Water Quality Module

This module was initially developed by Castendyk, D. and Gibson, C. 30 June 2015. Project EDDIE: Water Quality. Project EDDIE Module 6, Version 1. cemast.illinoisstate.edu/data-for-students/modules/water-quality.shtml. Module development was supported by NSF DEB 1245707.


Water quality is a critical concept for undergraduate students studying Earth Sciences, Biology, and Environmental Sciences. Many of these students will be asked to assess the impacts of a proposed anthropogenic activities on human water resources and/or ecosystems as part of their future careers. This module engages students in exploring factors contributing to the variability of nitrate in surface waters; one of the most common contaminants found in US rivers. Students will utilize real-time nitrate data from the US Geological Survey to statistically evaluate water quality impacts and to identify their causes.

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Learning Goals

Learning objectives:

This module introduces students to the following Scientific Concepts:

  • The concept of "concentration" with an emphasis on nitrate.
  • Natural and anthropogenic fluxes to the nitrogen cycle.
  • Impacts of elevated nitrate on drinking water quality (i.e. blue baby syndrome). Passing reference is made to ecological impacts, however, because these impacts vary from environment to environment, we only introduce concepts of eutrophication and hypoxia.
  • An introduction to water law and water management.
  • Exploration of point-source, non-point source, and land use impacts on water quality.
  • Exploration of the nitrogen cycle.

Quantitative skills gained by students from this module include:

  • An understanding of data variability, both natural and anthropogenic.
  • The calculation and interpretation of probability.
  • An understanding of how to access online datasets from the USGS.
  • The ability to perform calculations and generate graphs using MS Excel.
  • An appreciation for the value of large datasets.

Context for Use

This complete module is designed to be implemented over four 1-hour classes, requiring internet access and Microsoft Excel for students. Activities may be broken up and used separately as instructors see fit. This module is intended for introductory to mid-level, Earth Science, Biological Science and Environmental Science students. It is helpful if students have a little knowledge of chemistry, however, this is not required. It will also be useful for the students to understand the fundamentals of the hydrological cycle prior to this module as concepts of storm water runoff and base flow play a key role in the interpretation of the results of Activity D. The Excel skills used in this activity involve calculating probability and generating a graph.

Module materials can be tailored to increase or decrease the background information depending on students' quantitative skills and interests. This module can also be taught as Part 2 of a three-part module sequence, beginning with Module 5) Stream Discharge and concluding with Module 7) Nutrient Loading.

How Instructors Have Used This Module

Using the Project EDDIE Water Quality Module in Introduction to Environmental Studies
Melissa Hage, Emory University
Melissa Hage, Emory University About this Course Introduction to Environmental Studies Lecture and Lab Introductory Undergraduate Majors and Non-Majors 22 students in the course     Show Course Goals ...

Description and Teaching Materials

Quick overview of the activities in this module

  • Activity A: Students are introduced to water quality concerns via background readings and PowerPoint presentation
  • Activity B: Students acquire and investigate EPA data and real-time concentrations
  • Activity C: Students collect data, calculate probabilities, and engage in in-class discussion
  • Activity D: Students compare data across regions, generate plots and hypotheses
  • Activity E: Students explore the nitrogen cycle, generate plots, and analyze data while this time, considering nitrate as a nutrient vs. a pollutant
  • Activity F (Optional take home assignment)

Workflow of this module:

For step-by-step instructions for the activities in this module, see the Instructor's Manual (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 781kB Dec28 16) (also linked below).

  1. Assign pre-class readings.
  2. Disperse student handouts in class: Student Handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 109kB Feb25 20) and Student Dataset (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 339kB Dec28 16)
  3. Discussion of pre-class readings (Activity A; prior to starting unit in class)
  4. Instructor gives brief PowerPoint presentation on water quality, and environmental implications. (Activity A; in-class, 30 minutes)
  5. Students explore variability in nitrate concentrations over time through searching for and exploring EPA 303(d) regional data (Activity B;1-hour class time)
  6. Students assess acute, local, water quality impacts by collecting, plotting and explaining water quality data (Activity C; 1-hour class time)
  7. Students explore rural vs. urban land use impacts by using Google Earth and generating hypotheses, plot data, and discuss results (Activity D; 1-hour class time)
  8. Students learn about nutrient concentrations, and water quality and biotic controls using Google Earth, USGS sites, and test hypotheses, answer questions and finish with whole class discussions (Activity E; 1-hour class time)
  9. Instructors may assign take-home assignment for further expansion/evaluation (Activity F)

Teaching Materials:

Teaching Notes and Tips

See the Instructor's Manual (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 781kB Dec28 16) and Instructor's PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 34.5MB Nov15 18) for notes and tips for carrying out this exercise.


In Activity A, students are introduced to water quality concerns via background readings and PowerPoint presentation.

In Activity B, students acquire and investigate EPA data and real-time concentrations.

In Activity C, students collect data, calculate probabilities, and engage in in-class discussion.

In Activity D, students compare data across regions, generate plots and hypotheses.

In Activity E, students explore the nitrogen cycle, generate plots, and analyze data while this time, considering nitrate as a nutrient vs. a pollutant.

Notes, tips, with answers to the worksheet questions are provided in the following files:

References and Resources

Suggested pre-class readings

Articles discussing water quality issues are not uncommon in the media. Below we list some that we used, but the instructor should feel free to look for other articles.

Data providers' citations:

(Instructors and students will obtain their own regional data from the following sources)