Truck with Smoke Cropped

AIR POLLUTION IN the Community

Activity 8 (Elaborate): Not in My Backyard:

Environmental Justice

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Activity Summary

In this activity, students investigate whether environmental injustice may be happening in their communities by using the EPA’s EJ Screen Tool. They will examine a series of maps and graphs to compare pollution levels and demographics in these areas in order to reach their conclusions.

Activity Objectives & Materials

Approximate Time: 60 minutes


  • Students will understand the concept of environmental justice

  • Students will investigate environmental justice in their community to see if certain groups of people are more frequently affected by air pollution



  • Computer & projector

  • Student computers (highly recommended)



  • Environmental Justice investigation guide

Low Tech vs. High Tech: For this activity, students will use maps from the EPA’s online Environmental Justice Screen tool. If student computers are available, they will look up the information themselves. If computers are not available, you will need to have students look on the projector as you use the tool, or print out versions of the maps for students to use. The directions below are based on using student computers, but what students will do with the maps is essentially the same either way.

Standards Connection

DCI: ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems

SEP: Analyzing Data, Engaging in Argument from Evidence



What does justice mean to you? When have you heard the word justice used before?

  • Focus on ideas such as equity and fairness. Students may have heard terms like “social justice” or “criminal justice” and they may associate justice with the legal system. The goal of this warmup is to help frame the discussion of environmental justice, but be careful not to let the conversation get too caught up in the complexity of what justice means.


1. Frame the Activity

Ask students how they would feel if someone decided to build a new major highway through their neighborhood? Remind them that if we want to go places, then highways need to be put somewhere. What about a new power plant or factory? Did they ever wonder who decides where these things go, and how they decide where to put them? Write the acronym NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) on the board and explain what it stands for to students. Tell that that in this activity, they’re going to look at some maps to see whether some people face more air pollution that others and if sources of air pollution like trucks on highways are fairly placed in our communities. We call this idea Environmental Justice. Put the words Environmental Justice up on word wall.

Teacher Tip: Make sure to go through the EJ Screen activity yourself before having students do it. The EJ Screen tool is relatively easy to use, but it is good to be familiar with the controls so you can help students.

What it Means to Investigate Injustice: The process of investigating injustice is both very powerful and at times very disheartening. As students look and possibly find environmental injustice, be mindful both of how this may affect them, and how it may empower them to advocate for change. This activity can have a tremendous impact on student thinking. Make sure that impact is one that honors their individual situation and teaches them how they can advocate for their communities.


2. Introduction to EJ Screen

Student Steps 1-2

Pass out the Environmental Justice Investigation Sheet to students. Tell students that the EPA has a tool to help citizen scientists like them to determine if there is environmental injustice going on in their community. The tool is called EJ Screen. They’re going to use EJ Screen to find out if there is environmental injustice in their community or others around them. Pass out student computers and have students go to the EJ Screen tool here: Then have them type in their city/town or zip code in the box in the top right to center the map on their neighborhood.

EJ Screen front page.jpg

Differentiation: Some students may be comfortable following the directions right from their investigation sheet, while others will need more support. Choose the level of support for your students that works best for them.  The directions as written here mirror what is in the student directions.

3. Particulate Matter and Ozone Maps

Student Steps 3-6

Have students follow the directions for adding PM 2.5 to their maps. When they are done, they will write down the percentile that the neighborhood falls into for PM 2.5. The percentile related how the neighborhood compares in amount of PM 2.5 to other neighborhoods around the country. Note that the higher the percentile, the higher the amount of PM 2.5. After students have looked up the information, make sure to go over the concept of percentile with students, as it can be confusing. When students see the big red area for PM 2.5, they should have an idea that there might be a power plant or other major source of PM in that community. For ozone, they should recognize that ozone levels are high in the corridor between Baltimore and Philadelphia. This is likely due to high traffic volumes between these two cities.

EJ Screen PM map zoomed out.jpg

PM 2.5 map

EJ Screen Ozone map.jpg

Ozone map

Accessibility Awareness: EJ Screen uses colors for scale that will likely be difficult for colorblind students to see. You may want to pair any colorblind students with a partner to help with this. On some maps you can change the color coding; make sure to point this out as it will help as well.


4. Demographics 

Student Steps 7-8

When looking at demographics, students should notice that areas with high minority populations and high numbers of low-income individuals tend to be in or near major cities like Washington, DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Cultural Awareness: EJ Screen uses the term “minority population” which carries some negative connotations. Students may also not be familiar with this term. You may want to discuss the term with them, including why it is or isn’t used today.

EJ Screen Minority.jpg

5. Side-by-Side Maps

Student Steps 9-10


When students are looking at the side-by-side maps of the Diesel PM and the Demographic Index, they should be able to see some overlap between these two maps, especially in places like SE Washington DC and Baltimore.

EJ Screen side by side PM demographics.j

6. EJ Indexes

Student Step 11

Many of the environmental indicators that students look at will show potential environmental injustice, often because the pollutants come from the same source. Ozone and Diesel PM are important because they are the result of trucks and other traffic that students are investigating in this module

EJ Index Diesel PM.jpg

EJ Index for Diesel PM

EJ Index for Ozone.jpg

EJ Index for Ozone

7. Neighborhood Reports

Student Steps 12-13

The reports tool can be especially valuable, because it allows students to look at all the indicators for one place at the same time. By looking at two different neighborhoods, they can see the big differences in the bar graphs for the environmental indicators. You may need to help students consider what neighborhoods to look at to see the differences. If you want to print out versions of these reports, click “Get printable standard report” instead of “Explore Reports” This will give you a nicely formatted report with the percentiles for EJ Index, demographics, and environmental indicators, as well as a map of the EJ Index.

Environmental Justice data.png

Modification There are many different things you can do with EJ Screen. This activity is just a beginning. If you have time, consider other ways you might use EJ Screen to teach about environmental injustice. You can look at specific neighborhoods, or look for sources of pollution in your neighborhood (ex. click add maps, additional layers, sites reporting to EPA. Check the box for toxic releases to see the sites that release toxic chemicals)

8. Sensemaking Discussion

Once students have finished their research, bring them together to discuss what they learned. Be sure to reference data that students explored, and to push them to use data to support their position on environmental injustice. Here are some questions you might use to guide the discussion:


  • What did you learn from this activity?

  • Do you think environmental injustice is real, and if so, is it happening in your neighborhood?

  • How does this information relate back to your own citizen science work in investigating the polluting trucks?

  • If there is environmental injustice happening, what can you do about it?

For the last question above, consider what students have learned throughout the module (see activity 6 for advocacy ideas), and think ahead to what students will do in the last activity.

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

Environmental Justice Everywhere: If environmental injustice is not happening where your students are located, but it is happening other places, think about how to help your students consider the idea that environmental injustice anywhere is environmental injustice everywhere. How can your students be advocates for environmental justice outside their own community?

9. Formative Assessment: Drawing Conclusions

Have students answer the prompt in the Drawing conclusions part of their guide: Do you think there is environmental injustice in the DC-Baltimore area? (do all people have the same amount of pollution in their communities?) Use at least three pieces of evidence from our activity today to support your answer.