Unit Dams

A line drawing of a jumping fish overlaps two photos that show the huge concrete structure of a dam looking upstream from below the dam, and looking downstream at a curving narrow river below the dam.
Shasta Dam in northern California. The five silver pipes are the penstocks, delivering water from the reservoir to the power plant to generate electricity.


Through eight lessons, students are introduced to many facets of dams, including their basic components, the common types (all designed to resist strong forces), their primary benefits (electricity generation, water supply, flood control, irrigation, recreation), and their importance (historically, currently and globally). Through an introduction to kinetic and potential energy, students come to understand how dams generate electricity. They learn about the structure, function and purpose of locks, which involves an introduction to Pascal's law, water pressure and gravity. Other lessons introduce students to common environmental impacts of dams and the engineering approaches to address them. They learn about the life cycle of salmon and the many engineered dam structures that aid in their river passage, as they think of their own methods and devices that could help fish migrate past dams. Students learn how dams and reservoirs become part of the Earth's hydrologic cycle, focusing on the role of evaporation. To conclude, students learn that dams do not last forever; they require ongoing maintenance, occasionally fail or succumb to "old age," or are no longer needed, and are sometimes removed. Through associated hands-on activities, students track their personal water usage; use clay and plastic containers to model and test four types of dam structures; use paper cups and water to learn about water pressure and Pascal's Law; explore kinetic energy by creating their own experimental waterwheel from two-liter plastic bottles; collect and count a stream's insects to gauge its health; play an animated PowerPoint game to quiz their understanding of the salmon life cycle and fish ladders; run a weeklong experiment to measure water evaporation and graph their data; and research eight dams to find out and compare their original purposes, current status, reservoir capacity and lifespan. Woven throughout the unit is a continuing hypothetical scenario in which students act as consulting engineers with a Splash Engineering firm, assisting Thirsty County in designing a dam for Birdseye River.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Dams are impressive engineering achievements, providing countless ways to apply an understanding of science and math concepts (including potential and kinetic energy, Pascal's Law, water pressure, gravity, forces) to creating unique structures that provide many benefits to people. Dams have many functions: to divert and control a water supply to prevent floods; to store water for irrigation and during droughts; to generate electricity, and to provide navigable waters. All types of engineers cooperate to design dams; they consider an array of variables that range from environmental impact to amount of energy generation to river navigation via locks, working with community planners to balance competing demands to create the most effective and useful designs. Engineers calculate the forces expected to act on a dam's structure, taking into consideration different geometries and materials, and the most suitable size and type for its planned purpose and surroundings. Increasingly, engineers are understanding the disturbances dams cause to surrounding ecosystems, and are finding new ways to mitigate ecological disruption. In addition to designing dams, engineers oversee their long-term reliability and maintenance, learning from any failures, and sometimes recommend their removal.

Unit Overview

Overview of lesson/activity topics: Lesson 1, the varied reasons why people build dams; lesson 2, the four main types of dam construction; lesson 3, Pascal's law and water pressure, and lock systems for river navigation; lesson 4, hydropower generation, falling water and waterwheels, turbines and generators, non/renewable energy sources; lesson 5, the effect of dams on the river and local ecosystem health including water temperature and seasonal flooding; lesson 6, salmon life cycle and dam accommodations to aid fish migration; lesson 7, the water cycle, especially evaporation; and lesson 8, dam maintenance, lifespan, failure and removal.

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.

See individual lessons and activities for standards alignment.


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Unit Schedule

More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Lesson
A River Ran Through It

Students learn how water is used to generate electricity. They investigate water's potential-to-kinetic energy transformation in hands-on activities about falling water and waterwheels. During the activities, they take measurements, calculate averages and graph results.

Upper Elementary Lesson
Locks and Dams

Students are introduced to the structure, function and purpose of locks and dams, which involves an introduction to Pascal's law, water pressure and gravity.

Upper Elementary Lesson
Are Dams Forever?

Students learn that dams do not last forever. Similar to other human-made structures, such as roads and bridges, dams require regular maintenance and have a finite lifespan.

Upper Elementary Lesson
Swim to and from the Sea!

Students are introduced to the basic biology behind Pacific salmon migration and the many engineered Columbia River dam structures that aid in their passage through the river's hydroelectric dams. Students apply what they learn about the salmon life cycle as they think of devices and modifications t...

Other Related Information

As a general introduction to dams, show students a 24-slide overview "virtual tour" of the Shasta Dam in northern California, available at the US Bureau of Reclamation's Mid-Pacific Region page at https://www.usbr.gov/mp/ncao/docs/virtual-tour.pdf.


© 2008 by Regents of the University of Colorado


See individual lessons and activities.

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 grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education; the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326); and the Discovery-Learning Apprentice Program at CU-Boulder's College of Engineering and Applied Science. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 25, 2020

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