Use these tips and activities to link UN sustainable development goal 11 to your lessons on air pollution, materials and nanochemistry

A digital illustration of the number 11 as blocks of flats

Source: © hitandrun/Debut Art

From atmospheric pollutants to construction materials, there are plenty of contexts to build the UN’s sustainable development goals into your teaching

With nearly 70% of the world population projected to live in cities by 2050, Goal 11 aims to make these urban areas inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. An understanding of chemistry plays a key role in meeting this global challenge. Goal 11 is a very wide-ranging goal that encompasses aspects of some of the other goals: clean water and sanitation (Goal 6), affordable and clean energy (Goal 7) and responsible consumption and production (Goal 12). These topics are covered in separate articles in this series. This article focuses on the management of urban air pollution and the construction of safe, affordable houses and buildings.

The Sustainable Development Goals logo

This article is part of the Sustainability in chemistry series, developed to help you integrate the UN’s sustainable development goals into your teaching of chemistry. It supports Goal 11: make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

The construction industry uses metals, polymers, ceramics, concrete and glass as its primary building materials. The fundamental properties of these materials, including composite materials, are compared at 11–14 in many chemistry courses. At 14–16, students go on to look in more detail at how metallic and covalent bonding leads to these properties. Novel materials and nanochemistry are also relevant here, as innovative features are built into the design of buildings. Students also study the production of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulates (eg PM2.5) as urban pollutants that result from the combustion of the hydrocarbon fuels used in transport and heating.

Put it in context

Students living in urban areas will appreciate first-hand the importance of the issues covered by this goal. However, all students will have encountered relevant issues in the media.

Introduce the topic of urban air pollution by looking at the establishment of congestion pricing zones in many major cities, as well as the controversy caused by car manufacturers installing software to falsify the levels of emitted NOx. You can highlight existing pollution control measures, such as catalytic converters on vehicles, as well as the plan to phase out internal combustion engines in favour of electric vehicles. Another issue is the increased use of wood burning stoves in city areas leading to higher levels of airborne PM2.5 particles.

The safety of building materials has also been in the news. The cladding material used on Grenfell Tower was particularly flammable because it is a composite of aluminium and poly(ethene), combining the ability of aluminium to conduct heat, with the low melting temperature of the thermoplastic polymer.

Download this

Data research and evaluation, for age range 14–18

This resource shows how learners can access and evaluate real-time data about atmospheric pollutants in their local area to make the teaching of this topic at age range 14–16 more relevant for them and their future. Extension questions are provided to use the activity with learners age 16–18. 

Download the student worksheet as pdf or MS Word and the teacher notes as pdf or MS Word


Download the teacher resource and student worksheet from the Education in Chemistry website:

Put it into practice

Make the study of air pollution relevant to your students by using real-time data for a city near to them. Use the downloadable resource (above) to see how you can look up levels of different pollutants across the UK or Republic of Ireland. Students can monitor levels of nitrogen dioxide, as well as particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) over timescales as short as a week or as long as several years. Over the coming years it will be interesting for students to see if the introduction of congestion pricing zones and more hybrid and electric vehicles affect the levels of pollutants.

If you don’t have time to analyse the real-time data, see the resource Assessing air pollution levels, which uses historical data on NO2 levels for an urban borough in the UK. If your students would like a more global perspective, then the website allows you to view air pollution data from 1900 to 2017 globally or by country. You can see how air pollution compares to other risk factors, such as smoking, obesity and alcohol, in causing premature deaths.

Get more resources

  • Discover how air pollution impacts our health with Take care of the air, including a demonstration, experiment, worksheets and more resources.
  • Use our Burning hydrocarbons worksheets for 14–16 years to assess knowledge and apply it in context.
  • Link to careers with this job profile of an atmospheric chemist.
  • Highlight the importance of trees in combatting climate change and the overlap between chemistry and the other sciences.

If you want to enhance the study of materials, the practical activity Making concrete shows your students how to make and test the properties of concrete – a composite material. This would make a good basis for an investigation at 11–14 to teach control of variables, as well as support work on limestone. Cement manufacture is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions, so you could follow it up with a look at more sustainable alternatives. Another approach would be to get different groups of students to evaluate and present the pros and cons of different materials being developed for sustainable cities. Possible examples include transparent wood to replace glass, bamboo to replace wood and sheep’s wool to replace fibreglass.

Cement manufacture is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions, so you could follow it up with a look at more sustainable alternatives. Another approach would be to get different groups of students to evaluate and present the pros and cons of different materials being developed for sustainable cities. Possible examples include transparent wood to replace glassbamboo to replace wood and sheep’s wool to replace fibreglass.

Finally, when students are studying nanochemistry at 14–16, there are some excellent examples of applications in buildings. See the articles, Nanotechnology saves bridges and Smart energy homes, for some ideas, and download the starter slide from A whiter shade of paint.

This series publishes every Wednesday. Check out the articles so far