Unit Urban Stormwater Management

Two photographs: A sunken circular area in a park with a center drain planted with grasses and flowers, surrounded by mulch and four benches. The legs and feet of three people walking on a gray sidewalk that looks like it is made of much aggregate, as spaces can be seen between the small stones.
Examples of technologies to manage urban stormwater include this rain garden designed and constructed by students in Florida, and this pervious pavement in South Dakota.
Copyright © (left) Ryan Locicero, WARE raingardens.us (author); (right) U.S. EPA http://www2.epa.gov/region8/green-infrastructure#4


Engineers design and implement many creative techniques for managing stormwater at its sources in order to improve and restore the hydrology and water quality of developed sites to pre-development conditions. Through the two lessons in this unit, students are introduced to green infrastructure (GI) and low-impact development (LID) technologies, including green roofs and vegetative walls, bioretention or rain gardens, bioswales, planter boxes, permeable pavement, urban tree canopies, rainwater harvesting, downspout disconnection, green streets and alleys, and green parking. Student teams take on the role of stormwater engineers through five associated activities. They first model the water cycle, and then measure transpiration rates and compare native plant species. They investigate the differences in infiltration rates and storage capacities between several types of planting media before designing their own media mixes to meet design criteria. Then they design and test their own pervious pavement mix combinations. In the culminating activity, teams bring together all the concepts as well as many of the materials from the previous activities in order to create and install personal rain gardens. The unit prepares the students and teachers to take on the design and installation of bigger rain garden projects to manage stormwater at their school campuses, homes and communities.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Examples of human-made infrastructure that rely on engineers fully understanding the hydrologic cycle include stormwater ponds, earthen dams, levees, treatment facility influent and effluent; sheet, overland and channelized flows; stream flow and base flow. Practical applications of hydrology are found in such tasks as the design and operation of hydraulic structures, drinking water supply, wastewater treatment and disposal, recreational water use, and fish and wildlife protection.

Engineers are involved in analyzing the problems involved in these urban infrastructure tasks and then designing solutions and providing guidance for planning and management of water resources. Civil and geotechnical engineers must have a comprehensive understanding of in situ soil mechanics, groundwater flow and influent runoff in order to properly design systems to manage stormwater. In order to design technologies that address water quality and treatment of stormwater, groundwater and remediation projects, environmental engineers must understand the movement of water as it percolates through different soil layers.

Rain gardens are a promising green infrastructure (as opposed to "gray infrastructure") and low-impact development technology for managing stormwater at its sources using natural means to restore the water quality of developed sites to near pre-development conditions. Rain gardens are typically constructed with high-permeability media, consisting of soil, sand and organic matter, designed to maximize infiltration, improve water quality and promote vegetative growth. (Roy-Poirier, 2010)

Today's engineering graduates and global citizens are charged with the responsibility of creating sustainable solutions to 21st century "grand engineering challenges." (NAE, 2008) From an environmental perspective, rain gardens recharge groundwater, provide natural stormwater management, reduce energy usage, improve water quality, reduce heat-island effects, and increase habitat. Social aspects to consider are the beautification and increase in recreational opportunities, improved health through cleaner air and water, and improved psychological well-being. Economic concerns that are met range from reducing the future costs of stormwater management to increasing property values and tourism.

Unit Overview

Students are introduced to the sub-units of the hydrologic cycle and urban stormwater management through two lessons: Natural and Urban "Stormwater" Water Cycles and Green Infrastructure and Low-Impact Development Technologies. The lessons maybe be conducted in any order, however students should complete both lessons' PowerPoint® presentations and associated tasks (handout, design scenario sketching) prior to conducting each lesson's associated activities. One activity directly follows the water cycle lesson and three activities follow the GI/LID technologies lesson. The final rain garden activity builds on all the activities—both concepts and materials—as teams construct personal rain gardens that can be incorporated into school grounds or home yards.

In terms of cost, many materials are introduced and then reused in later activities (both expendable and non-expendable items), with most items being pulled together for the culminating rain garden activity.

A three-column table with rows numbered 1 through 7. Text contents by row: Lesson 1: Natural and Urban "Stormwater" Water Cycles (90 minutes); Activity 1: Making Natural and Urban "Stormwater" Water Cycle Models (90 minutes); Lesson 2: Green Infrastructure and Low-Impact Development Technologies (90 minutes); Activity 2: Just Breathe Green: Measuring Transpiration Rates (45 minutes); Activity 3: Does Media Matter? Infiltration Rates and Storage Capacities (90 minutes); Activity 4: Making "Magic" Sidewalks of Pervious Pavement (90 minutes); Activity 5: A Guide to Rain Garden Construction (135 minutes).
Table 1. The suggested order to conduct the unit's lessons and activities.

Watch a video about the National Science Foundation-sponsored program that generated this unit (7:17 minutes), USF-Green Space Based Learning at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UWeJ8ky43w. Starting at about minute 4, the personal rain garden unit project is discussed, and then images are provided of students involved in the surveying, project management, site assessment, project sizing, excavation, underdrain sample port installation, media layer and planter selection and installation, and final elevation grading to install a bioretention rain garden on a Florida school campus.

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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More Curriculum Like This

Middle School Lesson
Green Infrastructure and Low-Impact Development Technologies

Students are introduced to innovative stormwater management strategies that are being used to restore the hydrology and water quality of urbanized areas to pre-development conditions. A PowerPoint® presentation provides photographic examples, and a companion file gives students the opportunity to sk...

Middle School Lesson
Natural and Urban "Stormwater" Water Cycles

Students examine in detail the water cycle components and phase transitions, and then learn how water moves through the human-made urban environment. Students show their understanding of the process by writing a description of the path of a water droplet through the urban water cycle, from the dropl...

Middle School Activity
Does Media Matter? Infiltration Rates and Storage Capacities

Students gain a basic understanding of the properties of media—soil, sand, compost, gravel—and how these materials affect the movement of water (infiltration/percolation) into and below the surface of the ground. They test each type of material, determining storage capacity, field capacity and infil...

Middle School Activity
A Guide to Rain Garden Construction

Create a rain garden students can take home! In this activity, students build a green infrastructure dedicated to housing native species and learn about the importance of low-impact development technology.


Each lesson and associated activity includes assessment suggestions to administer before, during and after each lesson and activity to assess students on their understanding of the individual unit components.

Other Related Information


Davis, A. P., Shokouhian, M., Sharma, H., and Minami, C. (2006). Water quality improvement through bioretention media: Nitrogen and phosphorus removal. Water Environment Research , 78(3), 284-293. doi: 10.2175/106143005x94376

Kadlec, R. H., and Wallace, S. D. Treatment Wetlands. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2009.

NAE. (2008). National Academy of Engineering Summit Series – Face the Challenge http://www.grandchallengesummitorg. Retrieved November 2010.

Roy-Poirier, A., Champagne, P., and Filion, Y. (2010). Review of Bioretention System Research and Design: Past, Present, and Future. Journal of Environmental Engineering-Asce , 136(9), 878-889. doi: 10.1061/(asce)ee.1943-7870.0000227


© 2014 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2013 University of South Florida


Ryan Locicero, Maya Trotz, Krysta Porteus, Jennifer Butler, William Zeman, Brigith Soto

Supporting Program

Water Awareness Research and Education (WARE) Research Experience for Teachers (RET), University of South Florida, Tampa


This curriculum was developed by Water Awareness Research and Education (WARE) Research Experience for Teachers (RET) at the University of South Florida, funded by National Science Foundation grant no. EEC 1200682. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and should not be assumed an endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: July 18, 2018

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