Hands-on Activity Snow vs. Water

Quick Look

Grade Level: 3 (3-5)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $0.30

Group Size: 2

Activity Dependency:

Subject Areas: Earth and Space

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle


Students explore snowmelt as a source of fresh water that used in many communities. Students determine whether they think one cup of snow produces an equal amount of water. They use a model to explain how packed snow does not yield the same amount in fresh water.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Photograph of a large mountain covered in snow (glacier) with a glacial stream flowing down valley of the mountain.
Figure 1. A glacier in Peru and the river created from the glacial melt.

Engineering Connection

Engineers work in many fields associated with precipitation. Engineers study glaciers to better understand their dates of formation and current demise. They deal with issues of pollution transport and water yield. Engineers also monitor reservoirs and dams to prevent flooding.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Describe snowmelt as a source of fresh water, used in many communities.
  • Use a model to explain how packed snow does not yield the same amount in fresh water.
  • Describe how environmental engineers can use knowledge about snowmelt to design water treatment plants.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

5-ESS2-1. Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact. (Grade 5)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Develop a model using an example to describe a scientific principle.

Alignment agreement:

Earth's major systems are the geosphere (solid and molten rock, soil, and sediments), the hydrosphere (water and ice), the atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (living things, including humans). These systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth's surface materials and processes. The ocean supports a variety of ecosystems and organisms, shapes landforms, and influences climate. Winds and clouds in the atmosphere interact with the landforms to determine patterns of weather.

Alignment agreement:

A system can be described in terms of its components and their interactions.

Alignment agreement:

  • Explain how various relationships can exist between technology and engineering and other content areas. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

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  • Appropriate measurement tools, units, and systems are used to measure different attributes of objects and time. (Grade 4) More Details

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  • Represent and interpret data. (Grade 5) More Details

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Materials List

Each group needs:

  • 3 clear cups of the same size
  • ruler
  • pen to mark the height of snow/water in their glass
  • snow

To share with the entire class:

  • rags to clean up

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_earth_lesson2_activity1] to print or download.


When you think of water, what comes to mind? How is it used? What is the closest source of water to your house, your school? Did you know that about 71% of the Earth is covered in water? Where is all this water located? Water on the Earth can be found in the oceans, rivers, lakes, atmosphere and underground — in areas called aquifers. The salty oceans are the largest source of water, containing 97% of the Earth's total water.

How much of the Earth's water is fresh water? Well, if 97% of the Earth's water is salty ocean water, then that leaves about 3% percent of water on Earth as fresh water. The salt in ocean water makes it unsafe to drink, unless the salt is removed. Because of this, finding fresh water is becoming more and more important as people begin to understand how clean water is better for us to drink. The Earth's fresh water resources come in different forms. About 2.14% of the fresh water of Earth is found in ice caps and glaciers; 0.61% is in groundwater aquifers, and the remaining 0.0091% makes up rivers and lakes. (Draw a pie chart on the board, listing these percentages. Have students copy the graph to illustrate the distribution of water on Earth, and have them discuss where they think their drinking water comes from.) The demand for clean drinking water is also increasing as the Earth's population increases. Very little of the Earth's water is suitable for drinking; it is the job of environmental engineers, therefore, to figure out how to make water safe for drinking, as well as locate it and deliver it to communities that are not near a water source.

We get most of our drinking water from rivers, lakes and groundwater, but what if you are not located near a water source? Another way to get drinking water is from the atmosphere (i.e., rain and snow). Can you get water from snow during the summer? Well, actually you can! Think about snow that has fallen very high on a mountain and sits there all winter. It becomes packed solid and stays extremely cold. When spring and summer arrive, that snow high up starts to melt and runs down the sides of the mountains into rivers and streams. This source of water is called snowmelt. Snowmelt can be any runoff of water from melting snow: in the mountains, off a roof or on the ground. Snowmelt in the spring and summer actually provides a great source of fresh water for a lot of communities. It is estimated that around 75% of water used in the western United States is from stored up snowmelt.

Environmental engineers help us design and build the systems to find, gather and clean water sources for use in our homes. In fact, environmental engineers design the water treatment plants that remove nasty germs and bugs from fresh water sources, allowing for suitable water for us to drink. They also develop the treatment plants that clean up water once it is flushed down our drains or toilets. Engineers must understand how fresh water from snowmelt is carried in our rivers and lakes so that they are knowledgeable to build dams, reservoirs and water treatment plants. Today, we are going to be environmental engineers and learn a little more about what happens during snowmelt and how we should design a water treatment plant for changing snowmelt into drinking water.


Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Pass out supplies to each group. Have students pick a short (1-2 words) group name.
  2. Have students write their group name on each cup. Then, ask them to fill each of three cups with snow. Make sure that they do not pack the snow in. The cups should be filled up just as the snow lies on the ground.
  3. Measure the height of snow in each cup from the bottom of the cup up and record these measurements on worksheet. Note: student can use their ruler to measure the snow on the outside of the cup.
  4. Move onto another lesson or activity, and allow the snow to melt. Student may move their cups to a warmer location (i.e., window) if desired.
  5. Mark the height of the resulting water with the pen/marker.
  6. Measure the height of the resulting water in each glass from the bottom of the cup, and record these measurements on the worksheet.
  7. Redo steps 2-6, except pack the snow in each cup this time.
  8. Ask student to complete the remainder of the How Much Water? Worksheet.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Question: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses.

  • What is the source of your drinking water (where does it come from)?

Prediction: Have students predict the outcome of the activity before the activity is performed. Have them record their predictions on a piece of paper or record the class totals on the board.

  • Do you think a cup of snow equals a cup of water? (Hold up a cup of each when asking these questions.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have the students record measurements and follow along with the activity on their worksheet. After students have finished their worksheet, have them compare answers with their peers. Ask them again if they think one cup of snow produces an equal amount of water? Why not? (Answer: No; snow is less dense.)

Post-Activity Assessment

Thumbs up/thumbs down: Ask a question and have students vote by holding thumbs up for agree and thumbs down for disagree. Count the votes and write the totals on the board. Give the right answer.

  • Is snow an important source of water? (Answer: Agree. Yes, it can be. Around 75% of communities in the western United States use snowmelt as part of their water resource.)
  • Would 10 ft. of snow equate to 10 ft. of water? (Answer: Disagree. 10 feet of packed snow would equal less water once it is melted.)
  • Do people in Florida benefit from snowmelt? (Answer: Agree. They indirectly benefit from it, as it eventually enters the Earth's water cycle.)

Engineering recommendations: Have students think about what the activity means in terms of engineering a drinking water treatment plant, especially how the water yield from snow is less than from other fresh water sources. (Note: remind them that a certain amount of snow actually equals less water.) How would an engineer use what they learned today about snowmelt when designing a water treatment system? For example, if there is 10 ft. of snowfall, should the engineers design for 10 ft. of usable water? Should the engineers design the system to collect snowmelt in the winter or spring? Have the students list two or three ideas on a piece of paper from today's activity that would help in designing a water treatment plant for snowmelt.

Troubleshooting Tips

Make sure students know that the first time they fill their cups with snow not to pack the snow in.

It is also good to put their cups in a warm place, near a heater or in a window, so they melt quickly.

Activity Extensions

Take a closer look at a snowflake: Take black paper or fabric and put it in the freezer. Once frozen, take it out of the freezer and place it outside when it's snowing. Let some snowflakes land on the paper and quickly use a magnifying glass to see the beautiful shapes. Alternatively, freeze a piece of glass and a can of hairspray and wait for the snow to fall. Spray the frozen glass with the frozen hairspray and let some snowflakes settle on the glass. Bring the glass inside to thaw for 15 minutes and you will have a permanent record of your snowflakes. Doing the second variation on different snow days may give you a variety of the different types of snowflakes.

Have students visit the U.S. Library of Congress' website on snowflakes and investigate the different types/shapes: https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/SciRefGuides/snowflake.html

Activity Scaling

For lower grades, do the activity as is.

For upper grades: Have the students also measure the temperature of the snow before it melts and after it melts. How might this affect the design of a drinking water treatment plant?


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TheTeachersCorner.net, Thematic Units, "Ice and Snow Fun." Accessed September 18, 2020. http://www.theteacherscorner.net/thematicunits/iceandsnow.htm


© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado


Sara Born; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of these digital library curricula were developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: October 25, 2020

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