Groundwater - Why it's important, how it flows & what's in your water?

Revising authors: Kyle Fredrick, California University of Pennsylvania; Annette Veilleux, University of Texas at El Paso

Original authors:Jeffrey Lockridge, North Central Michigan College; Matt Heller, James Madison University

Initial Publication Date: August 11, 2021 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022


Average inquiry level: Guided inquiry

This activity introduces students to the basic concepts of Groundwater and its movement. The lab format includes hands-on activities that allow students to construct their own aquifers, manipulate these physical models, and evaluate the behavior of the system. Students move through a series of steps to develop a basic groundwater system, assess the behavior of water and contaminants within that system, and then consider the implications of those behaviors in a natural setting including in their own water sources.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



The activity is designed as a lab exercise for a physical geology course as part of a traditional sequence that includes groundwater hydrology. It would be appropriate for an advanced Environmental Science course in high school. But it is designed for general education, Introductory-level Geology course at the undergraduate level.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should have a working knowledge of basic sedimentology and stratigraphy for the purposes of recognizing layers/strata and principles of sedimentary rocks included porosity, permeability, and grain size. They should be familiar with the hydrologic cycle, including the communication between surface and groundwater.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is part of a traditional sequence of lab activities in a Lecture/Lab formatted Introductory Geology course. It typically falls later in the term following the transition from deep earth, deep time principles to surficial processes.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

At the end of the exercise, students should be able to...
Describe the source(s) of their own water and discuss the importance of groundwater as a resource.
Develop an aquifer model that demonstrates the connection between groundwater and surface water (the water cycle).
Classify geologic materials by porosity and permeability and use them to determine how different materials control groundwater transport in the subsurface.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Additionally, students should completing this activity should be able to...
Access and analyze groundwater quality data to characterize and monitor contamination.
Consider natural hydrogeologic conditions to predict groundwater movement and transport of contaminants.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will also develop skills including...
Working in groups to collaboratively develop a conceptual model and construct a physical model from it.
Using simple chemical testing kits for collecting water quality data.
Calculating water and contaminant volumes from concentrations to evaluate contaminant load and chemical toxicity.

Description and Teaching Materials

This inquiry-based lab activity introduces basic groundwater principles at an undergraduate, introductory level for students in a traditional or environmental geology context. The four-part exercise includes a brief concept quiz, development of a physical groundwater model, analysis of a contaminated field site, and basic testing of students' home water sources.
Basic Activity Information for instructors (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 19kB Jul29 21)
Student Handout for Groundwater Lab (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 417kB Jul30 21) 


Teaching Notes and Tips

The instructor version of the lab includes comprehensive notes and tips. A few items to consider are:
(1) Length - the lab is in four parts and could be broken up depending on the course and lab period length. Part 1 could be done ahead of time in lecture or an online format. Even in the prescribed three hours, the lab is ambitious.
(2) Clean-up - instructors are encouraged to use a lab room that has available water with sinks and drains. They are encouraged to be prepared for spills and messes. Towels, paper towels, extra buckets, etc. are recommended.
(3) Follow-up - the lab is light on reflection. There are multiple opportunities for reflection after each part and after the entire lab. One recommendation has been provided at the end as "Something to Consider." But having students do some basic web searching about the Clean Water Act, or finding water protection agencies in their area, could add some important relevance to the activity.


The assessment is explicit within the activity. Students are provided a series of questions along the way to assess their level of comprehension and if they are completing steps appropriately. There are road checks and instructors are encouraged to circulate as students perform. With as many open-ended questions and problems, it is important to add feedback or interact with students to make sure they are meeting the learning objectives.

References and Resources

First Alert Water Testing kits from Amazon:
Awesome Aquifers Activity from Science Olympiad: