Human Impacts—Who Dirtied the Water?

Summary: Who is responsible for pollution of water resources and the subsequent clean up? Students identify a variety of pollution sources though participating in a story about the progressive contamination of a model body of water. They recognize that once the water is contaminated, it is difficult to determine to what extent various participants are responsible for the problem, and it is difficult to clean up the mess.

The original source for the popular “Who Dirtied the Water?” activity is unknown, and many variations exist on the web with this title. This lesson can avoid inducing ecophobia by empowering students to identify reasonable solutions to the problem of water pollution, creating new rules that change the story, and by discussing the limits of models.

Concepts to teach: Pollution, responsibility, problem-solving, models

Goals: Determining the source of pollution and assigning responsibility for pollution impacts can be a complex process that requires the help of science and the cooperation of many stakeholders. Solutions for aquatic pollution include both pollution prevention and effective clean up technology.

Standards:
SS.08.GE.07, SS.08.SA.03

Specific Objectives:

  1. Identify five distinctly different sources and vectors of pollution to a model body of water.
  2. Engage in a facilitated discussion with peers about who is responsible for cleaning up the model body of water.
  3. Create a model of a device that cleans the polluted water.
  4. Devise new rules to prevent pollution of the water.

Activity Links and Resources:

  • Who Dirtied the Water?—The original source for this popular activity is unknown, and many variations exist on the web with this title. This lesson can avoid inducing ecophobia by empowering students to identify reasonable solutions to the problem of water pollution, creating new rules that change the story, and by discussing the limits of models.
    • Consider modifying the “story” to represent your local waters and types pollution common to your area.
    • Clean Water: Is it Drinkable?—The second part of the lesson plan asks students to create a filtration system to remove the contaminants from the water. Since the filters will be unlikely to clean up the water completely, follow this exercise with a discussion about the limits of models.
    • New Rules—Have students devise new rules for the discharge of pollutants, and perform the story again to see if the water is any less polluted by the end. Discuss how the modifications may lead to new problems (for example, lack of fund to build a water treatment plant, toxins seeping out of a landfill, etc)
  • A similar write up of Who Dirtied the Water comes from the Museum of Science and Industry in Illinois.

Assessment:

  • Identify reasonable solutions to the problem of water pollution in the activity. Create new rules and see how the story changes as a result of those rules (for better or for worse).
  • Discuss the limitations of models, why we use models, and how the activity does and does not accurately reflect a real situation.