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Exploring groundwater and pollution

What difference can a couple of activities make? Quite a bit if you talk to the year 3 team at Hillcrest Normal School. Water pollution and the Waikato River was a focus of inquiry for the team of teachers and their students. A simple set of groundwater activities from the Science Learning Hub (SLH) provided a powerful learning experience for the children and teachers alike.

The unit began with an environmental focus exploring water pollution and the Waikato River. However, the children quickly realised that, before they could do anything about pollution, they needed to learn more about water – how water moves from place to place and how pollutants get into water, so the emphasis shifted from the environment to science.

Hillcrest Normal School students used simple materials to build an aquifer model that provides a visual demonstration of how water gets underground and the connections between groundwater and surface water.

The year 3 team found themselves in a situation familiar to many primary school teachers: how could they confidently teach a science topic when their own science knowledge covered only the basics? Library books were a good starting point to introduce some components of the water cycle, but it was activities from the SLH that made it real for the students.

The teachers began with the student activity Walking on water. The activity uses a lunch box and very simple materials to demonstrate the portion of the water cycle that happens underground and out of sight. Each class built an aquifer model to examine the relationship between precipitation, groundwater and surface water – like the Waikato River. The model provides a visual demonstration of how water gets underground and the connections between groundwater and surface water. The spray pump simulates how water is pumped from the aquifer for drinking water or irrigation.

Once students had a clear picture of these connections, they moved onto a second activity – Groundwater contamination. This activity uses the same lunch box set-up to show how pollutants enter into groundwater and surface water.

I learned so much just from the simple hands-on activities. I gained a deeper understanding of the science, and I was able to pass it on to the children. We had much more in-depth conversations as a result.

So what difference did the activities make? Year 3 team member Maree says, “I learned so much just from the simple hands-on activities. I gained a deeper understanding of the science, and I was able to pass it on to the children. We had much more in-depth conversations as a result.” Chantelle agrees, “I had a basic knowledge of the water cycle but doing these activities has given a level of understanding to me, and my classroom, that I had no idea about.”

And what was the impact on student learning? “It was huge,” says Maree. “Using the spray pump, drilling down and getting the water out, the kids were fascinated by that. It was so simple and powerful because we’d looked at pictures in a book and talked about what is underneath the ground and layers and how water seeps in and all that, but to actually show the aquifer and groundwater in a container – it was so visual. It reinforced what they learnt and made it real. It was so simple for them to understand. Not only did it reinforce their understanding, but it opened up many more questions that we went on and researched.”

Chantelle found the activities helped her students make connections between science and the real world. “I’ve got two kids from dairy farms in my classroom. They could talk about what they did back at their farms concerning fertiliser use. There was quite a debate going on, but the point was made that the issue wasn’t about the use of fertiliser, but how it was managed.”

Cherie said that making links between the water cycle, groundwater and the river has led to a number of in-depth discussions. The children want to know how the city’s wastewater is treated before being returned to the Waikato River. They also want to know more about where their drinking water originates. The more students know about water and pollutants, the deeper they are able to question.

Something similar often happens with classroom teachers as well. Provide them with high-quality teaching resources, and they gain the confidence and expertise to help their students pursue these questions.

Since this was published the Hubs have a new context that investigates the restoration of the lower half of the Waikato River which teachers could also use.
Tōku Awa Koiora

Activity idea

View the resources the year 3 team used to teach about water pollution

The videos Building an aquifer model, Non-point source contamination and Point source contamination provide step-by-step demonstrations on how to build an aquifer model and conduct the groundwater pollution activities. By viewing the videos first, teachers gain a better understanding of how to carry out the activities in the classroom.

After conducting the activities at school, students can use the videos and provide their own voice-over to explain what is happening in the model. Teachers may consider using this approach for a home/school link or for assessment purposes.

Students build an aquifer model and examine how water gets into the aquifer system.
Walking on water

Students use a similar model to look at point source and non-point source pollution.
Groundwater contamination

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