Clean Air Engineering Challenge

This is an amazingly fun project to introduce your kids to the levels of air pollution in our homes. Learn about how to filter the air and brainstorm ideas for how to improve the air quality in your house!

Learn how to filter the air in this hands on project!

Air pollution is not only an environmental factor, with air pollution contributing to climate change, but it is also a major health factor for a large portion of the worlds population. China and India together constitute 36% of the world’s population. Unfortunately, the air quality in these countries is often unhealthy, very unhealthy, or deemed dangerous. You can see real time air quality measurements for China, India, and where you live to compare. The World Health Organization also has a cool meter to show air pollution in different areas.

Where we live, on Bainbridge Island, our air quality index is a low 11. But in India today, there are readings that almost reach 900, a number that is not only unhealthy, but hazardous to your health.

The World Health Organization reported that 9 out of 10 citizens of the world now breathe polluted air, with an esitmated 7 million deaths each year due to air pollution. Air pollution can impact your health by increased odds of strokes, heart disease, asthma, and lung cancer.

How we can improve air quality

This activity is a great opener to talking aout climate change, and the human impact our daily lives have on Earth. You can turn this project into an investigative report with kids looking into how power is generated in their area, discover if local waste is incinerated, and even track how much they use a car for trips they could walk or bike for. Reducing our output of pollutants is a key way to reduce air pollution.

However, now that our air is so polluted, we also need to find effective ways to clean the air so it can be safe again.

One way scientists do this is by filtering the particles. This method doesn’t work for the smallest, and most dangerous, particles known as PM2.5, but it does work for larger contaminants. For the smaller particles we often use ionizing technology which positively charges the tiny pollutants and then sucks them up with a negatively charged field.

In this project, kids will filter our very large particulate – ground pepper. Using a hair dryer to make the particulate circulate in a shoe box students can create filters to try and trap the pepper particles. Students can use tape, paper towels, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and more to create their filters. Like with all our environmental engineering challenges, they have a budget of $1000 to use at the store.

Project Ingredients

Air pollution engineering pinterest collage. Bottom image shows a student created air filter and the pepper particulate it has caught. The top images shows a young student adding pepper into the testing chamber to test their filter creation.

Annie’s Fresh Air Store Ingredients

Kids Science Project Setup

  1. Build your shoebox pepper pollution chamber.
  2. Introduce air pollution and show images or videos to motivate kids and get them thinking about the health effects.
  3. Give students time to plan, build, and test their projects.

Building your pepper pollution chamber

Building your pepper pollution chamber is pretty easy – it took me about 10-15 minutes to put it together, and most of that time was waiting for the glue gun to warm up.

Take your shoebox and cut a large rectangular window at one end (do this on the smaller face, allowing your chamber to be longer). This will be the exhaust of your pollution chamber.

Take your hair dryer and draw a circle around its tip (where the air comes out). You want to trace around the tip so that the bottom of the tip is aligned with the bottom of your box. When I first made mine I put cut the circle out of the middle of the face, and it didnt blow the pepper around all that well.

I fixed this by cutting straight down to the base so the hair dryer can rest on the floor of the shoe box.

Now you need to create filter holders. I found this was easiest by using 4 tall foam block towers for each holder. I glued sets of towers directly across from each other in the shoe box so the hair dryer would blow through the filters (instead of along them). Then the second set of towers were glued about 1-2cm from the first set of towers giving kids an area to slot their filters in.

Repeat this step if you want kids to be able to have two filters in series.

Lastly, glue a piece of wax or parchment paper to the rectangular window to act as an air flow meter. I shows students how this meter worked, and where they needed to be to pass the air flow test (45 degrees)

engineer drawing on how to make a shoebox air pollution testing station. Hair dryer, shoebox, foam cubes, and was paper are present

Tips and Tricks for the Air Pollution Challenge

Student draws an idea for the air pollution engineering challenge on a whiteboard

1. Start with a group brainstorming session

I have learned over the past few environmental engineering challenges that kids want to jump right in. That often leads to a severe lack of planning, and reduces how much they can gain from the activity.

Instead, I have been having us brainstorm what a filter is, or might look like, with students having the opportunity to draw their ideas on the board. This ensures that all students have a platform to jump from, and gives me a perfect outlet to mention things I notice in their plans.

2. Teach kids how to use the testing station independently.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but I forgot to do it for one class and it was insane. Show kids how to turn on and off your hair dryer, where the hair dryer goes, and how long to keep it on. We counted for ten seconds, ensuring the testing line moved smoothly.

3. Draw the counting area on each project

Counting the pepper particles was definitely the hardest part for students. I had them use a toothpick to touch each particle as they counted. We also talked about methods to count large groups like this – going top to bottom and left to right.

Many students asked if they should count the big and small pepper particles. This was a great way to talk about how big and small particles are in our everyday air pollution, and no matter the size, they still impact our air quality and health.

student works on an air pollution filtration system using cardboard

4. Scores to expect

The top score I had in this project was 5705, although many scores ended up being around 1800. Much of the score depends on students having the stamina to count all the pepper particles, and using a bright back drop to do so.

I always forcus on improving their own score as the basis for success. Which is why my downloadable lab books have space to track two scores. An initial try and then a second try. This helps many students who are not in the running to “win” find a good growth mindset to try again.

Have fun!

Don’t forget to enjoy this project! We want to learn science through fun, not tears. Take breaks if you need them!

If you loved this project, check out our other Environmental Engineering Challenges!