People of the Desert

3, 4, 5

The purpose of this lesson is to explore the concept of human environmental interaction and stewardship of the water resources that are available in deserts. Learners will develop a deeper understanding of water conservation by looking at the city of Phoenix, Arizona located partly in the Sonoran Desert in the southwestern United States.
Note: Activities in this lesson may be applied to almost any of the desert regions of the world that are impacted by a city or human habitation. 

PrintOne to two 45 – 50 minute class periods. If two class periods are needed a suggested break has been indicated.

The learner will:

  • explore ways to conserve water, particularly in desert cities.
  • Book: A Desert Scrapbook: Dawn to Dusk in the Sonoran Desert
  • Reference books, magazines, pictures reflecting the lives of people who live on the desert. (See Bibliographical References for suggestions)
  • Vocabulary words (Word Wall) list posted for reference (See Handout One)
  • Proposal for water conservation (See Handout Two)
  • Information from Phoenix in Drought found at []
Home Connection 

Interactive Parent / Student Homework: Ask the learners to take some of the suggestions for conserving water home and ask the family to participate in the conservation for a set period of time.

  • Wright-frierson, Virginia. A Desert Scrapbook: Dawn to Dusk in the Sonoran Desert. ISBN: 0689850557
  •  Official site of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan
  •  Glossary
  •  general information about the Sonoran desert.
  • Lambert, David. People of the Desert. Steck-Vaughn Company, 1999. ISBN: 0-8172-5063-8
  • Harris, Nathaniel. Atlas of the World’s Desert: (Chapter 5; The Desert in History). Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003. ISBN: 1-57958-310-5
  • Le Rochaism Narie-Ange and Newman, George L. Desert Trek : An Eye-Opening Journey Through the World's Driest Places. Walker Books for Young Readers (March 1, 2001). ISBN: 0802787657
  • Jablonsky, Alice. 101 Questions About Desert Life. Southwest Parks & Monuments Association (September 1994). ISBN: 1877856320 


  1. Place the reference materials around the room before beginning the class period and allow time for the learners to explore the materials.

    Anticipatory Set: Ask the learners: “Do you think you could live in a desert?” Why or why not? Allow a few minutes for a short discussion and responses. Teacher Note: For the purpose of this lesson you will only be looking at non polar deserts.

  2. Read the book A Desert Scrapbook: Dawn to Dusk in the Sonoran Desert.

  3. Using a world map, invite a learner to point out North America.

  4. Tell the learners that the Sonoran Desert is the largest desert in the southwestern part of North America. It is located in two of the United States, Arizona and California, and in two countries, the United States and Mexico. Tell students that for this lesson they will be focusing on the desert area which includes the city of Phoenix, Arizona located in the upper northwestern part of the Sonoran Desert.

  5. Now ask: “Do you think you could live in a desert?” Allow time for responses. Responses may be recorded for later use.

  6. Explain to the learners that people live in the city of Phoenix, AZ. It was once inhabited by native American people.They lived off the land and built irrigations canals to water the crops. In the 1800 European settlers began to develop the desert and Phoenix became a farming community. Water that supplies Phoenix comes from surface sources like the Salt, Verde and Colorado Rivers. A small amount comes from wells. Even though rivers might seem like they are an endless source of water, that is not true. Rivers begin high in the mountains and travel down hill. If there isn’t enough rain or snow melt, the rivers will not supply enough water. The city and its citizens must conserve water in order to survive. Phoenix gets about 7.5 (19.5 cm) inches of rainfall per year. Teacher Note: Share information with the students from the Phoenix government website, Phoenix in Drought, or show the students the site and summarize some of the details, or allow students to explore the site on their own.

  7. Ask: What does the word conserve mean? (Use something carefully so as not to exhaust the supply)

  8. Explain that “conservation” is environmental stewardship and an act of philanthropy (giving time, talent and treasure, or taking action for the common good.)

  9. Ask: What might people do to conserve water? (Turn off the water when brushing your teeth, water the lawn during the cooler hours of the day, grow plants that don’t need a lot of water, install water saving devices on showers and toilets)

  10. Ask: Why would it be important to conserve water in a desert climate? (water is scarce, there isn’t an endless supply)

  11. Tell the learners that by helping conserve water they are acting as good stewards of resources (careful and responsible management of water resources) and as philanthropists (acting for the common good).

  12. Day Two (If time and/or learners’ needs require the lesson to be done in two parts)

  13. Explain to the learners that cities/towns have government bodies that are elected or appointed to make decisions about taking care of the city/town. Teacher Note: For this lesson that governmental body will be called the City Council. The teacher might wish to talk a little about the organizational design of the local government and use the term that would be appropriate for the local governmental body.

  14. Create heterogeneous groups of four or five learners. Tell them: You are a committee appointed by the City Council.You are being asked to develop ideas/suggestions that would help a city like yours, located in a desert, conserve water.Your city gets most of its supply of water from rivers and streams that flow through or near your city. Since rainfall has been very scarce this season, the rivers are not as full as they normally are. The air temperature has also been above normal for several weeks. The city would like the citizens to voluntarily conserve water.

  15. Explain that they must develop a plan, put it in writing and be prepared to present the plan to “City Council.” (The Teacher) (See Handout Two)

  16. Allow an appropriate amount of time according to your class schedule. Fifteen to twenty minutes should be sufficient for the development and another five minutes for presentation to City Council.


The teacher will evaluate the plans developed by the groups. Each plan must include ideas for opportunities for the citizens to voluntarily conserve water.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 03. Philanthropy and Economics
      1. Benchmark E.5 Recognize the wise use of resources as <i>stewardship</i>.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark E.4 Give an example of how citizens act for the common good.