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Lungometer: Vital Lung Capacity

Lungometer: Vital Lung Capacity

People differ in the amount of air that they can blow out of their lungs.
© Renato Ganoza. CC-BY-SA 2.0

  • Grades:
  • 3-5
  • Length: Variable

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Life Science

Students gauge their own vital lung capacity—the amount of air that can be forced out of the lungs in a single breath. Student sheets are provided in English and in Spanish.

This activity is from The Science of Air Teacher's Guide. Although it is most appropriate for use with students in grades 3-5, the lessons are easily adaptable for other grade levels. The guide also is available in print format.

Teacher Background

When we breathe inward (inhale), air from outside enters our airways and lungs. As demonstrated in the activity, “Breathing Machine,” breathing is a mechanical process, driven by changes in the volume of the chest cavity. The air taken in with a normal breath represents only part of the total amount of air the lungs can hold. Likewise, the amount of air normally breathed outward (exhaled) represents just a portion of the total amount of air that can be expelled.

The maximum amount of air that can be blown out of the lungs after taking a deep breath is known as vital lung capacity. But some air always remains in the lungs and airways.

Diseases of the respiratory system affect lung volumes and capacities in many different ways. Some diseases reduce the lungs’ vital capacity. Others cause changes in the amount of air held in the lungs after air is blown out forcefully.

Objectives and Standards


  • Air takes up space.

  • The lungs hold air.

  • Air travels in and out of the lungs.

  • People differ in the amount of air that they can blow out of their lungs.

Science, Health and Math Skills

  • Predicting

  • Observing

  • Measuring

  • Graphing

Materials and Setup

Materials per Group of Students

  • Beaker or marked container, 500–1,000 mL

  • Crayon or permanent marker (dark colors)

  • Milk jug with lid, 1-gal size

  • Piece of plastic tubing, 0.5–2 cm diameter, 45 cm in length (18 in.)

  • Plastic tub, 10-qt size

  • Self-adhesive notepad, 1-1/2 in. x 2 in.

  • Water

  • Copy of “Make a Lungometer” student sheet

Each student will need:

  • Prepared mouthpiece

  • Copy of “Lungometer Data Sheet”


  1. This activity requires two class periods and is appropriate for students to carry out in small groups. Students should rotate jobs, so that each participant has an opportunity to measure his or her vital lung capacity. Most students find it helpful to see a lungometer that you have constructed (see PDF), before they attempt to make one themselves.

  2. Cut plastic drinking straws in half to serve as mouthpieces. Each student will use his or her own clean mouthpiece, inserted into the plastic tubing of the lungometer.

  3. Alternatively, you may conduct the activity as a demonstration, or let each student measure his or her vital lung capacity on a lungometer that you have made.

Procedure and Extensions


One session of 30–45 minutes to build and use lungometers; one session of 30–45 minutes to examine results

Session 1: Making lungometers

  1. Make a lungometer and demonstrate your vital lung capacity to the class. Tell students they will be able to measure their own vital lung capacities using lungometers that they will build. If students have read Mr. Slaptail’s Secret, mention that they will be making a lungometer just like the one that Riff built. Ask students to predict how much air they will be able to blow out of their lungs.

  2. Have the Materials Manager from each group pick up a clean plastic gallon milk container and lid, a plastic dishpan, one piece of plastic tubing and a crayon from a central area.

  3. Fill each group’s tub (or have the students fill their tubs) about halfway with water.

  4. Have each group calibrate the volume of its plastic jug by adding water, 500 mL at a time. One student should pour and another should label each level (500 mL, 1,000 mL, 1,500 mL, etc.) using a crayon. When the jug is filled, put on the lid.

  5. Instruct two students from each group to turn the milk jug upside down and lower it into the tub, submerging the top under water.

  6. While those two students continue to hold the jug in place, a third student should carefully remove the lid and slide one end of the tubing up into the submerged mouth of the jug. The lungometer is now ready for testing.

  7. Before each student uses the lungometer, he or she should insert his or her own clean mouthpiece into the plastic tubing.

  8. To measure vital lung capacity, each student will inhale deeply and then blow out all the air he or she can through the tubing into the jug. Then, the students holding the jug should put the lid back on and carefully turn the jug upright. This will enable them to determine the amount of water remaining. Have each student record this value on his/her “Lungometer Data Sheet.”

  9. Have younger students measure their vital lung capacities once. Older students may try three times and determine the average.

  10. Allow students to calculate their vital lung capacities as shown on the “Lungometer Data Sheet.” (Total volume of jug will equal approximately 4,000 mL with a standard gallon milk jug.)

Session 2: Looking at results

  1. With younger students, draw a large graph on the board. Label the X axis “Students.” Number the Y axis from 0 to 4,000 mL, using 500 mL intervals. Have the students write their names and lung capacity measurements on “sticky” notes. Help each student place his/her “sticky” at the appropriate level on the graph.

  2. Older students should obtain the average value for their vital lung capacities, as shown on the “Lungometer Data Sheet.” After students have completed their calculations, have them graph their average vital lung capacities as illustrated above.

  3. Discuss the class results represented on the graph. Ask, Which was the highest vital lung capacity? Which was the lowest? What range of values did we find? How could we find the average vital lung capacity for the class?

  4. Elicit a discussion of factors that might limit vital lung capacity. Ask questions such as, What might account for differences in vital lung capacity? Do large people have larger vital lung capacities? How does exercise affect vital lung capacity? How might the vital lung capacity of a smoker compare to that of a non-smoker?

  5. Have students group their data (for example, by student height or by amounts of daily exercise) to investigate some of the questions raised during their classroom discussion.

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Funded by the following grant(s)

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH

My Health My World: National Dissemination
Grant Number: 5R25ES009259
The Environment as a Context for Opportunities in Schools
Grant Number: 5R25ES010698, R25ES06932