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Activities & Lessons

Looking for resources to engage students with key ideas about sustainability?  These activities and lessons will help students gain a broader understanding of the many ways we make our communities more liveable.  Use these resources in partnership with the scavenger hunt game on our home page.  The game will test your students' “green” know-how and introduce them to the engineering involved in sustainable cities.

Down the Drain  (Waste water management) Grade Level: 3-4

Recycling Paper  (Recycling)  Grade Level: 4-5

Landfill-in-a-Box (Waste management) Grade Level: 5-8

 

Down the Drain - Grade Level: 3-4

Down the Drain

The purpose of this activity is to introduce students to civil engineering and wastewater treatment by having them design and test a simple water filtration system.  Every time you flush your toilet, about 4 gallons of waste water goes down the drain.  That's a lot of water!  Ask students if they have ever wondered where it goes.  Water is used to remove waste from our homes and communities through a wastewater system.  Wastewater must be treated before it is returned to the environment, to minimize any harmful effects.  Most wastewater goes to treatment plants that are designed by civil engineers.  At the treatment plant, solids and pollutants are removed through a series of filtration process.  the water is then returned to local waterways.  Some communities use this "reclaimed" water for irrigation or for industrial purposes. 

Materials & Directions

  • Scissors
  • 2-liter soda bottle, cut in half crosswise
  • Cotton balls
  • Napkins
  • Sand
  • Cup of dirty water (add dirt, gravel, small pieces of paper, cooking oil, and even food coloring)
  1. Have students work individually, in pairs, or in small groups
  2. Tell students to put the top half of the soda bottle upside down (like a funnel) inside the bottom half.  the top half will be where they build their filter.
  3. Explain that a filter is a screen that catches some of the particles of waste that make up their dirty water.  The bottom half will hold the filtered water when it poured through the filter.
  4. Challenge students to think about how to arrange the materials to make a good filtering system.  What materials will catch the different waste particles?
  5. Give students one napkin, a small cup of sand, and four cotton balls to build the filter.  At a testing station, pour the cup of dirty water through it.  Ask students to notice if the water is cleaner.
  6. Instruct them to take the filter apart and look at the different layers.  Ask them to figure out what each layer or type of material removed from the water.
  7. Allow students to redesign their filters to see if they can get the water even cleaner.

 

Recyling Paper- Grade Level: 4-5

making paper

The purpose of this activity is to introduce students to the process involved in recycling paper.  Students will use water and newspaper, pressing their old paper into its new, reusable form.  What happens to all the newspaper we send to the recycling center?  Ask students if they've ever wondered how people turn newspaper into new paper products.  Explain that newspaper is made of cellulose fibers, which come from plants.  Paper is made from millions of these fibers tangles together in a thin layer.  The fibers naturally bond to one another.  Water breaks down this bond.  Tell students that they will be able to rearrange these fibers of the paper and form something new with the help of water, cornstarch, pressure, and evaporation. 

Materials & Directions

  • Newspaper (4-5 sheets to tear up and some extra sheets for the pressing process)
  • Large bowl
  • Hot water
  • Cornstarch
  • Measuring spoons
  • Aluminum foil
  • Wooden spoon
  • Scissors
  • Sharp pencil
  • Decorations such as tissue paper, confetti, or glitter
  1. Cut the newspaper into small pieces and put them in a bowl. (You can also try cardboard of tissue paper)
  2. Pour enough hot tap water to cover the paper and mix it until all of the paper is wet.
  3. Let the paper sit for a few hours.  When it looks and feels like cooked oatmeal, it's ready to be made into paper.
  4. Add a few tablespoons of cornstarch and a little more hot water. Mix it all up again.  This is the pulp.
  5. Make a strainer out of a piece of aluminum foil.  Punch lots of small holes in it with a sharp pencil.
  6. Put the aluminum foil on top of a pile of newspaper.
  7. Cover the aluminum foil with a thin layer of pulp.
  8. Place another sheet of aluminum foil on top and press down to drain the extra water.
  9. Lift the top sheet of foil and decorate the pulp with items such as colored tissue paper, glitter, or confetti.
  10. Fix any holes in the pulp and replace the top sheet of foil.
  11. Place books on top of the pulp to press it flat.   Remove the books and the top layer of foil.  Leave the pulp out overnight (or longer) to dry.
  12. Once the pulp is dry, carefully peal it from the foil.

 

Landfill in a Box- Grade Level: 5-8

Landfill in a Box

The purpose of this activity is to educate students about real-world practical applications of civil engineering by constructing a scale model landfill, and observing the effects of natural man made conditions on the landfill.  This lesson is designed to be used as a year-long experiment to teach the principals of landfill design and construction, and to teach students history and terminology related to landfills, how to apply scientific method when making and recording observations of landfill performance, how to troubleshoot performance problems, and how to graph data and prepare a proper scientific report.  Students may be graded on a variety of activities in a classroom setting, such as vocabulary quizes data graphing, and the final project report.  This activity should be prefaced by a presentation on landfill design, construction, and history.

Materials & Directions

  • 12" x 8" x 8" deep clear plastic box or other container with flexible plastic bottom.
  • Soil (enough for a 2 cm or 1" layer at both the top and bottom of the landfill)
  • Black or green plastic trash bag (cut 2 rectangles, 1/2" larger than the top of the container on all sides)
  • Non-fusible interfacing fabric (available in a fabric or craft stores, cut 1 rectangle 6" wide, long enough to strech diagonally across the bottom of the landfill)
  • Neutral color fish tank gravel (enough to form a 2" x2" envelope diagonally acorss the bottom of the landfill)
  • 1/2" clear fish tank tubing (18" - 24" length)
  • Sand (enough for a 2 cm or 1" layer at both the top and bottom of the landfill)
  • Shredded newspaper or junk mail to simulate waste
  • Measuring cup
  • Water
  • Tray with raised edges, large enough to accomodate the landfill box
  • Stick-on measuring tape or ruler that can be placed along the side of the landfill box
  • 1 1/2"- 2" tall wooden block

PART 1- Construct the Landfill Liner System

First, assist the students to scale down the landfill liner to the dimensions of the box.  A typical landfil liner systerm comprises 2'-5' of clay, 1 or 2 layers of synthetic liner material, a leachate collection system, and 2' of sand.  For the purpose of this activity, assume a 2' layer of clay, a 2' layer of sand, and a single layer of plastic liner.  Guide students to scale the dimensions of the layers down to 1/2" = 1'-0" or 1 cm = 1'-0."  this should result in a 1" thick layer of both sand and soil.

Construct the landfill liner system as follows:

  • Drill or otherwise create a hole in one corner of the bottom of the landfill box.  Hole must be large enough to allow the fish tank tubing to pass through. 
  • Drill 1/16" holes all the way through the fish tank tubing in two directions.  Drill 3-4 sets of holes per inch over the length of tubing that will remain inside the landfill (approximately 12"-15").  Do not drill holes in the remainder of the tubing.
  • Place soil in the bottom of the container, and compact. Add more soil and continue compacting, until a thickness of 1" (or 2cm) is achieved.  Slope the soil layer gently towrd the holw in the bottom corner of the box.  The soil represents the impermeable clay liner in a real-world landfill.
  • Place one of the black (or green) plastic trash bag rectangles over the soil in the bottom of the box. This represents the impermeable synthetic liner of a real-world landfill.
  • Spread the non-fusible interfacing fabric diagonally across the bottom of the box, starting at the corner where the hole is drilled. The fabric represents geotextile fabric, which is used to protect the leachate collection system in a real-world landfill.
  • Pass the fish tank tubing through the hole in the bottom corner of the box, placing the perforated section of the tube inside the landfill, and allowing the non-perforated section to hang out through the hole. The fish tank tubing represents the leachate collection piping in a real-world landfill.
  • Place fish tank gravel along the sides of the tubing, and wrap in the fusible interfacing fabric around the gravel and tubing, overlapping the edges by at least 1”. The fish tank gravel represents the drainage gravel that is used to help water (leachate) in the real-world landfill pass through to the leachate collection piping.
  • Place sand over and around the leachate collection system, and compact. Add more sand, and continue compacting, until a thickness of 1” (or 2 cm) is achieved. The sand layer need not be sloped, but should just have a flat, smooth surface. The soil represents the impermeable clay liner in a real-world landfill.

Once the liner system is complete, position the landfill on the tray, allowing the end of the leachate collection pipe to hang over the edge of a table. Position a measuring cup under the end of the pipe to catch any liquid that escapes.

PART 2- Landfilling and Observation

Upon completion of the liner system, the landfill is now ready to accept waste. Have students prepare a table where they can record the following:

  • Date
  • Depth of waste prior to adding new waste/water
  • Amount of water added
  • Amount of waste added
  • Depth of waste after adding new waste/water
  • Amount of water that drains from the bottom of the landfill

 

Students should add 1” (2cm) of new waste every 3 – 4 days, sprinkling the landfill with approximately 2 Cups of water each time they add waste, and compacting. Measurements should be recorded in each column of the table every time new waste/water is added. When measuring the water coming out of the landfill, be sure to measure both the water captured in the measuring cup, and any that leaks onto the tray. Water may be discarded after it is measured.

PART 3 - Troubleshooting

When working on real-world projects, they often have technical problems, or do not perform as expected. When this happens, and engineer is often called in to “troubleshoot” the problem. For example, if the students have been adding water to the landfill, but nothing has come out the bottom, troubleshooting may be required. Perform this section of the activity by first discussing with the students why they think there is no liquid coming out of the bottom. After everyone agrees on the reason(s), have students brainstorm ways to correct the problem. Again, after consensus has been reached, implement the proposed solutions. (Example: Place one end of the landfill on top of the wooden block in order to force more of the water to the low end.)

PART 4 - Graph the Data

Assist students to graph data. Suggested graphs are as follows:

  • Date (horizontal axis) vs. both Water In and Water OutStudents can then interpret the graphs, and discuss things like why the water coming out is less than the water going in, how the distance between the two lines represents the amount of water held in the landfill and evaporated into the air, how the lines change over time.
  • Date (horizontal axis) vs. Depth of Waste, both before and after addition of new waste/water Students can then interpret the graphs, and discuss things like why the waste shrinks (settles), and how the lines change over time

 

PART 5- Construct the Landfill Cap

First, assist the students to scale down the landfill cap to the dimensions of the box. A typical landfill capping system comprises 2’ of sand, 1 layer of synthetic liner material, and 2’ of soil. Guide students to scale the dimensions of the layers down to ½” = 1’-0” or 1 cm = 1’-0.” This should result in a 1” thick layer of both sand and soil.

Construct the landfill cap as follows:

  • Place sand over the waste, and compact. Add more sand, and continue compacting, until a thickness of 1” (or 2 cm) is achieved.
  • Place one of the black (or green) plastic trash bag rectangles over the sand. This represents the impermeable synthetic cap of a real-world landfill.
  • Place soil over the plastic, and compact. Add more soil and continue compacting, until the landfill box is completely full. The soil represents the soil layer on top of a real-world landfill.

After cap construction is complete, students should stop adding further waste or water. Continue to monitor, record, and graph the amount of water coming out of the bottom of the landfill, and the depth of the waste in the landfill.

PART 6 - Write the Final Report

Each student should write a report in standard scientific format describing the following:

  • Purpose of the experiment
  • Methods used to design, construct, and monitor the landfill
  • List of assumptions that describes assumed correlations between the scale model and a real-world landfill
  • Summary and conclusions presenting the collected data and graphs, and describing what was learned from them