Lesson: Permeability Materials Experiment: What Trickles Down?

Quick Look

Grade Level: 6 (6-8)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Lesson Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Physical Science

A drawing titled "Closure Design Section" shows a cross-section of a landfill design.
Materials of differing permeability must be used to control the flow of liquids in a landfill.
Copyright © Savanannah River Site, Westinghouse Savannah River Company http://sti.srs.gov/fulltext/ms9900729r1/ms9900729r1.html


Permeability is the degree to which water or other liquids are able to flow through a material. Different substances such as soil, gravel, sand and asphalt have varying levels of permeability. In this activity, students explore different levels of permeability and compare the permeabilities of several different materials. They also are introduced to the basic concepts of building design, landscape architecture and environmental pollutant transport. As an extension, they discuss the importance of correct drainage and urban design issues in sensitive environments such as coastal areas.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Environmental and civil engineers consider the permeability of the ground around major construction projects when designing drainage systems. Carefully planned systems can reduce pollution due to runoff and prevent flooding. Closely related to this, during this activity, students experiment with the material property of permeability and discuss applications for materials that are more permeable and less permeable.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Identify different materials based on their level of permeability.
  • Identify and explain which materials (permeable vs. impermeable) are better for development or agriculture in various settings (urban vs. rural, coastal vs. inland) and why.

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

MS-ETS1-4. Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This lesson focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Develop a model to generate data to test ideas about designed systems, including those representing inputs and outputs.

Alignment agreement:

Models of all kinds are important for testing solutions.

Alignment agreement:

The iterative process of testing the most promising solutions and modifying what is proposed on the basis of the test results leads to greater refinement and ultimately to an optimal solution.

Alignment agreement:

  • Find a percent of a quantity as a rate per 100 (e.g., 30% of a quantity means 30/100 times the quantity); solve problems involving finding the whole, given a part and the percent. (Grade 6) More Details

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  • Apply a design process to solve problems in and beyond the laboratory-classroom. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Design and use instruments to gather data. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Identify trends and monitor potential consequences of technological development. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Interpret and evaluate the accuracy of the information obtained and determine if it is useful. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Explain how the formation of soil is related to the parent rock type and the environment in which it develops. (Grade 6) More Details

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  • Understand types, properties, and structure of matter. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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Pre-Req Knowledge

Students must be able to calculate fractions and percentages, and use a graduated cylinder.


Show students a permeability demonstration. Prepare by cutting off the top and bottom ends of a soup can. Then tape or hook the can to the edge of a table with cheesecloth on the bottom, but no material in the can. On the floor under the can, place a bucket or tray to catch the water. For the demonstration, pour the water through and let students see how it falls. Discuss the connection to permeability, that is, how cheesecloth is a good example of permeability.


permeability: The degree to which water or another liquid is able to flow through a material.

porosity: The ratio of the volume of gaps of a material to the volume of its mass.

runoff: The portion of precipitation on land that ultimately reaches streams, often carrying dissolved or suspended material.

sediment: Material deposited by water, wind or glaciers.


Pre-Activity Assessment

  • Ask students what they notice when they put water in topsoil vs. sand.
  • Ask what they know about the difference between topsoil, sand and gravel and similar substances.

Activity Embedded Assessment

  • As students conduct their experiments, have them make lists of what they noticed and wonder about.

Post-Activity Assessment

  • Have students list the materials used in order of most to least permeable.
  • Give students graph paper and ask them to measure amounts of permeable vs. non-permeable area of their yards at home. Include trees and vegetation.
  • Discuss ongoing development areas in town. Ask students to think of possible effects and predict problem areas.

Lesson Extension Activities

Add more materials, such as clay.

Experiment with mixtures of materials, such as clay and gravel.


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2005 Duke University


Usman Zaheer; Sherry McGauvran

Supporting Program

Engineering K-PhD Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University


This content was developed by the MUSIC (Math Understanding through Science Integrated with Curriculum) Program in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0338262. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: March 29, 2018


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