Freshwater on Earth

Time required to complete this unit:

This page is under development and may be edited at any time. Some resources have not been cataloged, pending project approval.
3 weeks, 12.5 hours or 750 minutes

Earth Science Content:

Key Terms: weathering, mass wasting, running water, ground water, erosion, atmosphere, chryosphere, landform, topography, sinkhole, mechanical weathering, chemical weathering, sediment

Freshwater is a rare and precious resource on Earth. The hydrologic cycle extracts freshwater from the salty oceans through evaporation and deposits it on land as precipitation. Rainfall, snowfall, and the accumulation of ice from precipitation shape the land surface through erosion and supply watersheds and rivers with freshwater runoff. A portion of freshwater falling into watersheds soaks in to become groundwater. Both of these provide water resources to plants, animals and human populations. Moving water also moves sediment, and shapes the land surface while moving earth material. Rain, groundwater, and gravity also work to shape the land surface through mass movements of earth called mass wasting.

Water is arguably the most critical natural resource on the planet. This chapter explores water; on the surface, underground, and its absence. Students will learn about the relationship between surface and ground water. They will examine past evidence of evidence of drought.

Developed by the DIG Texas Blueprints Education Interns and the North Texas Development Team

Students will be able to (do)

  • Explore the hydrologic cycle from atmosphere to aquifer, including human impacts the cycle.
  • Discriminate the characteristics of a watershed.
  • Examine the processes by which erosion takes place, turning rocks into sediment.
  • Investigate the attributes affecting sediment transport.
  • Analyze the different modes of mass wasting.

Students will know

  • How water moves throughout the hydrosphere, changing phases along the way.
  • How humans interact with and benefit from the water cycle.
  • The science behind aquifers and watershed characteristics and what role they play in providing water for human use.
  • The processes that change rocks into sediment and how that sediment is then transported.
  • How to identify different types of mass wasting, and understand how mass wasting is effected by weather.
  • How water moves through Earth's systems

    · How groundwater is stored and retrieved

    · The importance of ice

    · What causes drought


The activities we have selected are congruent with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and are arranged to build upon one another. Therefore, to follow the storyline we recommend that teachers complete the activities in the order provided. To open an activity in a new tab or window, right click the activity link and select the preferred option.

Big Idea 5: Earth is the Water Planet

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This video details the importance to and relationships between water, Earth's processes, and life. It is Big Idea 5 (of nine) in a series entitled "Big Ideas in Geoscience," created by the American Geosciences Institute to accompany the Earth Science Literacy Initiative's "Big Ideas."

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Video

Time Required: 5 minutes

NASA Water Cycle

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This lesson plan is designed for students to learn about the water cycle and the forces that drive it. The emphasis in this lesson will be on having students understand the processes that take place in moving water through Earth's system. This site includes links to a teacher guide, student data sheets, presentations.

Instructional Strategies: Lecture , Reading, Challenge or problem-solving

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 120 minutes

Mechanical and Chemical Weathering and Erosion

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Hands-on activities to explore how rocks turn to sediment and what affects the transport of those sediments.

Instructional Strategies: Reading, Inquiry, Challenge or problem-solving

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 180 minutes

Groundwater as Part of the Hydrological Cycle

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Hands on labs to explore porosity, permeability, groundwater filtration by soil and aquifer material. From Penn State University ecosystems group

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Challenge or problem-solving, Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 110 minutes

Hydroville Curriculum Project: How Contaminants Move in Water

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In this Hydroville Curriculum Project from Oregon State University, students learn about environmental sampling and monitoring. They perform an investigation of a small-scale groundwater contamination problem.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Challenge or problem-solving, Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 150 minutes

Let's get sedimental: A study of the process of sediment deposition and particle sorting

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Students will observe how sediments of various sizes settle out of water differently.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 90 minutes

Evaluating Rainfall, Landslides, and Weather: Big Sur, California

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In this two-part activity, the students will first test the relationship between precipitation and frequency of mass wasting events. They will research and analyze real local data to investigate and understand landslide potential. They will also work on understanding the link between weather patterns (El Niño) and mass wasting events.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Challenge or problem-solving, Concept mapping

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 60 minutes

EarthLabs: Drought

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Developed by TERC for EarthLabs. Online learning activities utilize several instructional strategies, including guided inquiry using real data and visualizations, model building, and video-enhanced instruction.

Instructional Strategies: Reading, Inquiry, Modeling

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 1000 minutes

For this unit, we have selected the following labs:

Lab 1: Where's the Water

Students explore graphics and analyze data about the distribution and availability of the world's fresh water. They develop a sense of where the world's water is as well as where it's going.

Lab 2: What's a Watershed

Small groups build simple physical models of a watershed then add model rain to observe and understand the flow of water across land. After working with the physical model, they use Google Earth to explore a rich dataset that characterizes the watershed in which they live.

Lab 4: When Precipitation Patterns Change

Students develop a practical definition of drought and explore the role of soil moisture in preventing or promoting it. They learn to interpret precipitation imagery from the National Weather Service and streamflow data in Google Earth; they use these datasets to predict where drought conditions are occurring then check their predictions by comparing them with a current drought monitor map.

Lab 7: Is Your Region Ready for a Drought?

Students explore some of the economic, environmental, and social impacts of drought, and consider how they would impact their own communities. Students stage a community meeting in which they role play a range of water managers and water users to make drought preparedness plans for their community.

Lab 8: Drought Mitigation Trade-offs

Students research the costs and benefits of technologies that are used for drought mitigation. They prepare physical models to illustrate the principles behind the methods and present their findings to their classmates, including making a recommendation if community should explore the technology further or not.

Understanding Surface Water and Groundwater Interactions

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Developed by Joel Stevens, Murry Fly, Katherine Ellins and Mark England, this learning experience has students examine the relationship between surface water and groundwater using precipitation and groundwater discharge data collected at Barton Springs in Austin, Texas and create hydrographs. Guided inquiry using real data and computer-facilitated graphing software for analysis, self-directed web-based research and use of visualizations, and direct teaching are used to help students interpret the datasets and assemble them to create a multi-year hydrograph and discuss how rainfall affects spring flow on a longer time scale. .

Instructional Strategies: Challenge or problem-solving, Modeling

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 150 minutes

Climate and Civilization - The Maya Example

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In 1996, the drillship JOIDES Resolution drilled offshore Venezuela in a deep ocean basin called the Cariaco Basin on Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Leg 165. In this activity, developed by Katherine Ellins, Jeri Rodgers, and James Cano, learners use geochemical data from ODP Core 1002D in the Carioca Basin to study its archive of past climate in Mesoamerica, and to test the hypothesis that drought may have contributed to collapse of the Mayan culture of Central America.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 100 minutes

Field Trips

Studies that examine how geologists think and learn about the Earth point to the value of field experiences in helping students develop practices that constitute geologic reasoning. We encourage teachers to take students into the field as much as possible. To this end, we include ideas for actual and virtual field trips. The latter recognizes the limitations of the K-12 classroom setting. Field learning provides a chance to encourage the ability to see features that are important to professional practice. Indeed, many geoscientists report that fieldwork was a key factor influencing their choice of geoscience as a career.

Virtual Field Trip

The Hydrologic Cycle

Take a trip through the water cycle with this interactive animation.

Scaffolding Notes

Teachers must develop their own individual plan for how they will teach the unit. Therefore, it is extremely important to allocate time to review all the activities and background material prior to using the learning experiences in this unit and to probe students for their prior knowledge before starting an activity.

We have selected learning experiences that are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The learning experiences selected provide links to excellent background preparatory materials, additional hands-on resources, teaching tips, and cross-curricular connections. However, teachers may wish to create their own PowerPoint presentations, deliver lectures and assign ancillary work (readings, etc.) to their students in order to set the stage for effective use of the learning activities contained herein. In addition, although some activities may incorporate assessments, teachers may need to create their own assessments to ensure that they are appropriate for the students they teach. We have included a few key visualizations, animations or videos and suggested readings, podcasts or tutorials. These are intended to provide the context for the learning activities.

Asterisks (*) indicate teacher resource and background recommendations for activity support.


This unit begins with an interactive exploration of the hydrologic cycle and moves to weathering and erosion - the actions of water and weather to break down and move rock material. The unit continues with a study of groundwater through both physical models of aquifers and flow models. The unit concludes with an examination of the movement of earth materials, both as sediment in running water and as landslides as influenced by rainfall, groundwater, and running water.

A water cycle interactive graphic and poster is to be used with the NASA Water Cycle curriculum. The U.S. Geological Survey created this complex water cycle diagram to be used in classrooms in 2013. The first diagram is interactive, and students can hover over processes and discover more information. The second diagram is a printable version to post in classrooms or for students to keep as reference. This is available in thirteen languages.

The Mechanical and Chemical Weathering and Erosion activity and the Weathering and Erosion Activity bring home the concept that water is a major erosional force and weathers away rock. Students are able to observe the effects of acids on materials in a way that allows them to visualize the effects of chemical weathering. Both of these require teachers to prepare multiple sets of materials ahead of time.

The How Contaminants Move in Water activity from the Hydroville curriculum project requires 60 minute prep time for demo and pre-activity homework assignment. Link to downloadable document/PDF is listed under the heading "Description." An explanation of Hydroville curriculum can be found here."

Prior to the Evaluating Rainfall, Landslides, and Weather: Big Sur, California activity, teachers can walk through this document with students to explore different types of mass wasting and why mass wasting occurs: Surface Processes: Mass Movements. Computer access or printouts of the datasets are necessary to complete the Big Sur activity.

In TERC's EarthLabs Drought Module the first two activities set the stage for understanding the distribution of water and introduce learners to the concept of a watershed. Access to a spreadsheet and graphing program is required for Lab 1. In Lab 2, access to Google Earth is required. Additional prep time is needed to collect and set up the pan, plastic sheet, and spray bottle for each lab station.

In Lab 4: When Precipitation Patterns Change, students need access to Google Earth. Allow for time to procure containers, soil, and plastic sheeting for the lab.

In Lab 7, Students examine the economic, environmental, and social impacts of drought, prepare for, and stage, a mock community meeting to draw up plans to face drought. Developed by LuAnn Dahlman and Betsy Youngman for TERC. Online learning activity that utilizes guided inquiry using real data, graphs and visualizations and interactive Instruction. Learners practice communication and listening skills.

Lab 8 has students explore how to reduce vulnerability to drought risk through mitigation strategies. Online learning activity that involves students in web-based research and hands-on laboratory experiments.

Developed by Joel Stevens, Murry Fly, Katherine Ellins and Mark England, Understanding Surface Water and Groundwater Interactions allows students to construct stream hydrographs which compare preipitation datasets to spring flow based upon three time scales: hourly, daily, and annually. Teachers will need to download files.

Climate and Civilization: The Maya Example uses geophysical and geochemical data to determine climate in Central America during the recent past and to explore the link between climate change and population growth/demise among the Maya. Access to computers in order to facilitate the guided inquiry using real data and graphing software for analysis is required.

Next Generation Science Standards

We anticipate that students should be able to achieve the NGSS Performance Expectation(s) listed after completing the activities in this unit. However, we have not carried out educational research to verify this.


These Performance Expectations integrate the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross Cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices of the NGSS as shown in the unit table (link)

Additional Resources


This reading briefly describes the characteristics of a watershed. It includes photographs teachers and students can look through for more reference.

Introduction to Mass Wasting

Comprehensive set of diagrams, pictures and descriptions of all kinds of mass movements from California State University at Long Beach.

Edwards Aquifer, Texas

Reading that explores details of an aquifer that provides water for a large portion of Texas' population. Great real life (and local!) example of what students have studied, includes recharge zone, contamination, water table and other topics.

Interview with Susan Leal: Recycling water

Susan Leal is an associate of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard University, studies issues related to water scarcity and addresses issues caused by climate change. She discusses the importance of recycling wastewater as we move towards times of decreasing freshwater availability.

Human Interaction with the Water Cycle

How much water does it take to make a hamburger? A piece of paper? Students can guess how many gallons of water each item takes to create. A follow-up activity may be a writing assignment where students describe how much water certain items take to make, what surprised them, and how people's habits and agricultural practices could be changed to positively influence water usage.

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