Through the use of models and scientific investigation, students explore the causes of water pollution and its effects on the environment. Through the two associated activities, they investigate filtration and aeration processes that are used for removing pollutants from water. They also learn about the role of engineers in water treatment systems.
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 Standard Network (ASN), a project of JES & Co. (www.jesandco.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.
Click on the standard groupings to explore this hierarchy as it applies to this document.
- Colorado: Math
- Add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals to hundredths. (Grade 5)  ...show
- Colorado: Science
- a. Develop and communicate a scientific explanation addressing a question of local relevance about resources generated by the sun or Earth (Grade 5)  ...show
- b. Analyze and interpret a variety of data to understand the origin, utilization, and concerns associated with natural resources (Grade 5)  ...show
- Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Math
- 5. Fluently multiply multi-digit whole numbers using the standard algorithm. (Grade 5)  ...show
- International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
- B. Waste must be appropriately recycled or disposed of to prevent unnecessary harm to the environment. (Grades 3 - 5)  ...show
- Explain the role of engineers in water treatment systems.
- Describe how contaminants leach into the soil and ground water and how they are absorbed by plants.
- Explain the natural water filtration process.
- Examine how much water is consumed by humans in a lifetime.
Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers
Interesting Water Facts
- The average North American uses 300 liters of water per day.
- A dripping faucet that leaks just one drop of water every second wastes 4 gallons of water a day (1,400 gallons in a year). Yet, a drip usually only costs a few dollars to repair.
- Irrigation has played a roll in human lives for nearly 5,000 years. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs ordered people to build channels to carry water to dry fields. In ~1,000 BC, a farmer with a bucket and a pole could irrigate about one-quarter acre a day. Then, in ~1,000 AD, a farmer using a buffalo to turn a wheel could irrigate about 5 acres a day. Today, in industrialized countries using advanced technology, a farmer can pump 1,000 gallons of water per minute over a 160-acre area. On average, crops require about 2,200 lbs of water to produce 2.2 lbs of food.
- The Exxon Valdez, carrying millions of gallons of crude oil, ran aground in Prince William Sound, AK, in March 1989. More than 11 million gallons of oil spilled into the sea. It eventually spread across 1,100 miles of coastline and killed as many as 100,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters as well as other shore life.
- During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq deliberately dumped 240 million gallons of crude oil from Kuwaiti oil reserves in an attempt to halt U.S. marine operations. Reports estimate that 8 million gallons ran directly into the Persian Gulf.
- Safe and abundant water is listed as fourth of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. (Source: National Academy of Engineers)
- Typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery and diarrhea killed many people in the early 1900s. Because of water treatment systems created by engineers starting in the 1940s in the U.S., these diseases were almost eradicated. Furthermore, distribution systems moved water into areas that were previously inhabitable.
Causes of Water Pollution
- City and Industrial Waste – Such waste includes chemical waste produced by factories, raw/partly treated sewage from cities (that contains dangerous, sometimes deadly, bacteria), and garbage that is irresponsibly dumped directly into bodies of water. This type of water pollution is the most heavily regulated today.
- Deep Well Injection – Industrial liquid waste is injected into porous areas that are sealed off from the aquifers above and below by a layer of impermeable rock. The rock can develop cracks, and sometimes the chemical wastes corrode through the impermeable rock. Also, the lining of the well can leak.
- Landfills – Leachate is a liquid produced when rainwater mixes with the substances that are buried in landfills. This liquid leaks from the landfill and often seeps into the groundwater.
- Heat – Some industrial companies use water to cool their equipment (like nuclear power plants). The water is heated above its normal temperature and is drained back into the original water source. This results in animals dying (when the temperature is outside their tolerance range) and an increase in algae growth — eutrophication — of the types that grow more quickly in warmer water.
- Saltwater Infiltration – When too much water is taken from freshwater aquifers near the ocean, salt water infiltrates the acquifers and and contaminates them.
- Natural – This type of water pollution occurs in many ways including: blue-green algae that can poison fresh-water ponds, rapid algae growth called "red tides," dust/ash/heat from erupting volcanoes, germs (bacteria), and floods.
- Farmland Runoff – Irrigation runoff carries nitrates/phosphates (from fertilizer) and pesticide/insecticides to water sources. Runoff water also carries large quantities of soil that settle on the bottom of lakes and rivers.
- Transportation – This includes the use of waterways for industrial shipping (such as the Mississippi River) and the transportation of materials through pipelines (natural gases, liquids, oil or coal in a water "slurry" carried from Black Mesa Coal Mine, AZ, to Mojave, NV).
- Crude Oil - More than 50% of crude oil comes from land-based, nonpoint sources — 40% from car owners changing their oil and impropertly disposing of it; the rest from leaking oil pipes at oil production and transportation sites. About 10% of crude oil pollution comes from oil spills. The rest results from marine operations such as when ships clean their fuel tanks.
- Household Hazardous Waste Products – Annually, an estimated 300,000 tons of household hazardous waste products (chemicals, detergents, bleach, etc.) enter the water system by way of household drains or go unchecked into landfills. (Source: 1992 Environmental Almanac, World Resource Institute)
Effects of Water Pollution
|The process of adding air to water, which is often done as part of the water purification process.|
|A period of excessive, unnatural growth of algae caused by an increase in nutrients (like phosphorus and nitrogen) in the water. It can lead to a decrease in the amount of oxygen available for other aquatic life.|
|The space below the water table in which layers of soil and rock are saturated with water. Water in aquifers can generally be pumped out.|
|The amount of oxygen required by an organism to perform biochemical functions. Abbreviated as BOD.|
|Usually measured in parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb). This means one molecule of contaminant for every million (or billion) molecules of water. (For example, if you had a wealthy relative who dies and has $10,000,000 dollars to distribute. If you receive an inheritance of 5 ppb, then you get 5 cents!)|
|A process that separates salt and water, leaving the saltwater drinkable.|
|A process by which the oxygen in a body of water is used up by the decaying bodies of microorganisms (algae with high BOD) that were stimulated into overgrowth by an abundance of nutrients. It is a common result of nitrate pollution.|
|Water found between underground particles of soil and rock (how much depends on the permeability and porosity of the particles) that supplies wells and springs. It makes up approximately 97% of the freshwater on Earth. Some of the groundwater that we use today fell as rain hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Water falls to the earth and seeps through the particles of the soil that make up the crust of the Earth. It filters down until it reaches a water-saturated zone. The top of this zone is the water table and the part below it is called an aquifer.|
|Contaminated liquid produced by water seeping through solid waste (for example, rainfall seeping through a landfill).|
|Pollution that cannot be traced to a single source because it comes from many different sources (for example, pesticides that wash off farm crops). This type of pollution is difficult to control and requires many people working together to make a change.|
|Water that "runs off" the surface of soil (into a sewer or body of water) instead of soaking into the ground.|
|The top portion of an underground area where the soil and rock particles are saturated with water. The bottom portion is called an aquifer.|
- What's Gotten Into You? - Students use models to investigate the process and consequences of water contamination on land, groundwater and plants. This is a good introduction to building water filters found in the other associated activity, The Dirty Water Project.
- The Dirty Water Project - Students investigate different methods (aeration and filtration) for removing pollutants from water. They design their own water filters.
- Name the various liquids that people drink that contain water. Record student suggestions on the board. (Example answers: milk, juice, coffee, tea, root beer, etc.)
- List different foods that people eat that contain water. Record student answers on the board. (Example answers: fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese, etc.)
Lesson Summary Assessment
- Calculate how many 8-ounce glasses of water the average person consumes from food and liquid each year. (Answer: 8 glasses/day X 365 days/year = 2,920 glasses/year.)
- How many years does the average person live? (Answer: 75 years)
- Calculate how many 8-ounce glasses of water the average person consumes in a lifetime. (Answer: Assuming an average lifespan of 75 years, 75 years/life X 2,920 glasses/year = 219,000 glasses/lifetime.)
- To help students better understand this calculated amount, ask them to complete the How Much? Worksheet in small groups. Note: Each calculation addresses a different skill level; consider the skill level of your students before arranging groups for this activity. Discuss the results of the group calculations.
Lesson Extension Activities
- Investigate factories in your community. Inquire about taking a tour of an industrial facility. What do they make? What types of water waste do they produce? How do they dispose of the waste? Research the company on the U.S. EPA website at http://www.epa.gov/.
- Invite a representative from the local wastewater or drinking water treatment plant to visit the classroom. Or, plan a field trip to the plant.
- Invite a local farmer or agricultural engineer into the classroom to talk about water-friendly farming practices.
- Ask students to locate the water meter in their home. Have them read the meter one night and then again at the same time a week later. Compare the results between readings of the same household and between students in class. Determine how much water per person is being used in each household. Are some households more water efficient? What are the reasons for this?
- Read the water meter at your home or school at the same time everyday for five days. Record and graph the data. Discuss ways to save water at home or school. Create a bulletin board display in your school to urge others to make similar changes.
- Contact the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to inquire about their educational programs. They often have wonderful, hands-on demonstrations that they can bring to your class for little or no fee.
- Read "Rachel Carson and Shirley Briggs – Friends for Life" (from Environmental Portraits – People Making a Difference for the Environment, by Kim Sakamoto Steidl, Good Apple, Inc., 1993). Research and discuss the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962). What impact did this information have on our current water pollution laws and practices?
- Assign students to complete the PCBs Worksheet and Desalination Handout to develop content area reading comprehension skills.
- Investigate the U.S. Geological Survey's Water Science for Schools website at: http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962.
Glencoe Science: An Introduction to the Life, Earth and Physical Sciences, Student Edition. Blacklick, OH: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Hopkins, Jean, Johnson, Susan and McLaughlin, Charles William. "How Many Cans of Soda Pop?" Ecology Earth's Natural Resources Activity Book, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1993. (ISBN 0-13-987090-3)
Kerrod, Robin and Evans, Ted. The Environment (Let's Investigate Science). New York, NY: Benchmark Books, 1993.
Lucas, Eileen. Water: A Resource in Crisis. Chicago, IL: Childrens Press, Inc., 1991.
Sakamoto Steidl, Kim. Environmental Portraits – People Making a Difference for the Environment. Boulder, CO: Good Apple, Inc., 1993.
Stille, Darlene R. The New True Book – Water Pollution. Chicago, IL: Childrens Press, Inc., 1990.
The National Academy of Engineer's ranking of the 20 best engineering achievements of the 20th century: http://www.greatachievements.org/
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/owow/nps/qa.html
U.S. Geological Survey: http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/waterquality.html
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: http://dnr.wi.gov/org/caer/ce/eek/earth/recycle/index.htm
Amy Kolenbrander, Jessica Todd, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Janet Yowell
© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado
Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
Last modified: February 11, 2016