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

Contributed by: Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University
The Pont du Gard, a double high, multi-arched long structure—an ancient aqueduct.
Students do as the Romans and construct aqueducts


Students work with specified materials to create aqueduct components that can transport two liters of water across a short distance in their 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 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 cost of the project and whether it will be efficient enough to get the job done without wasting resources.

Educational Standards

  •   Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Math
  •   International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
  •   Massachusetts: Science
  •   Next Generation Science Standards: Science

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 (3/8" 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 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.


A pipeline specifically built to transport water.
A surveying instrument that was used by engineers when building aqueductd. It is used to determine the profile of the land in order to determine where the water needs to flow to reach its destination.



Recommended Resources:
Macaulay, David. City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 1974.


  • By introducing various ideas and themes from the social studies curriculum on Ancient Rome and incorporatingi this modeling project, this could become a favorite interdisciplinary activity for middle school students.
  • Gather materials and make copies of the worksheets.
  • Drill 3/8" holes in the tops of 2-liter soda bottle caps for the tubing to fit into.
  • Set up the "course" that the water will be transported through. For example, from a table to a bucket on the floor 5 feet away, with an obstacle of books between.

With the Students

  • Set the mood by reading to students the Introduction/Motivation section.
  • Assign the "Roman Aqueduct Manual" as homework reading.
  • 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
  • Describe the challenge to the students and hand out materials.
  • Students must deliver the water from the bottle at point A to the "city" at point C. Neither the sheet plastic or the tubing is self-supporting, therefore the aqueduct must go through the point B, the bottom of the "valley" (the floor).
  • The water flow should go through the plastic tubing from the soda 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.
  • 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.
  • Different elements can be built along an aqueduct such as a covered trench, tunnel, pressurized pipe, wall or arcade.
  • Explain to the students that certain criteria must be met. These include:
  1. A limit on the amount of water lost (dripped). A good place to start would be a cup of water lost maximum (~15% of a full 2-L bottle). This value may be varied, but the idea is to give the students a limit of performance.
  2. A limit on the amount of material available. Keep the materials given to each group consistent. Material (monetary) constraints are very important in engineering.
  3. A time limit for construction. Give students roughly 45 minutes to complete their first iteration.
  4. 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.
  5. Further criteria may include: Budget (assigning play money to the 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 manage to 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?


NGaffney, Dennis. "Secrets of Lost Empires." February 2000. NOVA (a five-part NOVA series). 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: February 10, 2016

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