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Air Pollution Experiment

Air pollution is a topic that fits into almost all science content areas. Teach biology? You teach the water and carbon cycles. Environmental science? Climate change and smog. Earth and space science? Layers of the atmosphere and ozone. Chemistry? Water + CO2 = carbonic acid. (Side note: My students recently tested the pH of different water sources, and were blown away that the pH of our rainwater sample was 5.4). I think it is telling that our air and atmosphere are woven into so many different sciences. Air is vital, so let’s talk about it with our students! 

I recently did a mini unit with my students on urban ecology. We were learning about the effects of urbanization on ecosystems, and pollution and urban heat islands came up in our discussions. (You can read my blog post about urban heat islands here). Here in Phoenix it is relatively easy to see how polluted our air is, all you have to do is drive up a hill and you will see the layer of haze that sits over our city of 1.6 million people. We discussed the health effects of air pollution and I wanted my students to have a visual of what they were breathing in. You can buy fancy (and expensive) sensors that will give you data readings of all the particles in the air, but I found an easy way for students to see the particulate matter floating around. 

You will need:

  • Glass slides (gridded slides are ideal) 
  • Cover slips
  • Compound microscopes
  • Petroleum jelly or double sided tape
  • Cotton swabs
  • Optional lab write up can be found here


This lab is super easy. All you have to do is have students smear a thin layer of petroleum jelly across the center of a glass microscope slide with a clean cotton swab. If you want your students to have quantitative data at the end of the experiment, gridded slides are ideal (See image). No worries if you only have plain slides. 

Students got to choose where they wanted to leave their vasaline-covered slide for 24 hours. I had some students leave the slides in the classroom and others left their slides outside. (Tip: I had students set them in a petri dish and label them with their initials so we could track them down easier the next day. Also, if students choose to leave them outside, find a location on your school campus where they won’t get disturbed). In the next 24 hours, any particulate matter floating around will land on the slide and stick to the petroleum jelly. If you want easier cleanup, you can also try putting a piece of double sided tape on the slide instead. 

The next day, students retrieved their slides and viewed them under the microscope. I had them switch slides with their neighbors so they could compare indoor vs. outdoor slides. As you can see from our results pictured below, there was generally a lot more particulate matter on the outdoor slides. I had students draw what they observed and do a little math to calculate the particle deposition rate. If you are interested in checking out the lab write up, click here


Remember when I said there was generally more particulate matter outside than inside? Are you ready to be completely grossed out? I had a student that decided to hang his slide from the ceiling by the classroom air vent… and this is the image that ensued. Can you say “time to change the air filter?” 

I hope your students enjoy this lab as much as mine did! It was definitely eye opening for them to see the microscopic matter going into their lungs. 

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Hi, I'm Becca!

I help busy science teachers get your prep back by providing you time saving lessons, labs, and resources.

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