Breathing Experiments for Science Class

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Though the complex processes that contribute to regular respiration often go unnoticed, classroom science experiments that examine the way that we breathe illuminate the structures and variables that impact our inhalation and exhalation. Hands-on activities engage class members in a student-directed exploration of anatomy and breathing-related health. Any science activity that involves students' breathing ability should be carefully monitored to ensure that all students are safely able to participate.

Breathing Rate Calculations

  • A breathing rate experiment is an engaging way to introduce elementary or middle school students to a unit on respiration. Pairs of students begin by counting how many full breath cycles each partner completes in one minute. A breath cycle is one inhalation and one exhalation. The resting rate for each student is recorded on a chart and serves as a base rate or base line. The partners then complete a range of physical tasks and calculate one another's breathing rate after each task. Students walk in place for one minute, complete 20 jumping jacks or meditate for one minute. Students then compare their breathing rates to each other and to their base rates to determine how each exercise impacted their breathing rates. Higher-level students should also hypothesize why their rates changed during each activity.

Working Lung Models

  • Challenge student groups of three to create their own working lung model using balloons, elastic and a 2-liter plastic bottle. For advanced classes, you may opt to provide just the materials and no instructions, but for intermediate- or elementary-level learners, provide building instructions. Students cut off the bottom of the bottle and cut one of the balloons so that a flat piece of latex is left to stretch over the hole. Secure the balloon piece in place with a rubber band. Suspend the second balloon into the top of the bottle and pull the neck of the balloon over the lip and onto the neck of the bottle. When students pinch the bottom balloon "diaphragm" and pull it down, the inner balloon "lung" inflates. Challenge groups to alter their models and observe the effect on breathing. Students might poke a hole in the suspended balloon to simulate a collapsed lung, for example.

Spirometers and Lung Capacity

  • Spirometers are tools that doctors use to assess patients' lung capacity. Have students create their own working spirometers. Groups of students use a measuring cup to fill a 2-liter soda bottle with water in 500 mL increments, marking each measurement on the outside of the bottle with a permanent marker. Students then cap their bottles and place them upside-down in a bucket filled with enough water to cover the top of the bottle. One student holds the bottle up slightly so that her partner can reach into the bucket and remove the cap from the bottle; some water might bubble out, but most will remain inside due to the force of the water in the bucket. While the bottle is still slightly suspended, the partner slides a section of a 2-foot length of plastic tubing halfway into the bottle, leaving the other end over the side of the bucket. One student then holds the bottle still while another blows into the tube. Air displaces the water inside the bottle, causing the water level inside the bottle to shift. Students experiment with testing their lung capacities by breathing into the tube and recording the measurement line at which their air bubbles reach. Students should refill their 2-liter bottles after each use to ensure validity.

Constricted Breathing Simulation

  • Several medical conditions negatively impact a person's ability to breathe. Challenge groups of students to simulate constricted breathing with a simple experiment. Provide students with a range of straws and tubing, including 1-inch plastic tubing, drinking straws and coffee stirrers. Students take turns breathing through the straws or tubes and rating the difficulty on a scale of one to five, with five being the most difficult. Students then hypothesize about which stimulation relates to which medical condition. For example, minimal constriction might represent the beginning of an asthma attack while severely constricted breathing may be a severe anaphylactic reaction.

References

  • Photo Credit Dynamic Graphics/Dynamic Graphics Group/Getty Images
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