Study of Environmental Issues: Water Pollution

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SWBAT explain the steps humans can take to protect the environment from water pollution.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students continue creating a big book on environmental issues. Today, they explore water pollution by researching the problem, causes, impact, and the steps humans can take help protect the environment.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEMvery clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will first develop an understanding of the biotic and abiotic factors within ecosystems, the characteristics and classification of living organisms, and how plants and animals obtain and use energy to fulfill their needs. 

Then, students will delve deeper into the NGSS standards by examining the interdependent relationships within an ecosystem by studying movement of matter between producers, consumers, and decomposers by creating models of food chains and food webs.  

At the end of this unit, students will study ways that individual communities can use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment.  

Summary of Lesson

Today, I will open the lesson by introducing students to the environmental issue of water pollution by showing a couple videos on this topic. Students will use online resources to further explore water pollution by researching the problem, causes, impacts, and steps humans can take to help protect the environment. At the end of the lesson, students will reflect and apply their new understanding of water pollution by engaging in a discussion with other students.

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):

5-ESS3-1.  Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment.

5-PS3-1.    Use models to describe that energy in animals’ food (used for body repair, growth, motion, and to maintain body warmth) was once energy from the sun.  

5-LS1-1.    Support an argument that plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.  

5-LS2-1.    Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.  

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in the following Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 7: 

Students construct arguments about environmental issues based upon their research findings. Students will also provide and receive critiques form peers within student discussion groups.  

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 2: Cause and Effect 

Students examine cause and effect relationships as they study environmental issues. For example, students will analyze the problem, causes, and impact on environment. They will also determine the steps that humans can take to help solve the problem. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

PS3.D:  Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life

The energy released [from] food was once energy from the sun that was captured by plants in the chemical process that forms plant matter (from air and water). (5-PS3-1)

LS1.C:  Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms

Food provides animals with the materials they need for body repair and growth and the energy they need to maintain body warmth and for motion. (secondary to 5-PS3-1)

Plants acquire their material for growth chiefly from air and water. (5-LS1-1)

LS2.A:  Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

The food of almost any kind of animal can be §traced back to plants. Organisms are related in food webs in which some animals eat plants for food and other animals eat the animals that eat plants. Some organisms, such as fungi and bacteria, break down dead organisms (both plants or plants parts and animals) and therefore operate as “decomposers.” Decomposition eventually restores (recycles) some materials back to the soil. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their particular needs are met. A healthy ecosystem is one in which multiple species of different types are each able to meet their needs in a relatively stable web of life. Newly introduced species can damage the balance of an ecosystem. (5-LS2-1)

LS2.B:  Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

Matter cycles between the air and soil and among plants, animals, and microbes as these organisms live and die. Organisms obtain gases, and water, from the environment, and release waste matter (gas, liquid, or solid) back into the environment. (5-LS2-1)

ELA Integration

To add depth to student understanding, when I can, I'll often integrate ELA standards with science lessons. Today, students will work on meeting CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. In this lesson, students will be using multiple resources to locate key information involving an environmental issue. 

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of two or three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half or thirds. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


30 minutes

Overview of Lessons on Environmental Issues

During this block of four lessons on environmental issues, students create a big book titled, "How Humans can Help the Environment." On each page of the book, students record research on four different types of environmental issues on Earth, including overfishing, deforestation, global warming, and water pollution. Today's lesson focuses on water pollution. 

Big Books

To create a big book for each student, I stapled three sheets of 11 x 17 paper together so that students would have a book cover and four pages of research. Here are a few examples of what finished Big Books will look like at the end of this four-day block of lessons:


Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can explain the steps humans can take to protect the environment.

I explain: Today, you will be researching one more environmental issue, water pollution, and you will work together with a partner to identify a list of ways humans can take steps to protect the water in the environment.  

Teacher Note: Knowing how heavy and overwhelming many environmental issues (such as global warming) can be, I continually remind students of the importance of having a positive and hopeful attitude when learning about problems in our global environments. The good news is... there are steps human can take to help solve all of the environmental issues that we will discuss. 

Creating a Template for Note-Taking

I show students how to create a graphic organizer on the next page in their big books by projecting the following template: Environmental Issue Page Template. For consistency, students use the same template for organizing their research on each of the four environmental issues that they study during this 4-day lesson block of time. Students then write Water Pollution as the title of the environmental issue that they will be exploring today.


I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I start by showing two videos on water pollution: World Water Day: Animation (below) and Water Quality Basics

By kicking off today's lesson with these videos, students are immediately provided with background knowledge that inspires students to ask questions and to take as many notes as possible on this environmental issue! 

During this time, some Students Gather on the Front Carpet, excited to watch videos and learn at the same time! 


Throughout the videos, I pause for students to discuss key points. The goal is to encourage activate listening and to help students connect this environmental issue with their own lives. Students also identify relevant details that help explain either the problem, causes, impact on the environment, or steps to protect the environment. They eagerly take bulleted notes on the Water Pollution page of their big books! 

To model this note-taking process, I record student ideas on my teacher example during this time: Teacher Notes on Water Pollution. (I toggle back and forth between projecting the video and projecting the teacher model.)

I make sure these are student generated notes by continually asking: How do you want to word that? What is most important? Where might that fact go on our graphic organizer? I also want to integrate ELA standards by modeling correct grammar and spelling. 

Teacher Note: As we take notes together, we quickly discuss any vocabulary students may not be familiar with. For example, I explain that sediment, such as sand or soil, can be transported by water from one place to another. Sediment will often settle to the bottom of a lake or river. Other words, I define by adding parentheses in the notes... nutrients (fertilizer, waste), chemicals (mercury, PCBs, & lead), and pathogens (disease-causing bacteria).  


30 minutes

Getting Ready

Now that students have some background knowledge on water pollution, I provide students with the opportunity to work in teams of two to continue their research. 

I ask each student team to show me "who is #1 and who is #2" by holding up a one or two on their hand in their air. I then ask #2 students to get a laptop computer. Sometimes when students decide which partner will get a computer, valuable time is wasted! 

By only having one computer between two students, each pair of students is able to fit their big books and the computer on two desks. Sharing one computer also encourages students to collaborate and discuss. Here's an example of what students eagerly leaning in together to research information: Students Researching Together.

Online Resources

Prior to the lesson, I emailed the following online resources to students for their research today. Again, the simple action of providing resource links helps make the student research process more efficient and productive. We've all seen students take the entire research time looking for a credible and interesting resource!


Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

  1. What patterns have you noticed? 
  2. Why do you suppose ____? 
  3. What have you found so far? 
  4. Has your thinking changed? 
  5. What evidence do you have? 
  6. How did you decide _____?
  7. What conclusion can you draw about ____?


Student Conferences

During this conference, Connecting to Local Streams, the students discuss how fish eating pollutants in the water can impact the food chain, including humans. I ask this group if they've heard of any local streams that support fish that are unhealthy to eat. I strive to encourage students to think about the far reaching impact of water pollution.

While researching water pollution, this pair of students begin Learning About Oil Spills. I am surprised to hear that they haven't heard much about oil spills and their impact on the environment. Consequently, I'm happy that they have come upon this great learning opportunity!

Teacher Note: Originally, when planning today's lesson, I was going to start off by presenting information on oil spills. To be honest, I began watching videos on oil spills where animals were being rescued. The videos made me so sad that I decided that studying water pollution more generally was more appropriate for 5th graders. 

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student work during this time: 


When looking through student work, I notice that some students have more notes than others. I think this is due to a range of reading abilities, varying levels of conversation during note-taking, and how successful students are at identifying information that fits under each of the headings on their Water Pollution page. 

Reflect & Apply

20 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings. For this reason, I invite students to participate in a conversation with a Discussion Group.

Discussion Prompts 

Today is the fourth day students have been meeting with discussion groups to talk about their research on a specific environmental issue. At this time, I remind students to use the Discussion Prompts on the board to make sure they are not just sharing important facts about deforestation, but also sharing their thinking.

To encourage a thoughtful conversation, I also ask students to take turns sharing one fact at a time. After students share a fact, the other students in the group share their thoughts about the fact. 

Developing Groups

Prior to today's lesson, I created a list of discussion groups by placing students in groups of three students. I took particular care to make sure students are matched with new partners (rather than placing them with their research partners). Students continue to meet with the same groups throughout the 4-lesson block on environmental issues. 


I take every opportunity possible to listen to student thinking and to take part in conversations. This is one of the most powerful ways to not only encourage higher level thinking, but to also identify common misconceptions. Here's an Example of Student Discussion Group. I love how one student brings up the impact of concrete on water runoff. We discuss how soil act as a natural filtration system. By asking students to discuss their research and to think about their learning, science concepts clearly become more meaningful. 

Teacher Note: At the end of this unit, students were very inspired. Many discussed these environmental issues with their families. A group of students stayed in for many recesses working on an Environmental Issues Powerpoint Presentation to share with the class. Others included these environmental issues in a bimonthly school-wide news broadcast.