Freshwater Transport

How do people get access to freshwater? Why is freshwater so important? How does freshwater get moved to arid regions? Students will explore these questions and more as they work in teams to engage in lessons and a culminating design challenge where they design, build and test a scaled model that can transport fresh water over a distance with no human contact in between locations. They have the opportunity to demonstrate their models and explain how they work.

Educational Outcomes

  • Student teams conduct research to understand the importance of access to fresh water
  • Students investigate, compare, and explain different methods currently used for transporting fresh water
  • Students apply the engineering design process to solve a real-world problem

STEAM Integration

Students conduct a short research project to better understand the importance of freshwater and common problems in transporting it. They use their research to develop empathy for the problem and inform their ideation efforts in the design process. They document their progress and data as they work on their design solutions.


NGSS 3-5-ETS1-1: Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

NGSS 3-5-ETS1-2: Generate and compare multiple solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

CCSS ELA W.5.7: Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

Unit Materials

This unit can be completed using the RAFT Makerspace-in-a-Box kit. The kit contains many items with various attributes useful for different purposes by students. Examples include rigid items for structure such as craft sticks, plastic rods, and cardboard tubes; flexible/cuttable items such as foam, chenille stems, straws, and cardstock for making customized structures; and items serving as connectors such as paper clips, binder clips, and stickers/tape. Note: Some lessons call for additional items not included in the kit. We encourage facilitators to be creative and provide other materials to explore in the lessons. Questions? Email us:

Maker Journal Pages

Students record their learning in Maker Journal pages, sheets containing tasks and prompts specific to each lesson in the unit, including the culminating design challenge. These sheets encourage students to reflect on their learning throughout the unit and can be used as part of a larger student portfolio with which to demonstrate growth in concept knowledge and design skills. These sheets can be copied for students or recreated by students in a bound notebook.

Tips for an Active Classroom

Communication is critical in the design process. Students need to be allowed to talk, stand, and move around to acquire materials. Help students become successful and care for the success of others by asking them to predict problems that might arise in the active environment and ask them to suggest strategies for their own behavior that will ensure a positive working environment for all students and teachers.

Design Thinking Overview

Our integrated STEAM units incorporate a non-linear design thinking model, with each phase being repeatable to allow students to rework and iterate while developing a deeper understanding of the core concepts. The phases of the design thinking model are:

Empathize: Work to fully understand the experience of the user

Define: Process and synthesize findings from empathy work to form a user point of view

Ideate: Explore a wide range and variety of possible ideas for solutions

Prototype: Transform ideas into a physical form with which to learn and interact

Test: Refine prototypes, learn more about the user, and refine original point of view

The Importance of Freshwater (60 min)

Learning Targets

  • Students will be able to conduct a short research project that use several sources
  • Students will be able to identify facts on freshwater transport and its challenges

Essential Questions

  • What is freshwater? Why is it important?
  • How can we find the answers to questions about freshwater?
  • How can we ask the right questions to find the best answers?

Lesson Materials


  1. Draw a large t-chart on chart paper or whiteboard with the headings “What is freshwater?” and “How do we move it?” Ask students to share their prior knowledge about freshwater by asking these questions and recording their responses in the chart.
  2. Clarify understanding with a few facts about freshwater (see sample student teacher dialog below for examples).
  3. Show students images of drought. The images could be from the past or present, from a specific region of the world or more local. You may want to select images from a Google Image search on the topic. Ask students, “How could we transport water to areas like these?” Record their responses if desired.
  4. Form groups of 3-4 students or allow them to form their own groups.
  5. Tell students they will be doing some research on freshwater (see sample dialog) and record their work in the lesson maker journal. Ask them where they might find information on freshwater.
  6. Consider selecting a few images of uses of water, drought, and results of the water crisis. Model good techniques for safe quality internet searches. Consider pre-selecting sites that yield quality information for the topic. Some web resources are provided in the lesson materials list as starters. If students have devices you might have them view them, or review some of them together as a class.
  7. Assess by evaluating the information on freshwater and transport shared by student groups (see suggested assessment below).

Sample teacher and student dialog

T: Share these facts with students after first assessing their prior knowledge: “Freshwater is essential for life. Plants, animals, and humans all need freshwater to survive. We use freshwater for drinking water, irrigating crops, sanitation systems, and in industrial factories, to name a few. Water used up from groundwater, rivers and lakes is replenished by rain and snowfall.

About 70% of Earth’s surface is covered in water. Of all the water on Earth 97% is in the oceans. That only leaves 3% as freshwater. Of that small amount of freshwater almost 2% is locked up in glaciers and ice at the North and South poles. The remaining 1% of freshwater is mostly groundwater, with a small fraction filling the world’s lakes and rivers.”

T: “We are going to conduct a short research project, inquiring about the importance of freshwater and the various methods for transporting fresh water. Let’s think of ways that we could look for this information.”

S: “Internet search, Wikipedia, image search, google maps, maps and other resources in our library.”

T: “These are all great suggestions! Use these tools and your maker journal to record your findings. Be ready to share!”


Student groups discuss and compare their findings, sharing different critical uses for water and methods of freshwater transportation they found in their research. They should also share any difficulties they discovered in transporting freshwater.

Design Challenge: Freshwater Transport System (90 min)

Students work in teams and apply their learning about freshwater transport to a real-world scenario of their choosing by designing, building, and testing a water transport system that can move 0.5 – 2 liters of water across a distance of 3 meters (Note: The facilitator can adjust these values as needed). Examples of scenarios include transporting water to remote California farms, desert communities, and moon colonies.

Design Prompts

  • Choose a real-world scenario where your design serves as the solution
  • Design, build, and test your freshwater transport system so it meets the defined criteria and constraints (see below)


  • RAFT Makerspace-in-a-Box
  • Chart paper or poster paper
  • Markers, pens, pencils
  • Tape
  • Binder clips and/or paper clips
  • Scissors, staplers, hole punches, rulers
  • Tubing, silicone or vinyl, able to be cut w/ scissors
  • Plastic beakers or other graduated devices for measuring volumes of liquids
  • Syringes, cups, funnels, straws, containers, or other pipe or trough-like items
  • Paper or cloth towels for spills
  • Water
  • Computers or mobile devices
  • Internet access
  • Other materials at facilitator’s discretion


  1. Present and explain the design prompt(s) for the challenge (above)
  2. Review and define the criteria and constraints listed below and these terms: iteration, prototype, system. Alternatively, you can define them together as a class, providing students with voice and choice.
  3. Assign student teams or assign students to specific groups.
  4. Students follow steps in the design process and record their progress in the challenge Maker Journal.
  5. Students share and compare their design solutions, reflect on the data collection/calculations, and provide peer feedback for improvement on future iterations.

The criteria and constraints for this challenge are listed below. Criteria are the requirements for the design or its expected functions or abilities. Constraints are limitations on the design such as time, space, available materials, money, etc. The criteria and constraints are also listed in the Maker Journal for this challenge.

Criteria & Constraints

  • System moves 0.5 – 2.0 liters of water across a distance of 3 meters (~10 ft) (Facilitator: Adjust values as needed)
  • System transports water without (much) human assistance
  • System built using ___ or more different materials provided (Facilitator: Define minimum number of materials as appropriate)
  • Data (amount of water successfully transported) is collected and recorded for each test
  • System completed within allotted time (facilitator’s discretion)

Ideate Phase

During the ideation phase students should have ample time to discuss and research their ideas. All ideas are welcome during the ideation phase, and students should be encouraged to think big. Students should capture their ideas using the Maker Journal or a digital tool (Google doc, other). Keep in mind students may return to this phase as many times as needed. Students decide on the real-world scenario; discuss, draw and list possible solutions for making a scaled transport system that meets the criteria and constraints, and then choose the solution the team thinks is best.

Prototype Phase

Students select one of the designs from the ideation stage to create using various materials. Initially they will have a rough prototype of the design that should eventually get better as they test it and make refinements. Students may also want to experiment with solutions that focus on changes in behavior. For example, encourage them to create a transport system that might be better than current systems and could encourage people to adopt their system. Students use the Maker Journal to draw and label their designs. Students may need to return to this phase as they iterate.

Test Your Design

Students evaluate their designs in the Maker Journal. They determine if their system can transport water according to the criteria and constraints. This activity should be focused on brevity and conducted at a brisk pace. Students should be going through ideas, building prototypes and evaluating their designs for at least three or four design cycles. Build time should be quick and designs should be kept simple. Students may return to this phase as they iterate.


Student groups discuss and compare their solutions and give each other feedback on the ability of their solutions to transport water effectively across the defined distance. Students should also give suggestions for improvements to the design for future iterations. Conduct a whole group discussion to allow all students to share, discuss and compare their solutions. Help students to focus their thinking on the data collected and interpreting its meaning in the context of the real-world scenarios for which the teams designed their solutions.