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Celebrating Science and Engineering

2012 April 27

By Aaron Ferster

I knew my mistake as soon as the kid’s cheeks puffed out and streams of water started arching out of the corners of his mouth like a fountain.

“Blow; don’t suck in” were my clear instructions. But just as I jump to the right every time an approaching cyclist calls out “bicycle right!” as I walk along a bike trail, sometimes the mind executes the opposite of a command. 

The unfortunate mishap occurred while engaging visitors in the “Lung Capacity Challenge” at EPA’s exhibit booth at the last USA Science & Engineering Festival. It shows lung capacity by having people blow into a tube. As their breath bubbles into a holding chamber placed upside-down in a small tub of water, it displaces an equal volume of water—causing the chamber to rise and showing how much air has come out of the participant’s lungs.

Patrick tries the Lung Capacity Challenge.

The Lung Capacity Challenge

Illustrating how researchers measure lung capacity is a great gateway into sharing how EPA scientists use such tools to compare lung function and take other, albeit more sophisticated, actions to better understand the connections between human health and clean air.

The only problem is that if someone sucks on the tube instead of blows, they create a siphon, getting a mouth full of water instead of lung capacity data. (Luckily, we’ve discovered the secret to avoiding this mess: never utter the word “suck” in your instructions; bike commuters, please take note.)

It’s all part of the fun at the USA Science & Engineering Festival, a celebration that brings hundreds of organizations together to share their research and technology.

This year’s Festival is this weekend, and I’m happy to say EPA will once again be part of the action.

In addition to our world-famous Lung Capacity Challenge, our scientists and other volunteers will be featuring demonstrations such as:

  • Fun with Chemical Reactions (aka “baggie science”) where visitors can see what happens and learn important scientific concepts as they mix up a batch of chemicals in their own baggie.
  • Making the Invisible Visible where visitors learn how scientists use instruments to “see” what’s in the air we breathe.
  • One Fish, Two Fish, Safe Fish, New Fish  invites visitors to go fishing and learn about the science of fish consumption advisories, habitat degradation, environmental sampling in wetlands, and other important aquatic and clean water issues.

For visitor and travel information, go to: Be sure to come by booth #1745. And remember: blow!

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the senior science writer in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. April 28, 2012

    Happy Festival, My fellow Engineer Scientists!

  2. April 28, 2012

    A nice essay. I continue to shake my head in disgust, though, just as I did upon moving to the Hazleton, Pa., in 1989 and learning how hundreds of miles of streams in the region had been (and continue to be) killed by the after-effects of anthracite coal mining. The chief culprit is, of course, acid mine drainage and it all goes into Chesapeake Bay eventually. You can see a photo of the mouth of the Jeddo Mine Tunnel, which discharges an average of 40,000 gallons an hour of acid mine drainage at

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