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Environmental Science

Measuring the Invisible: Air Pressure and Quality Monitoring

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Ah, sweet Spring… that marvelous seemingly magical time of year when the trees leaf out overnight, the bulbs and bushes burst into full bloom, and everything awakens to a fluorescent yellow stickiness that makes many folks suffer miserably through the welcoming season. We tend to sense the air around us more this time of year because we can smell the fragrant aromas in the breeze and see the bright pollen that entices the insects to do their important work. In my area, the pollen count leads the weather segment most evenings this month. The other time of year we focus on air quality is fast-approaching. As increasing heat commands weather patterns, we will likely hear even more about critical ozone warnings while spectacular, yet bittersweet, sunsets intensify thanks to summer pollution.

Found all over the United States, particulates and ozone are just two of the six common air pollutants for which The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Realizing that air is a critical resource that most of us take for granted, I decided to learn more. Virtually invisible, it is a difficult concept to master and a challenging topic to teach. As part of a Community Grant Program Award from the North Texas Clean Air Coalition, I created the A-I-R website to support the integration of hands-on, inquiry-based activities with current tools and resources to create a positive, technology-infused learning environment. The Air Lift! activity is one way we helped lifelong learners kinesthetically test the force of air pressure. Download the instructions by clicking here or on the image.

Your students can find out about current air quality trends on the EPA’s Where You Live page.

Instructor Notes: The Air Lift! activity could be leveraged as a cross-disciplinary link to physics or even technology when it comes to measuring air pressure and quality. The first thing I did at those summer workshops was to set up a CO2 probeware experiment to measure a cricket’s respiration. Like in a magic show, I made it ‘clear’ that there was ‘nothing’ in the stoppered bottle but the cricket. After our lunch break, we studied the resultant graph that definitely indicated something more was happening!

A few years later, I used that same ‘trick’ to get the attention of a diverse crowd at the Texas Aquarium and Zoo Educator annual meeting one year where we focused on ‘measuring the invisible’ in terms of educational research. FYI, in each case, we celebrated the cricket’s release back into the wild before any harm came about to any of the participants.

HippoCampus Correlations: There are several excellent resources on the HippoCampus site too! Among others, Photochemical Smog illustrates how air masses can become inversion layers and trap air pollution in an area. Earth’s Atmosphere describes the varying layers and air pressures surrounding our planet. Air Movement describes how air pressure and temperature differentials affect wind patterns. Climate Systems explores the potential regional effects of changing water and air currents.

Remember that you can use the activity-based playlists on my Hippo page for quick access to each of the media files referenced in these posts! Also, you can use the links on the SRCpage archive to access the PDF activity files directly.

The A-I-R on my website stands for Action-Interaction-Reaction: YOU are THE key! Environmental action begins with environmental literacy. By providing teachers with the content knowledge, pedagogical skills, and technology tools needed to make a positive impact in their classrooms, we can encourage action – interaction – and reactions to air quality issues. Focusing on ecological knowledge, and social and political knowledge, and sustaining environmental resources in a personally-relevant context will develop the critical foundation required for action. Coming round full circle to the good/bad news noted in my first post, as John Muir put it: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” The Wind Map project (which will blow you away) is one way to visualize the interconnections that flow throughout this wonderful topic of Environmental Science. How do you cleverly teach critical concepts so that your students internalize them today?

How to Make a Playlist on HippoCampus:
A four-minute tutorial video
Chemistry in Context, 8th Edition, The Chemistry of Global Climate Change course text:
ARKIVE, Images of Life on Earth:
Environmental Inquiry -- Authentic Scientific Research for High School Students, Cornell University:
NASA Earth Observatory:
NIEHS -- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health:
NOAA Education Resources:
Leopold Education Project, Pheasants Forever Land Ethic Curriculum:
CEE, Council for Environmental Education:
NAAEE, North American Association for Environmental Education:
EARTHWEEK, A Diary of the Planet:
EPA, United States Environmental Protection Agency::
Ocean Portal, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History:

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