Materials World Modules

An Inquiry & Design-Based Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Program

Environmental Catalysis Module

Students learn what a catalyst is, gain an idea of the scope of catalysis research today and become aware of the effect of catalysis on environmental protection. Advances in nanotechnology are also discussed as a solution to eliminate environmental pollutants. Students are challenged to design an original solution to an environmental problem of their choice.

By incorporating everyday materials into science lessons, the Materials World Modules (MWM) program at Northwestern University has found the solution to getting students excited about learning science while helping teachers meet national and state education standards.

The modules are easy to organize and inexpensive to run. They can be incorporated into any science class because of the breadth of subjects covered in the Activity and Design Project sections. Each module is a supplemental science unit that takes 1-3 weeks of class time (approximately 10 hours) to complete.

Module At-a-Glance

Module At-a-Glance

Activity 1: Catalyzing with Platinum Black
Students observe the effect of a catalyst by testing paper in the presence of methanol and oxygen with and without the catalyst platinum black. They learn that the burning of paper is a coupled reaction, where heat produced by the catalyzed combustion of methanol becomes one of the reactants for the combustion of the paper.

Activity 2: Searching for Catalysts
Students conduct an Internet search to identify catalysts that are used in industrial processes, natural processes, and pollution treatment. Students compare and contrast the catalysts and recognize the wide variety of uses of catalysts.

Activity 3: Using a Heterogeneous Acid Catalysis
Students use, recover, and reuse acid catalyst beads to catalyze the hydrolysis of methyl acetate to acetic acid and methanol. They monitor the reaction by testing the pH of the reaction mixture over time. Based on their observations, students infer that heterogeneous acid catalysts are safer and easier to reuse than homogeneous acid catalysts.

Activity 4: Using a Metal Catalyst to Degrade an Air Pollutant
Students work with another kind of heterogeneous catalyst—a metal catalyst. They use heat in addition to the different types of metal catalyst to speed up the degradation of ammonia by oxidation under controlled conditions. They also learn that these catalysts become deactivated, or poisoned, with continued use.

Activity 5: Using Photocatalysis to Degrade a Water Pollutant
Students explore the concept of an energy efficient catalysis—room temperature photocatalysis using UV light and titanium dioxide. Monitoring the reaction using color standards, they vary the catalyst concentration, UV light intensity, and pH to test each variable’s effect on the photocatalytic degradation rate of methylene blue dye, which simulates the water pollutant.

Design Project 1: Designing a Catalytic System to Degrade a Pollutant
Using what they learned about catalysis from the Activities, students design and test a functional catalytic system. To be considered successful, the prototype system must meet specific design and performance criteria.

Design Project 2: Conceptual Design for Environmental Catalysis
Possible uses of catalysts are explored in this design project. Students propose an original solution to an environmental problem of their choice. They present their ideas for designing, testing, and evaluating the proposed catalyst product and then draw conclusions about its feasibility.

Connecting to Your Curriculum

Connecting to Your Curriculum

Materials World Modules are designed to be easily incorporated into any middle school science or high school science lab or lecture course. The chart below lists the subjects covered in the Activity and Design Project sections of this module.

Physics & Physical Science

  • Properties of Matter
  • Physical and Chemical Changes
  • Heat Energy
  • Light Energy
  • Energy Transformations

Geology & Earth Science

  • Metals
  • Use of Natural Resources
  • Environmental Pollution Issues

Language Arts

  • Writing a report
  • Public speaking


  • Structure and Properties of Matter
  • Conservation of Matter
  • Oxidation-Reduction Reactions
  • Catalysts
  • Activation Energy
  • Reaction Kinetics
  • Biochemical Reactions
  • Combustion
  • Thermodynamics

Technical Education

  • Designing
  • Building Prototypes
  • Communications

Biology and Life Science

  • Photosynthesis
  • Enzymes
  • Biochemistry


  • Measuring
  • Graphing (Making, Reading and Interpreting)
  • Computing
  • Averages
  • Rates

Standards Alignment

Standards Alignment

AAAS Benchmark Standards


NSES Standards


NCTM Standards Activities

Grades 9-12


Grades 9-12


Grades 9-12 Designs

1. The Nature of Science


A. Science as Inquiry

  Numbers & Operations  

A. The Scientific world view

1. Ability to do scientific inquiry

Compute Fluently and Estimate

B. Scientific inquiry

2. Understanding scientific inquiry


3. The Nature of Technology


B. Physical Science

  Analyze Change in Various Contexts

A. Technology and science

1. Structure of atoms



B. Design and systems

2. Structure and properties of matter

Analyze characteristics and properties of two- and three-dimensional geometric shapes

C. Issues in technology

3. Chemical reactions

Use visualization, spatial reasoning, and geometric modeling

4. The Physical Setting


4. Motions and forces


D. Structure of matter

5. Conservation of energy

Apply appropriate techniques, tools, and formulas to determine measurements.

E. Energy transformations

C. Lifes Sciences



G. Forces of nature

1. The cell


5. The Living Environment


5. Matter, energy, and organization in living systems


D. Interdependence of life

E. Science and Technology


E. Flow of matter and energy

1. Ability of technological design


8. The Designed World


2. Understanding science and technology


B. Materials and manufacturing




9. The Mathematical World



B. Symbolic relationships


C. Shapes

11. Common Themes          
A. Systems        
C. Constancy and change        


Material Data Safety Sheets (MSDS) have valuable information concerning substances used in this MWM kit.

Copper Turnings

Dowex M31

Flash Paper

Imitation Banana Extract

Methylene Blue

Platinum Black

Sodium Bicarbonate

Steel Wool

Titanium Dioxide

@ Materials World Modules