What Does Waste Do to a River?

3, 4, 5

Learners will develop a graphic way of visualizing the concept of a million by utilizing what had happened to the Nashua River due to the dumping of raw sewage in 1962. In the first class period, the learners will be introduced to the concept of a million by creating containers that will hold a million small items (i.e. grains of rice). In the second class period the learners will create a model of the Nashua River. Using the concept of a million from the previous class period, they will see what happens to this river by simulating the action of dumping raw sewage (i.e. grains of rice) into our model of the Nashua River.

Lesson Rating 
PrintTwo Forty-Five Minute Class Periods

The learner will:

  • construct a series of various-sized containers that will hold the grains of rice from 100, 500 and 1,000, finally arriving at a million.
  • use estimation, prediction and projection to determine the number of containers of each size that will be needed.
  • construct a model of the Nashua River using information provided by the text book and the Internet http://www.nashuariverwatershed.org/.
  • simulate the action of millions of gallons of raw sewage (i.e. grains of rice) being dumped into the model of the Nashua River.
  • predict the outcome of the action of the dumping of the raw sewage upon the model river.
  • Construction paper, bags of rice grains, scotch tape, scissors
  • Chart for container sizes (see handout below )
  • Plastic gutter (3-4 ft. length), bucket, water source, measuring device (i.e. graduated cylinder)
  • Read aloud copy of A River Ran Wild, by Lynne Cherry
  • Internet access
Home Connection 

Learners will draw a diagram of what they believe to be the best container they discovered in class and write three sentences describing it and giving a reason why they believe this to be the "best."


Cherry, Lynn. A River Ran Wild. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1992. ISBN 0-15-200542


  1. Anticipatory Set:Begin the lesson by reading to the learners these sentences from the book, A River Ran Wild, by Lynn Cherry.

    "In 1962 Marion Stoddart organizes the Nashua River Cleanup Committee, and the city of Leominster gets permission from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to dump 150 million gallons of raw sewage per day into the Nashua. In 1963 U.S. Congress passes Clean Water Act. Paper companies along the Nashua join together to build a treatment plant and 400-500 youth work for five months to clear trash from Nashua's riverbed and banks."

    Using a grain of rice to represent a gallon of raw sewage, ask the learners to estimate how big they think a container would have to be needed to hold 150 million gallons of raw sewage. How many gallons of raw sewage were dumped in the one-year time period? What would this raw sewage do to the flow of water in the river?

  2. Discuss with the learners how they might build a container that would hold 100 grains of rice. Have volunteers draw diagrams as samples for the class and discuss materials and concepts.

  3. In small cooperative groups, give the learners time and materials to build containers that will hold 500, 1,000 and 5,000 grains of rice. Use different shapes to demonstrate the same quantity and reflect on observations about volume. Example, "Why does this tall container hold less than this short container?" 

  4. Share with the class in a chart form (handout: Container Sizes Chart ), the sizes of each container and the quantity that each will hold.

  5. Ask the learners to look for relationships they see between the size of the containers and the quantities of grains of rice each hold. Have the learners construct these containers and fill with 500, 1,000 and 5,000 grains of rice. Save these containers for the second period class meeting. Check for the understanding of the term " Multiples ."

  6. Discuss the size of containers they may be familiar with such as restaurant or fast food chain containers, shirt and clothing boxes, school and book bags, luggage, and move to very large containers such as school bus, semi-truck, and railroad-car. Ask the learners which of these they think would be big enough to hold one million grains of rice.

  7. In small groups, have the learners use the charted information (handout: Container Sizes Chart ) they have gathered from computing the sizes of containers necessary to hold 500, 1,000 and 5,000 to construct a container that would hold a million grains of rice.

  8. Have the learners share with the class the dimensions and shapes of these "million grain" containers.

  9. Using the above information, have the groups compute the size of a container that could hold 150 million grains of rice.

  10. Discuss how the grains of rice are representative of the raw sewage that was being dumped into the Nashua River. Reread the anticipatory set comment pointing out that 150 million gallons was dumped every day for a year. Have the learners compute the number of gallons dumped.

  11. Class Session Two

    Teacher Note: Obtain permission to take the class outside for ten minutes. Before the learners arrive, make a model of the river using a gutter as the riverbed, a bucket of water to show the flow of the water, and a bucket to contain the water as it flows down the gutter.

    Materials Needed for Experiment: One length of standard gutter, Two 2-3 gallon buckets with handles

  12. Review with the learners the container sizes that were generated the period before, especially the containers for one million and 150 million grains of rice.

  13. Select three learners and demonstrate how the model of the river works. One learner pours the water into the gutter, while one learner holds the gutter at a slant, and one learner holds the empty bucket at the down end of the gutter to catch the water. Learner one measures a given amount of water into pouring bucket. Learner one pours the water into the river (gutter). Learner two holds the river (gutter) at such a slant that the water will flow into the empty bucket held by learner three.

  14. After the river demonstration, ask learner three to measure the amount of water that flowed down the river. The amount should be the same as what learner one first poured.

  15. Repeat the above demonstration with a fourth learner pouring a container of rice (1,000 grains) as the water is being poured. Again, have the amount of water that runs down the river measured. There should be less water able to run down the river due to the rice slowing down the water flow.

  16. Repeat the above demonstration, adding more containers of rice until the river is almost totally blocked and the water cannot run down the gutter (river). Do not remove any of the rice after each water pour.

  17. Have the learners keep a running total of the numbers of grains of rice they are adding each time to the river. After putting the river model away, bring the entire class together as a group for a teacher-directed discussion about the results of the simulation. Be sure to lead the class in the direction of the following conclusions: the concept of the size of 150 million gallons of raw sewage and how this would damage the flow of a river such as the Nashua.

  18. Show the learners the pictures on the Web http://www.nashuariverwatershed.org/ "Water Shed Pictures" for the Nashua River before the cleanup and after the cleanup. Discuss with the learners the differences they note in the two pictures and how this relates to our simulation of the river.

  • Completed Container Sizes Chart
  • Learners will create containers of sizes that will hold various amounts of grains of rice.
  • Teacher constructed quiz on content, measuring learners' skills in computation with numbers up to one million, estimation, and prediction with given data.
  • Evaluate learners' participation in substantive conversation on what happened to the Nashua River.
Cross Curriculum 

Social Studies: How does a bill become a law?

Field Trip: Plan a trip to the water treatment plant.

Math: Explore the concepts of "packaging."

Civics: View the voting records of your state legislators related to water conservation. Contact legislators supporting environmental concerns, particularly rivers and watersheds. Students will compose a letter to share their concern about the impact of environmental issues in their community and globally. 

Geography: Use GIS technology to explore the relationship between geography and other factors. Use the ESRI web app to explore your watershed and factors influencing its health.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 04. Operational Characteristics of Nonprofit Organizations
      1. Benchmark E.1 Describe how citizens organize in response to a need.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark E.3 Describe a benefit of group cooperation.
    2. Standard PCS 02. Diverse Cultures
      1. Benchmark E.3 Identify the similarities in philanthropic behavior among people of different cultural backgrounds.
      2. Benchmark E.4 Demonstrate listening skills.