Cleaning the Air

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Experiment/Lab Activity , Lesson/Lesson Plan
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



In the "Cleaning the Air" activity, students use the engineering design/test/build process to create a model indoor air filter and then count and calculate the average number of particles collected. After they have tested their design they make a sales pitch presentation to their classmates highlighting the effectiveness of their design.

Resources provided include background information for the teacher and students, a student worksheet, a materials list, and instructions for setting up the testing apparatus. The activity should take 2-3 class periods. The experiment involves blowing fine particles such as pepper or sand with a hair dryer.

Teachers may want to include the previous activity in the Teach Engineering curriculum “I Breathe What?” This lesson is reviewed in the NGSS@NSTA hub at

Another related resource in the Teach Engineering curriculum addresses air pollution,  “The Air We Breathe,”  which is available at

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 6
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 8
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-ESS3-3 Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.

Clarification Statement: Examples of the design process include examining human environmental impacts, assessing the kinds of solutions that are feasible, and designing and evaluating solutions that could reduce that impact. Examples of human impacts can include water usage (such as the withdrawal of water from streams and aquifers or the construction of dams and levees), land usage (such as urban development, agriculture, or the removal of wetlands), and pollution (such as of the air, water, or land).

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The teacher leads the students in a discussion of particulate matter. Students are tasked with designing an air filter that will filter out most particulate matter without blocking air flow. Their task has several criteria and restraints in regards to materials and design. They design, build, test, and redesign a filter repeatedly. The filter replicates how filters in buildings can monitor and minimize the amount of particulate matter caused by human activity. The teacher should take care to contain the movement within the test box. Students should wear goggles and/or protective breathing masks. Teachers will want to control the amount of pepper to provide consistency across the test run by the students.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students gather and analyze data from multiple designs to define the optimal operational range for their air filter. Criteria for successful completions of the task include design, materials, and number of particles.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
In the lesson, students design a model of an air filter to counter some of the negative impacts caused by air pollutants, which explicitly addresses the part of the Disciplinary Core Idea about human activities and engineering. To address the portion of the Disciplinary Core Idea that is implied but not fully addressed in the lesson, the teacher could ask students about the relationship between human populations and per-capita consumption of natural resources and the resulting negative impacts on Earth, using a resource such as

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students design and refine a structure to serve as a filter for airborne particles, taking into account the properties of materials they have at their disposal, and how materials can be shaped and used.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The lesson builds understanding of grade-appropriate elements of the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices and Crosscutting Concepts. The inclusion of the three dimensions aids students in understanding the design process in the construction of air filters to remove pollutants. The Disciplinary Core Idea of the negative impacts of air pollutants on Earth and technologies that are engineered to counteract their effects are addressed using the Science and Engineering Practice of analyzing and interpreting data they gather and the Crosscutting Concept of structure and function in the building of their air filter. Students gather and analyze information from their model air filters and redesign within specified constraints as part of the engineering process. Engineering is a learning focus as students design solutions to problems and it is integrated with the Disciplinary Core Idea. The lesson doesn’t address students’ prior experiences related to the cleaning of air using air filters, but the teacher can show examples of air filters used in home furnaces.

  • Instructional Supports: The lesson engages students in an authentic and meaningful scenario that reflects the practice of science and engineering as experienced in the real world. They experience the science and engineering problem of monitoring and minimizing air pollution firsthand. The lesson doesn’t provide a direct connect to their school or home, but the teacher could show them air filters from home furnaces or they could examine similar devices in their school. It provides opportunities for students to redesign their filter and to share their design with the class and tout the benefits of their design. Students aren’t asked to justify their thinking or to respond to peer and teacher feedback. Prior student learning is not examined except during a class discussion. Scientifically accurate information about filters used in homes, schools, and places of business isn’t provided. The lesson does provide limited guidance for differentiating instruction in the gathering of data. The teacher could assign students to groups so they can assist each other with constructing the device, analyzing the data, and redesigning their filter to make it more efficient. Extensions for students with high interest or who have already met the performance expectations to develop deeper understanding of the disciplinary core idea are provided.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The lesson provides an opportunity for students to design a model of an air filter, gather and analyze data, and redesign their model. Students use a worksheet to gather data and keep track of the constraints and the results of various designs. The lesson doesn’t elicit direct, observable evidence of three-dimensional learning. Formative assessment to inform instruction is limited to the answers students provide during discussion and on the worksheet. The teacher would need to monitor progress of individuals and groups through careful observation. No rubrics or scoring guidelines are provided. Answers to some of the discussion questions are included. Students make a sales pitch to their classmates describing their design and its effectiveness which provides a representation of their learning. No measures are included for providing ongoing feedback to students. The tasks and worksheets are accessible and unbiased for all students.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: No technological interactivity is required for the lesson.