02 Environmental Research 2022

This event is limited to the first 18 entries

2022 Topic: Face Masks


Face masks are used widely to protect people from airborne agents and to protect clean environments from exhaled respiratory droplets. Examples are multifold: Personnel working in dusty areas wear masks to minimize exposure to particulate matter present in the air. Surgeons wear masks while operating on the patients to prevent open wounds from exposure to exhaled airborne pathogens. 

Since 2019, a large fraction of the world population has been wearing face masks to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 viral infection. Despite robust science that was in existence for at least half a century regarding face masks and their filtering efficiencies for airborne particulates and pathogens, in public discussions wearing masks is often questioned. Moreover, this topic has been heavily politicized, and it did not help matters that the recommendations regarding wearing masks and types of masks were changed several times during the pandemic. 


Part 1 - Conduct general literature research to address the following:

  • What toxic agents may be present in the air and what equipment can be used to protect people against their inhalation (think of firefighters operating in a burning building)? 

  • What is the range of sizes of typical airborne particulate matter (e.g., pollen, pollution, dust storms)?

  • What is the range of sizes of respiratory droplets produced by speaking, coughing, and sneezing?

  • What is in the respiratory droplets besides water and how much? 

  • What happens to respiratory droplets after their release and what impact does that have to their retention by masks and filters?

  • What are the sizes of various biological pathogens, such as viruses, bacteria, spores, and pollen? 

  • What is the size of the COVID-19 viral particle?

  • Can free viral particles be emitted during speaking, coughing, and sneezing?

  • What implication does all of the above have towards the retention of respiratory droplets and various airborne pathogens by filters and masks?

Part 2 - Conduct specific research on trapping respiratory droplets by face masks

  • Learn about different types of commercially manufactured and makeshift face masks used for respiratory protection

  • Learn about the evolution of respiratory droplets expelled during speaking, coughing, and sneezing. 

  • Using collected information to show which masks will be most or least efficient in protecting humans from airborne viral particles (here is a study on masks that can be used as a seed: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c03252).


Part 3 - Report of Student Understanding and Research Findings

A research paper that demonstrates an understanding of the information obtained from the literature research above and includes the following:

  • Types and sizes of airborne particles 

  • How face masks work and what agents they can remove 

  • A description of the principles used to test fitting of face masks 

  • A *science-based* argument for (or against) the use of different types of masks as protection from airborne pathogens (and viral pathogens in particular) that are spread during speaking, coughing, and sneezing

  • Proper citations to credible reference material.

Event Day

Teams will make a short presentation via PowerPoint/ Slides or a poster. Presentations will be scheduled for the morning of the Chemistry Olympics (6 minutes maximum: 3 minute prepared presentation + 3 minutes of Q&A). This presentation should focus solely on the results obtained in Part 2 and should highlight the students' understanding of how masks function in connection with their design and behavior of airborne droplets/particles, and how both determine the mask performance. Students must relate their understanding of the processes occurring during respiratory droplet evaporation and interaction with the mask, and use calculations in support of their conclusions, when possible. Calculated data should be presented to the judges in a graphical/ pictorial manner, when appropriate. Conclusions made should be clearly supported by the calculated data and the literature data.



Learn about the requirements concerning Primary Sources, formatting and citations for your research paper: Research Guidelines and Requirements

The Environmental Research Paper must be received by the Director of the NJCO by May 15, 2022.


Written report 40% total

  • Accuracy of technical component(s).

  • Depth of understanding of airborne agents in general and respiratory droplets in particular

  • Depth of understanding of how particulates are retained by masks.

  • Demonstration of understanding how the evolution in exhaled respiratory droplets during their air travel can affect their retention by masks and spread of pathogens.

  • Support of argument for or against certain types of face masks or materials used to make face masks.  The argument must include evidentiary statements and be grounded in good reasoning.

  • Quality of references and appropriate citations.

Experiment and Results 20% total

  • Evidence of good scientific method

  • Clear experimental procedure

  • Graphical analysis of results

Presentation, 40% total

  • Technical knowledge of the subject

  • Presentation quality,

  • Answers to questions