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Acid Rain Research

By Connie Jones

Type of activity:

  • Hands on activity
  • Group/cooperative
  • Inquiry lab

Target audience:

  • Life Science
  • Biology
  • Environmental studies


  • Engage students in real-life, relevant research experiences
  • Develop problem solving and communication skills
  • Emphasize the importance for the acquisition of skills and learning which will prepare students for the workforce of the future


I am a part of a team of teachers who are directing student research projects on acid deposition in the southern Appalachian mountains. As a teaching team, we have been able to develop an interdisciplinary approach. We use the outdoor research laboratory as a common theme allowing classes of different science curriculum specialties to conduct research and share results.

Three classes are involved:

  • Environmental Science
  • Earth Science
  • and Advanced Chemistry.

Students conduct research through a variety of hands on activities:

  • They design an experiment and identify important variables.
  • They identify research study areas.
  • They design and construct data collection equipment.

Basically, our students collect samples of rainfall, cloud condensation, and water that trickles through the soil. These samples are tested for pH, conductivity, and the presence of sulfates, nitrates, calcium, and magnesium. We have collectors set up at the school at an elevation of 2500 ft. and on a nearby mountain at 5000 ft. and are comparing the two. We also correspond and share data of rain pH with other schools via the Internet. This plan could be simplified for use by just one class and could use just one type of sample, i.e. rainfall. Samples could be analyzed for just pH as opposed to the various chemicals.


The Appalachian mountain region of North Carolina is a rare, fragile environment. The ecosystems of this highland region are quite diverse and by nature, both fragile and sensitive. The effects of destructive environmental variables are visible here sooner than in most other ecosystems thereby making this region an indicator of environmental quality. Acid deposition, in particular, has affected the health of our forests as well as the quality of the air and water. Nearby Mt. Mitchell, highest point east of the Mississippi, has gained national attention with the devastation of its spruce fir forests.

Unlike any other time in history, environmental research is providing answers to questions related to environmental quality. As educators, we recognize the need to elevate our students' environmental literacy concerning these issues. Through involvement in a project such as this, students can gain ownership of their research findings and insights into environmental and technology related issues.

Acid deposition occurs everywhere and a study like this is not limited to the southeast. It becomes interesting when students are able to collect data in their own environment and then exchange data through telecommunications with other areas of the world. Issues such as transboundary pollution can then be looked at.


  • pH meter (preferable, although pH paper will do)
  • Conductivity meter
  • Landscape cloth
  • Bucket
  • Fishing line
  • Plexiglas
  • Silicone caulking
  • Aluminum pole (25 ft)
  • Items for individual "groundwater" collectors

Description of research project:

Students can be divided into research teams within the class or if working with several classes, each class can become a research team responsible for certain information and data collecting. All teams should begin with some basic research on acid deposition to gain background knowledge. This can be through lecture/discussion, group or individual reports. The PBS video "Search for Clean Air" is highly recommended, especially if you live anywhere in the south.

Since we live in the mountains, our students chose to compare pH readings at 2 elevations on the school site at 2500 ft. and on top of a mountain 7 miles away at 5000 ft. We also chose to look at samples of rain water and cloud condensation since the mountain was often shrouded in clouds. To see how the soil might buffer the rain, we collect samples of water that trickle through the soil. Students designed collectors for each of the samples.

Designing Collectors :

(If performing chemical analysis, collectors need to be designed to obtain at least 80 ml.)

Rainfall collectors:

  • Need to be covered (landscape cloth?)
  • Made of plastic
  • Won't tip over

My class simply took a 3 gallon bucket, covered it with landscape cloth, and built a wooden frame to set it in. We had an opportunity to problem solve when the giant rubber band broke after several weeks in the sun. (What can we use to hold the landscape cloth in place that won't break down?) The first time it rained there was no sample in the bucket and it took us a while to figure out the surface tension of the landscape cloth was making the water roll off!

Cloud collector:

The cloud collector is a passive device consisting of a cylinder strung with monofilament nylon cord. A portion of the cylinder is cut away allowing clouds of water vapor to pass through. As the saturated water vapor passes over the filaments, water collects and flows by gravity down a tube into a closed container. It should be placed on a pole.

"Groundwater" collector:

(not really groundwater, but water that trickles through the soil.) Students can have a really fun time designing these as there are numerous possibilities. Students could be divided into groups to design and build a collector. Experiment and see which one collects the most water and then use that design for sample collecting. do not bury in soil that has been limed or otherwise tampered by humans! collector should be buried at least a foot underground. sample should be able to be obtained without digging up the collector. i.e. accessible by a tube connected to a hand held vacuum pump.

The winning design in our class was called "the saxophone!" Basically, it was a large funnel covered with landscape cloth to keep out the dirt. The funnel was connected to several pieces of PVC pipe with appropriate curves to allow the end of the pipe to protrude from the ground when buried. The joints were sealed with silicone caulking. At collection time, the stopper was removed from the end of the pipe and a tube hooked to a hand held vacuum pump was inserted to withdraw the sample.

Once collectors are in place, students should:

  • Decide how often to sample
  • Decide how to handle/store samples
  • Design a log sheet to be used by everyone
  • Set up a data base

Telecommunication of data:

There are many ways to exchange data. I would recommend posting a notice on an education bulletin board. Through a posting on Kidsphere (a K-12 teacher exchange) I discovered the World School for Adventure Learning which is an environmental education program designed to take advantage of learning opportunities available through telecommunications. Schools become part of a Project Circle which are electronic discussion groups focusing on a key environmental issue and connected to an "Adventure." The Adventure this year followed the International Arctic Expedition and our Circle was called "Poison from Above" which focused on acid rain. Besides exchanging data, students participated in discussions of transboundary pollution. To find out more info send a message to world(underscore)school@stthomas.edu.

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