists use PM monitors that are permanently installed in different places to measure PM all the time. You can show them a picture like the one below. As citizen scientists, we can look up the data from these monitors if we want to know how high the air pollution is.

This data from these monitors is more accurate than what we collected because the monitors are more sensitive and they are measuring PM all the time. You may also choose to show students this short video about the difference between personal sensors and EPA monitors: For their citizen science research, they’ll be analyzing data that comes from monitors like this.

Air quality monitor.jpg

A particulate matter monitor in Kansas City, MO

Source: Missouri DNR

Teacher Tip: In upcoming activities, students will be reminded of these monitors as a way to advocate for themselves (by having monitors installed)

3. Introduce the Investigation

Tell students that for their citizen science research, they are going to study how air pollution affects not just one person, but a whole community. Pass out the “Citizen Science: How Particulate Matter Pollution Affects A Community” handout. Have students look at the blank data table at the top. Ask students what things they see on the data table. Students should be able to pick out things like: major roadways, miles, cardiovascular disease, and asthma.

Step 4

4. Community Health Variables

Ask students if they can identify the health outcomes that they will be looking at. They should recognize that the health outcomes are on the left-hand side of the chart. Review what each of these things means so students understand what data they will be looking at and what a “health outcome” is. Have them write their own explanations in the blanks on their handout.

  • Cardiovascular disease: heart/circulatory system disease (ex. high blood pressure, blocked arteries, etc.)

  • Lung function: volume of air you breathe in and out

  • Emergency room visits due to asthma: difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing that requires an ER visit

  • COPD (bronchitis/emphysema): difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing that is persistent

Consider asking students if they know someone with one of these health issues. It is a good way to help make a personal connection, but be careful not to pry into personal health information

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) vs. asthma: COPD and asthma have similar symptoms. The main differences are that COPD tends to be an “all the time” chronic problem, while asthma is more likely to flare up due to triggers. COPD is more common in older adults, while asthma is more common in younger children.

5. Areas of Study

Ask students what the different areas are that they are looking at with their data. Help them understand that they’re looking at data in the area around a major roadway, starting from up to 200 feet away from the roadway, 200 feet to 1,000 feet away, and more than 1,000 feet mile away. Let’s see what this means by looking at a map.


Show students this map of Washington DC. The major roadway in this case is Route 295, which runs NE/SW through the middle of the map. The 200-foot distance from the roadway is in blue, and the 1,000-foot distance is in yellow. If you count the blocks, you can see that 200 feet from the road is less than a block. 1,000 feet is about 4 blocks.

295 corridor.jpg

It is a good idea to show students the distance in their own neighborhood by displaying a Google map of the area. Right click on a major roadway, then choose “measure distance”. Click anywhere else and you will bring up a measuring tool. Move the second point around to see how far 200 feet and 1,000 feet are away from the major roadway.

Before sharing the data, ask students where they think people’s health will be most affected vs. least affected. Make sure students get the general idea that health data nearest the roadway will likely be worst.

6. Analyzing the Data

Provide the students with the data that goes into the chart (see below) and have them add it to their sheets. Keep in mind that these are fictional data points based on actual research.

Research sources: Research from many different sources went into the data shown below. For more information on some of the research sources used to generate the sample data, read the Introduction from the article: The Near-Road Exposures and Effects of Urban Air Pollutants Study (NEXUS): Study design and methods

Community health data chart.jpg

Have students analyze the data by answering the questions on their handout:

  • Does the data you are looking at go up, down, or neither the FARTHER you go from the roadway?

  • Does this mean the heath outcome gets better (healthier), worse (less healthy), or neither (no change)?

  • How big is the difference?

Differentiation: There are many different ways you can divide students into groups to analyze the data. Have students work in pairs to analyze all the variables,  in groups to analyze all the variables. You can also have pairs analyze one variable and then have pairs share with one another. You can also choose different grouping methods for different students. Choose the grouping that works best to support all your students.

Differentiation: When students are analyzing their data, they are only expected to find the difference between values. Depending upon their grade level, students may also be able to determine ratios between values, or to calculate rate of change. When calculating rate of change, consider the most logical value for x in these circumstances, since the distances vary from 200 feet to 1,000 feet.

7. Graphing

Have students create graphs showing the data. You can discuss with them what types of graphs to use. In this case, bar graphs work well. Line graphs are also possible, but be mindful of how to scale the x-axis based on the fact that the data points are at <200 feet, 200 feet-1,000 feet, and 1,000+ feet. If student computers are available, consider having students create the graphs on their computers.

8. Correlation vs. Causation

Ask students whether they think that pollution from the roadway is causing the health effects. How do they know? Remind students that just because the data shows that people who live near roadways can have worse health outcomes, that doesn’t mean the pollution caused their health problems. What other things from the road could be causing the health problems? (ex. noise). Is there any other reason people in the neighborhood might have health problems (ex. from a power plant in the area?). Proving causation (that the air pollution from the road is causing the health outcomes) is very difficult. It helps if they can explain how the pollution might cause the health problems.

Have students think back to the Lung Attack activity. What do they know about how particulate matter affects human lungs? How could they use this information to make an argument that the pollution is causing the health outcomes?


The key takeaway for students in the correlation/causation discussion should be that it may look like living near a roadway causes these health outcomes, but scientists would need to run more tests on the people to determine if their symptoms are caused by the air pollution, or by some other factor or combination of factors.

Teacher Tip: Correlation and causation is a difficult topic for students to grasp. If this is the first time that students have been exposed to the idea, then don't expect them to master it in one shot. Consider this an opportunity to introduce the concept. You may also want to show an introductory video like this one. If students have been introduced to it before, use this as an opportunity to reinforce the idea. The more times students are exposed to the idea of correlation vs. causation, the more it will start to sink in.  If you plan to teach the other modules, Module 5, Activity 4 also discusses correlation vs. causation using graphs and a short reading.

9. Sensemaking Discussion

Discuss with students what their conclusions are based on these data. Use the CER below to help guide the discussion, being clear to consider the correlation vs. causation idea (based on these data health effects are correlated to living near a roadway, but we can’t say they’re caused by the pollution without more information.

Teacher Tip: For more tips on how to lead a sensemaking discussion, see the Sensemaking Strategies section of the website.

10. Question Check-in

Take a moment to look back at the questions students generated during Activity 1. If there are any questions that you have answered, make sure to recognize this, and have students articulate a clear answer to the question. You may choose to use this in place of their formative assessment if appropriate.

11. Formative Assessment: Conclusion

Have students complete the Claim-Evidence-Reasoning statement on the last page of their handout. Their CER should focus on how living near a roadway affects human health based on these data. Scaffold the CER as necessary based on students’ experience with the structure. Students should keep a narrow focus on one health outcome. Example CER:


  • Claim: Living near a major roadway can be bad for your health, possibly because of pollution from cars and trucks.


  • Evidence: People who live within 200 feet of a major roadway have a 6-percentage point higher rate of cardiovascular disease than people who live more than 1,000 feet away from a major roadway.

  • Reasoning: Air pollution from cars and trucks can get into people’s lungs and then into their blood stream. This can cause them to develop cardiovascular disease.

Correlation vs. causation: When students are making an argument (for example using a CER like this one), they may argue that the air pollution is causing the disease (vs. just being correlated to the disease). This is a reasonable argument to make based on what they already know, although they would need more evidence to back this argument up fully.

Page buttons
bottom of page