Hands-on Activity: Do as the Romans: Construct an Aqueduct!

Contributed by: Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University

A photograph shows the Pont du Gard, a double-high, multi-arched long structure—an ancient aqueduct.
Students do as the Romans and construct aqueducts.
Copyright © 2007 Emanuele, Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pont_du_Gard_Oct_2007.jpg


Students work with specified materials to create aqueduct components that can transport two liters of water across a short distance in the classroom. The design challenge is to create an aqueduct that can supply Aqueductis, a (hypothetical) Roman city, with clean water for private homes, public baths and fountains as well as crop irrigation.

Engineering Connection

Aqueducts are majestic and graceful ancient structures and engineering marvels that survive to this day. Since water is scarce in many parts of the world, and populations continue to grow, civil and agricultural engineers design systems that deliver water, natural gas and other resources from far away to the people who need them. Some factors that engineers consider when designing water transport systems are the project cost oand whether it is efficient enough to get the job done without wasting resources.

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Learning Objectives

  • History of the Roman Empire.
  • Building techniques that were used by the Romans.
  • Creative design methods.

Materials List

  • thin plastic drop cloth
  • empty 2-liter soda bottle and cap
  • bucket
  • duct tape
  • clear vinyl tubing with 3/8-inch outside diameter
  • cardboard
  • 2-3 tables
  • chair
  • blocks or books
  • 2 liters water
  • scissors
  • electric drill or screwdriver


Are you familiar with aqueducts? Aqueducts are one of the wonders of the Roman Empire. These graceful structures are not only majestic, but are ancient engineering marvels that survive to this day to transport water long distances.

(Set the mood for the activity by describing this engineering challenge to the class.) You are the chief water engineer of the Roman Empire. Your challenge is to build an aqueduct that is able to supply the Roman city of Aqueductis with clean water for use in private homes, public baths and fountains, and crop irrigation.

If you succeed, the citizens of Aqueductis will be able drink clean water and bathe and work happily. If you fail, there's no telling what the citizens will do. The best design is the one that uses the fewest materials and delivers water continuously with no spills and little leftover water.


aqueduct: A pipeline specifically built to transport water.

chorobate: A surveying instrument that was used by engineers when building aqueducts. It was used to measure the profile of the land in order to determine where the water needs to flow to reach its destination.



By introducing various ideas and themes from the social studies curriculum on Ancient Rome and incorporatingi this modeling project, this becomes a favorite interdisciplinary activity for middle school students.

Recommended Resources

Before the Activity

  • Gather materials and make copies of the worksheets and other attachments.
  • Drill 3/8-inch holes in the tops of 2-liter soda bottle caps for the tubing to fit into.
  • Set up the "course" that the water will transport through. For example, from a table to a bucket on the floor 5 feet away, with an obstacle of books between.

With the Students

  1. Set the mood by presenting to the class the Introduction/Motivation section.
  2. Assign the Roman Aqueduct Manual as homework reading.
  3. Log on to the NOVA website and give each student time to play "Construct a Roman Aqueduct" in the classroom: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/lostempires/roman/aqueduct.html
  4. Describe the challenge to the class and hand out the materials. Clarify some project requirements:
    • Students must deliver the water from the bottle at point A to the "city" at point C. Since neither the sheet plastic or the tubing is self-supporting, the aqueduct must go through point B, the bottom of the "valley" (the floor).
    • The water flow should go through the plastic tubing from the bottle to the bucket on the floor, with lost water represented by unsupported tubing. Water is precious, so any that escapes the system represents a costly mistake in engineering, construction and/or operation.
  1. After completion of the challenge, modify the course to make it a little harder. For example, add a line of blocks across the table perpendicular to the flow as a hurdle or low hill that the water must be delivered over.
  2. Different elements may be built along the aqueduct such as a covered trench, tunnel, pressurized pipe, wall or arcade.
  3. Explain that certain criteria must be met. These include:
    • A limit on the amount of water lost (dripped). A good place to start is a cup of water lost maximum (~15% of a full 2-liter bottle). This value may be varied, but the idea is to give students a performance limit.
    • A limit on the amount of material available. Keep the materials given to each group consistent. Material (monetary) constraints are very important in engineering.
    • A time limit for construction. Give students roughly 45 minutes to complete their first iteration.
    • A time limit on the flow of water. If the water does not flow quickly enough, the citizens may not have a sufficient supply. Set this at 30 seconds initially for the full 2 liters, and vary accordingly.
    • (optional additional constraints) Budget (assign play money to groups for material), maximum height drop/gain (though this is likely established by the "terrain"), and ability to move water with sediment (sand) in it.


Investigating Questions

  • How did the Roman Empire supply its urban citizens with water?
  • What techniques can be used if mountains and valleys exist between the water source and the city?
  • How is today's water system similar or different from that of the Romans?
  • What are some major constraints for this project? Do you think these existed for the Romans as well?


Use the attached rubric to grade student work. Criteria include testing of knowledge and concepts, design and construction of aqueduct, and operation of aqueduct.


Gaffney, Dennis. "Secrets of Lost Empires." February 2000. NOVA (a five-part NOVA series) Accessed 2004. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/lostempires/roman/aqueduct.html

Simmon, Barbara Brooks and Thomas R. Wellnitz. © 2000. Prentice Hall Science Explorer: Earth's Water by Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Prentice Hall (Portions of the activity from this source; used by permission)


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2004 Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Supporting Program

Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University

Last modified: December 30, 2016