Teaching the Local Water Cycle

Teaching about the water cycle can be made more realistic and valuable for students by incorporating what they know about water-where it comes from, what happens to it after they use it, and what problems are associated with its use. These materials, part of a unit called "The Broken Water Cycle", will help teachers facilitate place-based learning about water for upper elementary and middle school students.

Day 2: Our Runoff


Student collect data about their schoolyard, neighborhood and town to estimate the amount of water that runs off these places into a nearby stream.

Lesson Overview

Students begin at the smallest scale, their schoolyard, and learn about permeable and impermeable surfaces (older students might not need this introduction). Then, through a homework assignment, students consider what happens to rain that falls on their neighborhood. Finally, students use aerial images (from Google Earth) to estimate the total annual runoff of their town or city.

2 class periods
Schoolyard and Classroom

Infiltration Investigation

  • One bucket/ group of 5 or so students filled with water
  • One 2-3 cup measuring cup/ group
  • Infiltration investigation data sheet with map of your school (download below)

Homework assignment

  • "Mapping Your Neighborhood" homework assignment (download below)

Runoff calculation of town/city

  • Two copies of an aerial image of a town or city (can be easily saved and printed from Google Earth) cut into 4 pieces
  • Eight transparency grids
  • Dry or wet erase markers of various colors
  • Runoff worksheet for appropriate grade (download below)

Infiltration Investigation

  1. Using a map of your school and schoolyard, trace a simple map and photocopy over the existing map on the Infiltration Investigation worksheet.
  2. In groups of 5 or so students,  head outside and have them choose 3 cover types in the schoolyard
  3. Ask them to predict what will happen when the group pours 2 cups of water on each cover type.
  4. Pour the same amount of water on each cover type and have them describe what actually happened.
  5. Have them create a legend of their cover types and color in the schoolyard map. Depending on the most dominant cover type, they can answer the question in the text box. 
  6. Introduce the terms "permeable" and "impermeable".
  7. Give them the neighborhood mapping homework assignment to reinforce this investigation.

Runoff calculation of town/city

  1. Print 2 copies of a map of your town, city or village. If possible, print on 11x17 sized paper. Cut each map into 4. 
  2. Give one quarter of the map to a group of 2 to 3 students.
  3. Ask them to place their transparency grid over the map and mark permeable and impermeable squares with 2 different colors. If a square has both cover types, have them color it with the cover type that dominates that square.
  4. When completed, have them add up the squares for each color
  5. Depending on their math skills, students can calculate volume of runoff in a number of different ways. Refer to the grade-specific worksheet (below) for details.
NYS Standards
MST 1 - Mathematical analysis, scientific inquiry, and engineering design
MST 3- Mathematics in real-world settings
MST 4- Physical setting, living environment and nature of science
Benchmarks for Science Literacy
2C Mathematical Inquiry
5E Flow of Matter and Energy

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