Air Particulate Analysis

Wayne Powell, Rebecca Boger, and Zhongqi Cheng
Brooklyn College, City University of New York

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This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


This half-term-long activity models authentic urban environmental research. Through analysis of particulates filtered from air samples from student-selected neighborhoods/settings around the city, students are introduced to the scientific method, sampling procedures, quantitative data analysis, and SEM analysis as an example of technological applications. Students communicate their findings both in a formal scientific document and in a culturally appropriate format for their home community.



This research project is appropriate for a freshman or sophomore course for majors in earth science or environmental science in. In particular it has been designed for a class of diverse urban students who commute to campus, and are neighborhood/community/family-focused.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Required content subjects are an introduction to earth materials, weathering, erosion, and the local geological setting. This activity provides an opportunity to apply skills in Excel-based statistical analysis and map reading that have been introduced previously in class. It also provides a means to allow students to communicate science in a culturally meaningful style.

How the activity is situated in the course

This research project runs through the second half of a one-term course. Students have been guided through an instructor-led analysis of campus air-quality prior to beginning their self-defined project (i.e., hypothesis definition, sampling, particle identification, statistical analysis, data interpretation). Essential tools and instruments are introduced by the instructor. Tools used for this project include the binocular microscope, SEM, Excel, and Google Earth.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to inform members of the community about a Brooklyn-related environmental issue that they analyzed from the perspective of a geologist.
  • Students will be able to identify minerals that are common in the natural and constructed environment in which they live.
  • Students will be able to describe weathering and transport processes that act within the local environment.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to effectively and accurately describe complex data and procedures.
  • Students will be able to design a scientific investigation.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to use Excel to organize data and perform a basic statistical analysis.
  • Students will be able to use PowerPoint to organize and present an oral report.
  • Students will be able to plot locations and determine directions and distances on a map of their home city.

Description of the activity/assignment

Phase 1: Definition of Projects and Research Teams (Homework +1 Class)

Each student is assigned the task of proposing a site to investigate within the city and the surrounding region. Students are encouraged to discuss the assignment with community members for suggestions and inspiration. Each student will produce an easel-size poster of their proposal highlighting the following:

  1. Site location;
  2. Reasons for selecting this site;
  3. Potential interest to the community;
  4. Potential logistical problems associated with the proposed site/project.

Posters will be hung in a gallery-walk format, and each student will mark the location of their proposed study site on the classroom map of New York City. The class is given time to read and comment on each of their peers' proposals, after which the instructor will lead a class discussion of the interests, merits, and obstacles associated with each proposal, with the goal of having the class settle on the set of projects on which to move forward.

Students will define groups of 2 to 4 students per project. If more than 4 students are interested in the same site, then multiple groups may develop parallel projects.

Phase 2: Data Collection and Analysis (5 weeks)

In consultation with the instructor, teams develop and implement a sampling protocol, including the documentation of terrain, human activity, and weather conditions (wind speed and direction) at the time of collection. Sample stations and prevailing wind direction are plotted on Google Earth to determine likely sources of particulates. Using binocular microscopes students document size distribution, form, color, and abundance of particulates. This data is analyzed using statistical functions in Excel. Teams use SEM-EDS analysis to determine the composition of particles, and more fully describe their form. Teams submit weekly progress reports, including personal work reports for each team member.

Phase 3: Communication of Results (1 Week)

Teams submit to their instructor a formal laboratory report: Purpose, Equipment, Method, Data Tabulation, Data Analysis, and Conclusions.

Teams prepare an oral presentation, or visual information campaign, targeted at an audience of their choice (e.g., neighbors, church group, community activist group, college administration) using discourse appropriate to that audience. Teams present in an in-class dress-rehearsal prior to their formal presentation. Teams invite members of their desired audience to the presentation (official invitations sent). On the last day of class, the instructor leads a debriefing and critique of the presentations, highlighting results and effective communication techniques.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Three grades are assigned throughout the project (proposal presentation, formal report, oral report). Formative assessment is provided throughout the project (post-proposal discussion and gallery-walk comments, weekly progress reports, critique of dress-rehearsal of presentation).

Project Proposals: Individual grade, 15%. Based on the soundness of the proposal, potential interest to the community, and effort to obtain input from the community.

Formal Report: Group, 50%. Based on quality and quantity of data, accuracy of data analysis, soundness of conclusions, and use of standardized formal English and technical language.

Final Presentation: Group, 35%. Based on organization of presentation, quality of images used, use of discourse appropriate for the intended audience, adherence to the data and interpretations of the formal report.

Weekly progress and work reports from individuals will be used to assess individual participation in group efforts. Individual grades may be adjusted if these records indicate inequitable participation within the group.

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