What Are You Drinking?

9, 10, 11, 12

Students learn facts about water availability in the world and compare water resources. Through a hands-on activity, they explore the concept of water contaminants. They discuss the importance of protecting the water supply and conserving water. They examine their own water footprint (water usage).

PrintFour 50-Minute Class Periods across disciplines, plus time to plan a service project

The learner will:

  • become aware of water as a limited natural resource and propose ways to conserve water.
  • experience the difficulty of identifying contaminants in water samples and explaining how that affects global communities with poor water quality.
  • demonstrate an awareness of water quality as an issue of global importance.
  • engage in a project to raise awareness of this issue.
  • Student copies of Handout: Water Quality and Conservation (2 pages)
  • Three clear plastic gallons of tap water
  • One gallon of spring water
  • Table salt, vinegar, food coloring
  • Measuring spoons
  • Two 2-liter bottles tap water
  • Small paper cups (four per student)
  • World map (optional)
  • Paper and colored pencils
Teacher Preparation 

Prepare in advance four gallons of water (mark them so you know what is in each but students don't):

  1. spring water
  2. tap water
  3. tap water with 1 tsp. salt
  4. tap water with one drop of vinegar
  • conserve: to save or protect; to prevent waste
  • contaminant: something that makes a substance impure or unusable
  • herbicides: chemicals used to kill weeds
  • microorganisms: living things that can only be seen under a microscope
  • pesticides: chemicals used to kill pests, such as insects 
  • footprint: a measure of human impact on the environment
Home Connection 

Students may explore the website Tox Town https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/ 


Students each estimate their water use and represent their use with symbols, images, and words on their footprint. They may label sections of their footprint (or other shape) to represent various uses of water, and suggest where they can conserve water.



  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Distribute the handout "Water Quality and Conservation." Give students time to write, read, and respond to the True or False statements. Discuss and reflect as a whole group on the issue of water quality and availability in the world.

  2. Share with students that in the United States there are over 100 contaminants in the public water supply that are monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This means that the EPA checks to be sure the levels of some substances in our drinking water are safe. These contaminants include microorganisms, poisons, metals, pesticides, herbicides, and disinfectants (bleach).

    In addition, there are over 7,500 known chemicals and microorganisms in the public water supply that are not regulated (no cutoff level) even though some have beeen identified as potentially harmful.

    The complete list can be viewed at www.epa.gov or students may explore Tox Town online: https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/ 

  3. Ask the students whether their water is safe for drinking and washing. What would they do if their water was contaminated?

    Ask them if they have any ideas about how to confirm their water is clean enough. (Some ideas include having the water tested by the local cooperative extension, asking the city for a report of the city water analysis, filter drinking water after it comes out of the tap.)

  4. Explain to the students that they are going to use their senses to determine what "contaminants" are present in four water samples. Assure them that all four samples are safe for drinking. See Teacher Preparation, above (alternative, substitute food coloring in one sample so the contaminant is visible, but harmless.)

  5. Give each student four small paper cups and tell them to label them 1-4 and set them across their desk in order.

  6. Show them four gallon jugs of water also numbered 1-4 (random so the numbers are not in order of the board list)

    List the contents of each bottle on the board: spring water, tap water, tap water with salt added, tap water with vinegar added.

  7. Pour a sample from each jug into the corresponding cups at each student's desk or allow them to pour their own samples. Tell them to observe all the samples with all of their senses to determine which sample is which. They write down their guesses on scrap paper. For example, sample 1: salt water, sample 2: spring water, sample 3: vinegar water, sample 4: tap water.

  8. Give the correct answers. Discuss whether it is important to students to know that their drinking water is pure, even if it looks pure.

  9. Note; Be sure to tell students that drinking bottled water is not a sustainable solution to water quality. This is an expensive alternative that is even worse for the environment because the production of the bottles takes too much energy and pollutes the environment in many ways.

  10. Explain that only 1% of the world's water is suitable for drinking. Most of the water is salt water, some is trapped underground and in ice, and some is contaminated.

  11. Share the fact that the average American uses over 100 gallons of water each day. In other parts of the world, the average person uses 2 -13 gallons of water per day. Have students look up this fact for current statistics.

    History/Geography class: Tell the students that they are going to represent several different water-poor countries (insufficient supply or contaminated supply) in the world. Write the following countries on slips of paper (one per student--it is okay to have duplicates): Kuwait, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Malta, Jordon, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Maldovia, Israel, Oman, Venezuela, Mexico, Haiti, Kenya, India, Cuba, Sudan, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe. Identify these countries on a world map, if available. Write the United States on one piece of paper.

  12. Put the folded papers in a bag and allow each student to draw out one paper and look at it. When all youth have drawn their papers, give each “water poor” student ½ ounce of water (about 1 tablespoon) from a randomly selected gallon container in one of their small cups. Point out that there is no guarantee that it is fresh, uncontaminated water. Give the student who represents the United States two full 2-liter bottles of clean water. Ask them whether this seems fair. 

    Math class: Research water issues in the countries represented in this activity, and compare number of people to amount of usable water available. Look at number of people and size of land to get population density. Read why there might not be enough water. 

  13. Discuss the concept of environmental justice. This may be an issue in cities and regions in the United States too. Less resourced areas may not have access to healthy water or sustainable infrastructure.

  14. Ask students to draw their own “water footprint.” They trace their foot or draw another shape to represent their personal water use. Have the group generate a list of ways in which they use water each day (i.e., brushing teeth, showering, flushing the toilet, washing hands, doing dishes, laundry, etc.). The students divide the foot/other shape into sections representing the water they use for different purposes by percentage of the whole amount. Have them reflect on where they could conserve.

Cross Curriculum 

Students make a pledge to reduce water use and encourage friends, family, and community members to take action to conserve water. They create and share a flyer with information about conservation.  This National Geographic Water Footprint calculator is a helpful tool.

Math: Challenge students to use math to calculate impact of changes in their behavior. For example, if someone reduces shower time by one minute per day, that saves an estimated five gallons of water. They may use this as a means to persuade others to commit to changes or to raise funds for clean water projects. Students can accept pledges at a per-gallon rate (much like a walk-a-thon, with pledges per mile) or at a flat rate for one week, and choose a charitable fund for their donation.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark HS.4 Describe and give examples of characteristics of someone who helps others.
    2. Standard PCS 03. Philanthropy and Economics
      1. Benchmark HS.9 Analyze a major social issue as a "commons problem" and suggest ways the civil society sector could help to resolve it.
    3. Standard PCS 07. Skills of Civic Engagement
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Utilize the persuasive power of written or oral communication as an instrument of change in the community, nation or the world.
      2. Benchmark HS.3 Participate in acts of democratic citizenship in the community, state or nation, such as petitioning authority, advocating, voting, group problem solving, mock trials or classroom governance and elections.
  2. Strand PHIL.IV Volunteering and Service
    1. Standard VS 01. Needs Assessment
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Identify a need in the school, local community, state, nation, or world.
      2. Benchmark HS.2 Research the need in the school, neighborhood, local community, state, nation, or world.
    2. Standard VS 02. Service and Learning
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Select a service project based on interests, abilities, and research.