Water Quality in the Greenhills Stream

Activity Overview: 

This unit embodies the concepts of environmental science, chemistry and some physical science as the students study the importance of water quality and how to test for it throughout the year. A stream behind the school becomes an active learning environment as students use a variety of technology to test the water, gather and share their data and analyze their findings.

Students will:

  • conduct a year long study of water quality over different seasons in order to learn how to design and carry out investigations that are centered around a driving question and sub-questions for the unit that are real-life situated.

  • learn to ask good questions, researching pertinent background information using a variety of resources (library and internet, experts in the community, their science books and teacher hand-outs).

  • learn to develop sound predictions based on this research supporting their predictions based on the background information they construct.

  • learn to appreciate the need to care for and calibrate the technology tools they will use to collect water quality data at the stream.

  • be introduced to a variety of data collection and analysis techniques(data tables, graphs) and learn the importance of creating a procedure that controls variables and carefully addresses the question to be studied.

  • gain experience in drawing conclusions after logical and critical reflection of all the information that may answer their question.

  • share this information with each other throughout the process and present their findings at the end of the investigation.

  • model that this process is a collaborative process but includes individual components as well.

  • learn that the process of inquiry often leads to new questions.

  • use these science process skills to analyze how human activity and natural activities change and impact water quality throughout the different seasons.

  • study the subject of water quality in CONTEXT allowing them to observe a variety of phenomena.

  • demonstrate their understanding of water quality by constructing models that show cause and effect relationships between water quality concepts they investigate.

One of the units we study in the 7th grade curriculum embodies concepts in environmental science, chemistry and some physical science as we learn about the importance of water quality and how to test for it throughout the year, to prepare our students to collect data which will determine the health of the stream behind our school. We teach them how to use a variety of probes (D.O., pH, conductivity and temperature) that are attached to portable technology.  Understanding calibration is an important skill highlighted in the AAAS Benchmarks (1993).  Since our probes come uncalibrated, this offers us an opportunity to also have our students calibrate the pH, conductivity, and temperature probes they will use. 

During the activities which are designed to teach our students how to use the specific probes, they discover: the importance of each test, the standards of water quality, the reasons why we need to perform these tests, the possible pollutants, how the pollutants might enter the stream, and the possible consequences for the stream as a result of these pollutants.   A part of the stream is divided into 8 sections that a group of 2 students will study throughout the year.  They select three data points based on a variety of reasons that they will use to collect data. Students then go to the stream and make observations, collect information, and begin to analyze their data, in context.  Because equipment can occasionally be troublesome, students also learn to trouble shoot technological problems on the spot.

Once students collect their data they return to the class where they prepare to share their data, make graphs and analyze their findings with their stream partners.  By collecting water quality data through fall, winter and spring students are able to observe how human activity and seasonal changes can and do impact the water quality throughout the year.


(Note: This is a unit plan that may cover several days to several weeks. Not all of the following activities/standards will appear in the video clips used.)


 Curriculum Standards from http://www.intime.uni.edu/model/cont.html


National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) Performance Indicators from http://cnets.iste.org/profiles.htm

Review the importance of calibrating equipment and to calibrate the pH probe

Science: Grades 5-8 
A1, A2

Grades 5-8: 1, 2, 3, 4

Collect (quantitative) chemical water quality data at the stream using the pH, temperature, and conductivity probes. Collect (quantitative) data at the stream.

Science: Grades 5-8 
A1, A2, E1, E2, F2, F5, G2

Science: Grades 9-12
F4, G1

Grades 5-8: 1,3,4,5,6,8,9,10

Review the pictures students took of their stream using digital cameras.  Students  used these pictures  to help them make predictions for the quality of their stream based on each of the tests they will do. These pictures will then be used later as they create their Web pages

Science: Grades 5-8
A1, A2, E1, G3

Grades 5-8: 3, 4, 5, 6, 10

Students construct a small model demonstrating their understanding of how the different seasons have impacted one of the chemical tests they conducted throughout the year.

Science: Grades 5-8
A1, A2,  E1, F2, G2

Grades 5-8: 1, 2, 3, 6, 7



(Our Middle School science classrooms are also wired for direct Internet access.)



eProbe Calibrate. MSC. Working Knowledge. Available: http://www.krev.com

Digital Camera. Olympus. Available: http://www.olympus.com

Model-Builder by the University of Michigan. Available: http://www.modelbuilder.org/

Microsoft Excel. Microsoft. Available: http://www.microsoft.com

Netscape Communicator to construct Web Pages. Netscape. Available: http://www.netscape.com



5 Digital Cameras. Olympus. Available: http://www.olympus.com
eProbe. MSC.Software Co. Available: http://www.krev.com

8 eMates. Apple. No longer available: http://www.apple.com

8 iMacs in our classroom. Apple. No longer available: http://www.apple.com

8 sets of Vernier Probes. Vernier. Available: http://www.vernier.com



Water Studies for Younger Folks by The Global Rivers Environmental Education Network. Green. Available: http://www.earthforce.org/green 

Teacher-Created 7th Grade Course Pack

Student Guidelines/Assessments


Chris Gleason, Greenhills School, Ann Arbor, Michigan 

Ann Novak, Greenhills School, Ann Arbor, Michigan 

Technology Support:
Joe Krajcik, Professor of Education at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan  

Elliott Soloway, Professor of Engineering, Technology at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan  

Bob Tinker, President of Concord Consortium (Educational Technology Lab) Concord, Massachusetts

During each of the three seasons, fall, winter and spring, seventh grade students investigate the stream behind our school by asking the question: How clean is the water behind our school?  Student partners carry out and plan to investigate their adopted portion of the stream.  Using portable technology as scientific instruments, students collect and analyze various quantitative and qualitative data to make conclusions about the health of the stream.

Beginning in September and running through mid November, we use benchmark lessons to introduce students to key ideas including science concepts, technology tools, the process of inquiry, and collaboration.  This is the first time most of our students are exposed to extended inquiry where they will collect and synthesize data over time.  We help our students learn the process of inquiry through teacher-designed investigations and activities that model the process.  Although teacher-designed, these activities model good scientific inquiry.  We use our role as teachers to carefully structure each experience so, through thoughtfully planned interactions with our students, they become co-designers of these activities.  Through our questioning and discussion techniques, our students learn to ask relevant questions, research information, design and carry out experiments including making predictions, writing sample procedures, creating data tables, and formulating analysis strategies.

Once students have had several experiences, we transition from teacher-designed activities to student-designed investigations. Students also create artifacts (water quality booklets) that represent their learning.  Once they have experienced their initial stream data collection experience, we collect data again in the winter and in the spring.  During each of these times we will take 2 weeks to engage in the process of inquiry. 

At the time of the filming it just so happened that our students were preparing to collect their spring chemical and physical data.  This activity usually takes 2 days to collect all their physical data (qualitative data) and their five chemical tests (quantitative data), pH, temperature, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity.  What I had the students do was take 3 of their tests and then collect some of their physical data if they had time.  Since there are 5 classes of 7th grade science, all classes needed to go out throughout the day.  We have 45 minute classes and students work very efficiently during this time.

The calibration of the pH probe was reenacted.  My students completed this activity in about 45 minutes.  I briefly had students explain why we need to calibrate our probes at the start. It usually takes us 45 minutes to calibrate one to two probes.  When I initially introduce this activity, we spend a day discussing the importance of caring for equipment, calibration, and why this is important for us to do before we collect data.

The day before the taping, students accessed the pictures they took the previous day with digital cameras by file-sharing between the iMacs (the computers they use) and my computer, a G3.  Students were then to make predictions about the quality of the stream for each of their tests by looking at the pictures they took the day before.  We were hoping that when they went to view the stream to make predictions, they would take pictures that were of significance to them.  Because we share equipment among five classes, some students needed to take them and did not have a good amount of time to look at their pictures.  So, I had them revisit these pictures and asked the partners to explain which picture helped them reached the predictions they made and to address if and how these pictures helped them make stronger predictions.  This activity also took 1 class period of 45 minutes.

In the last activity students demonstrated use of a new software program they have been introduced to Model-Builder.  This activity allows students to construct models of their understanding of the concepts we learn surrounding water quality.  When the students were first introduced to the program it took them only two days to build the most complex models.  On the third day students shared their models with the class.  It was so interesting for the students to see how many different models students in one class could create around the same topic.  To narrow the time down, I had students choose one of the water quality tests they had already collected data for through the three seasons.  Their model needed to address if and how the seasons impact the water quality readings of one of those tests.  Within one class period they were able to build and share a small model.

We have incorporated portable technology into our curriculum beginning in September 1996. Asking, “How clean is the water behind our school?” is one of the many questions that students investigate which incorporate these new technologies. Specifically, our seventh grade student scientists use probes attached to eMates as portable scientific laboratories that allow them to collect and analyze real-time data much like scientists do.

We are fortunate to have a stream on our school property that is about 50 meters from our building. This small stream runs into a larger stream that then flows into the Huron River, a major source of drinking water for our community as well as many surrounding communities. Our school stream is part of many of our students’ neighborhood with some of our students living in condominiums that directly adjoin the stream. For these reasons, “How clean is the water behind our school?” is an important and meaningful question for our students to investigate. 

Because of this opportunity, we have countless “aha” experiences out in the field and in our classrooms.  I will outline one of them below.

When our students go to the stream they collect both physical and chemical data to access the quality of its water. They collect physical data to measure the depth, width, and length of the stream.  They also record observations for stream flow and vegetation, which among other observations may influence and explain their chemical data. The chemical data they collect includes temperature, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and pH.  Technology not only provides students with the probes to collect specific data, but also in addition, has the capabilities to store and visualize the data in tables and provides opportunities for the data to be immediately graphed. This allows students to make initial interpretations of their results in the field where they can decide if the collection process needs to be repeated

Collecting field data helps our students gain ownership of their work that we have not previously experienced. Because students view collected data as meaningful, they become invested in analyzing how the quality of their stream section compares to the others. We see evidence of this in the field and classroom when students ask the groups on either side to share their readings. They do this to check if their recorded values are consistent with their neighbors.  If students find that their data differs from other groups, they desperately look for reasons to defend their data. On one occasion, students who were collecting data mid-stream, noticed that their water temperature was several degrees cooler than the groups next to them.  Because the technology allows students to view and analyze data they receive immediately, the students thought that their data could be faulty.  They first checked their equipment and then began to search for additional information that may explain this difference. Students began looking for pipes above and underground that could bring additional water to their part of the stream.  After a few minutes, they uncovered a spout of cold water flowing quickly from under the stream bank, which was concealed by a grassy over hang.  They had not observed this in the previous field collection and noted that the depth of the water was lower now than before. They now felt that the data they collected was accurate, and were very pleased that they could support their findingsThis increase in ownership of data engages students in interpreting data.

Students also learn the implications of conductivity data. Students discover that although they are able to see the bottom of the stream, it may contain dissolved substances, which could cause problems for the health of their stream.  In the fall, students conclude that fertilized lawns in nearby condominiums cause high conductivity readings.  When students consider reasons for higher conductivity readings in the winter than in the fall, students scrutinize their data. As they review their observations of physical data, students note an ice storm several days before the winter collection. With the ice storm comes the use of large quantities of salt on the roads.  It is exciting as students also look at their surroundings to observe a parking lot and a road 40 feet from the stream as a possible source explaining the high levels of dissolved substances recorded by the conductivity probe. Students conclude that lower levels of dissolved substances result from an increase in water depth, due to heavy rains experienced in recent weeks. 

Each time our students go to the stream and study it in context, we marvel at the level of engagement and the depth of understanding they gain from this powerful experience.  We are convinced this is the way to learn and feel so fortunate to be able to provide our students with this wonderful opportunity and watch as they take full advantage of this challenge. 

Technology Resources:
One of our goals as teachers was to incorporate technology into our project based curriculum. Because we had a water quality curriculum in place, a project-based approach, a stream behind our school and a desire to incorporate technology into our curriculum, we were very fortunate to have been invited to participate in a National Science Foundation grant that the Concord Consortium, in Concord Massachusetts and the University of Michigan received.  The SLiC grant (Science Learning in Context) provided us with the opportunity to allow our students to study and learn about water quality at the stream.   It allows us to study science where the science is.  As a result of this grant, we received eMates and a variety of Vernier probes (dissolved, oxygen, pH, conductivity, light, barometric pressure and temperature).  In addition, our two middle school science classrooms are networked together and we each have our own 16 port hubs that tap into our schools T1 line for Internet access.  

We work hard to ensure that our equipment remains in good working order.  Our students are careful when handling the equipment, however, as the equipment ages we are faced with replacement issues.  As a result, we try to keep informed of new learning technologies, which would allow our students to enjoy the benefits that our current technology has afforded them. We do this by attending conferences and talking with people in education and in technology that are aware of new learning technologies.  As we search for equipment we will consider price, durability, dependability and versatility among other criteria.

School Background Information:
Ann Arbor is more of a suburban community with a population of 112,000.Thirty percent of the population is made up of students and barely 50% of the population are homeowners.  This is unusual because in other parts of the country with a similar population, 80% of the dwellings are occupied by homeowners. Greenhills is an independent, nondenominational, college preparatory school located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We have 512 students in grades 6-12 (216 middle school, 296 high school).  Eighteen percent of our students are students of color, 4% multiracial, 4% African American, 7%- Asian- American, 1% Hispanic- American, and 2% Middle Eastern.  Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan is located in Ypsilanti, which is next to Ann Arbor.  As a result, many of our parents are associated with the University of Michigan either through the hospital or as professors and /or researchers at the Universities.

Teaching Strategy:
How do you help students develop science concepts through the process of inquiry?  How can students engage in authentic investigations that make science meaningful and interesting?  What role can the teacher play to help foster students’ understanding of science concepts and process?  How can incorporating new technology tools enhance student learning? 

Six years ago we began to develop a project-based approach and attended project-based institutes at The University of Michigan.  We continued to attend work sessions during the next several years.  We worked with Professors Joe Krajcik and Ron Marx from the School of Education.  As teachers, we collaborate quite closely to develop curriculum and to enhance our curriculum by incorporating technology tools where appropriate.   

The goal of our 7th and 8th grade science program focuses on facilitating students to develop in-depth and integrated understandings of fundamental science concepts and science process skills within the context of inquiry. Using a project-based approach, several units are explored each year that incorporate science across several science disciplines. We structure our classrooms so that students ask important and meaningful questions and use technology tools to investigate these questions. 

Each unit begins with a driving question that provides students with a real life context. Our students engage in inquiry through activities that investigate this and related sub-questions.  Learners find solutions to these questions through engagement in long term investigations and collaboration with others.  In the process they develop in-depth and integrated understanding of science concepts and process skills.   By this we mean our students see relationships among ideas, to find underlying reasons for these relationships, to use these ideas to explain and predict phenomena, and to apply their understandings to new situations.  We also believe our students become better thinkers and problem-solvers. This approach is consistent with the National Science Education Standards (1996) and with the American Association for the Advancement of Science benchmarks (1993).

Our program is based on inquiry.  However, getting our students to be scientists initially takes much support from us.  This is the first time most of our students are exposed to extended inquiry where they will collect and synthesize data over time.  We help our students learn the process of inquiry through teacher-designed investigations and activities that model the process. They learn to ask good questions and research pertinent background information using a variety of resources (library and Internet, experts in the community, their science books and teacher handouts). They develop sound predictions based on this research. They learn the importance of creating a procedure that controls variables and carefully addresses the question to be studied.

Students are introduced to several data collection and analysis techniques that incorporate technology tools where appropriate. We support students as they look for patterns and relationships in their data. They also gain experience in drawing conclusions after logical and critical reflection of all the information which is important to providing an answer to their question. They share this information with each other throughout the process and present their findings at the end of the investigation. They learn that the process of inquiry often leads to new questions.  Although it is a collaborative process the project incorporates individual components as well. Students work together during much of the process including data collection.  They share their ideas about predictions but each student writes his or her own predictions.  After collaboratively collecting the data and discussing and analyzing the results, students each write up their own analysis.  This allows us, as teachers, to gain insights into each student’s understanding of concepts and process.  It also helps to ensure each student’s investment in the investigation.

As students gain experience in the process of inquiry there is a transition from mainly teacher-designed investigations to a combination of teacher- and student-designed investigations. Through careful scaffolding students transition to asking their own sub-questions where they can research background information and design and conduct an investigation incorporating the technology tools that will aid them in their investigation.  This methodology reflects the project-based model proposed by Krajcik and colleagues (Krajcik, J., Czerniak, C., Berger, C., 1999; Krajcik, J.S., Blumenfeld, P., Marx, R.W., Bass, K.M., Fredricks, J.,& Soloway, E. (1998).

Technology as Facilitator of Quality Education Model Components Highlighted in This Activity http://www.intime.uni.edu/modelimage.html
(Note: This is a unit plan that may cover several days to several weeks. Not all of the elements from the Technology as Facilitator of Quality Education Model that are described below will appear in the video clips used.)

I believe the video highlights most of the components of Technology as Facilitator of Quality Education Model.  If you refer to the section above I discuss why I choose to use this particular teaching strategy, the following components are highlighted.

Principles of Learning:
I believe students are actively involved in what they are doing. The setting both in the classroom and outside is relaxed and informal, yet very productive. Students directly experience in collecting data to assess the quality of their stream section. As they collect their data they reflect on it and make judgments at the stream to determine the accuracy of the data. They also try to determine the possible activities that could lead to the results they gathered.  Students look for patterns as they analyze their data during the fall, winter and spring. This process encourages students to make connections. What human and natural activities contribute to the health of the stream from season to season? Do these activities have a negative or positive impact on the health of our stream?  They getFrequent Feedback from the data they collect, from their partners as they discuss data and procedures, and from students in the neighboring section. What could be a more compelling, motivating experience than to study the water quality of the stream at the stream?

Information Processing: 
Students have a real Appreciation of what they are studying because they have been involved in constructing background information so they can evaluate their data in a more meaningful and accurate manner. As students collect their data they interpret their findings based on water quality standards and communicate their findings at the stream to each other, in the classroom to other students, and to me when they submit their individual analysis in their water quality booklet. Communication continues beyond the lesson as students have constructed Web pages for the first time. You are able to connect and view them by connecting to http://www.greenhillsschool.org and follow the link to academics which will allow you to link to the middle school science page and view our students work.

Content Standards:  
We address many of the Content Standards. Refer to the table at the beginning of this learning activity template.

I feel our students demonstrate Tolerance in a variety of ways. They tolerate equipment problems that occur and do not get frustrated, but work to solve them instead. This could be due to hardware or software problems that could cause inaccurate data readings. They accept Power Sharing, which demonstrates how they work together to think critically about their work. Together they make decisions to either accept their data or retake it.  Together they look for information and clues that would validate the data they collect.  On the other hand if their data was inaccurate, students work to determine the possible cause. Because our students adopt a section of the stream to study throughout the year, they are empowered to do their very best so that we can all have a more accurate understanding of the water quality in our stream. All of our students are called on to be responsible in their data collection techniques so that they collect the most accurate data they can and share it. When student’s partners are absent, they need to be sure that all the collected information is shared with them upon their return. Student Characteristics:
Our students are terrific. They are motivated, curious and conscientious learners. Along with their wonderful natural abilities, they make it easy for us to look for opportunities to challenge them and ourselves. Together we engage in activities that enhance our student’s learning. 

School Background Information:
Ann Arbor is more of a suburban community with a population of 112,000. 30% of the population is made up of students and barely 50% of the population are homeowners. This is unusual because in other parts of the country with a similar population, 80% of the dwellings are occupied by homeowners. Greenhills is an independent, nondenominational, college preparatory school located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We have 512 students in grades 6-12 (216 Middle School, 296 High School). 18% of our students are students of color, 4% Multiracial, 4% African American, 7% Asian American, 1% Hispanic American, 2% Middle Eastern. 76% of our students are from Ann Arbor (390), 24% from 21 other cities in Southeastern Michigan, including Ypsilanti (37); Plymouth(13); Saline(13). Most of our parents work in or very near to Ann Arbor. But there is a growing bedroom community developing here. Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan is located in Ypsilanti which is next to Ann Arbor. As a result a many of our parents are associated with the University of Michigan either through the hospital or as professors and /or researchers at the Universities.

How the Activity Has Evolved Over Time:
When we first went to the steam to collect data in 1996, our students used probes attached to Newtons.  Because more advanced technology has become available our students now use eMates attached to probes.  One important way this activity has evolved is in how we teach the students to use the technology.   In the first year, we introduced the probes by having students follow step-by-step instructions to gain experience and confidence in the technology so that they could then apply this to science activities. This put the focus on the technology rather than on science and inquiry and, in our minds, was a backwards approach to learning and to the goal we had for technology (to support and enhance student scientists). The second year, our focus was on the water concepts with activities that could be better understood if we had the use of these new portable technologies, in this case, the eMates. In other words, we introduced the water concepts with activities that simultaneously introduced the portable technology tools. As part of these activities students learned the procedural steps necessary to successfully use the portable technologies. 

For more information about this learning activity, see:

             Gleason, C. & Novak, A. (2001). "Incorporating Portable Technology to Enhance an Inquiry, Project-Based Middle School Science Classroom" in Tinker, R.F. & Krajcik, J.S. (Eds.). Portable Technologies, Science Learning in Context New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. 

Chris Gleason and Ann Novak’s Chapter 3
Chapter 3 (PDF) (Word)
Requires Acrobat Reader

(Learning activity format adapted from National Educational Technology Standards for Students Connecting Curriculum & Technology http://cnets.iste.org/students)