Hands-on activities teach Maine middle school students about the water cycle, runoff prevention and watershed preservation.


They can be a drop of saltwater in the Atlantic Ocean. Or a drop of clean water fresh from a well. Or even a drop of wastewater making its way through a sewer.

Middle school students in Maine learn about the water cycle by pretending to be water droplets as part of the Portland Water District’s WaterWays, a 20-year-old program that teaches kids about preserving water resources.

The WaterWays program brings hands-on learning in the sciences to about 1,000 students across southern Maine each year. Recent changes keep things fresh and help it fit with national science education standards. “WaterWays lets them know what they can personally do to help improve our water resources,” says Sarah Plummer, environmental education coordinator with the district.

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In previous years, an environmental educator attended one class each month during the school year. Now, with more funding available, the district has a full-time educator and a more concentrated program that helps students engage and retain what they learn. Educators visit the classrooms once a week over four weeks, delivering hands-on and sensory lessons to involve kids in science, especially as it applies to water.

Hands-on approach

Schools can choose different themes to fit with their science curricula. For instance, one lesson introduced six landscaping techniques to prevent erosion and divert runoff from water bodies. Simple ideas like planting trees and shrubs along the waterline and placing rain barrels under rain gutters are the same concepts water district scientists use to solve real-world problems.

After the lesson, groups of students were given two-dimensional landscape models of a backyard and a list of three water management problems to solve. Using their lessons, they created a model of their solutions using a diagram of the home and pieces of felt to represent management techniques.

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“I’ve always felt that students, especially those in middle school, understand more when they learn through their senses,” Plummer says. “It’s great seeing that light go on as they grasp what can be some pretty complicated concepts.”

In the water cycle lesson, students roll dice to select where in the water cycle their droplets start and then collect colored beads to track their journey. “That lesson is neat because the students don’t realize how many parts of the water cycle one droplet can be a part of,” says Plummer. “It also drives home the idea that pollution to one portion of the water cycle can have a negative impact on many parts.”

In the field

Other lessons include treatment plant tours and field trips to learn about aquatic habitats. In another lesson, kids pour water on epoxy watershed models that mimic how water moves in the environment. Teachers tell Plummer these lessons are favorites. “The teachers are very on-board with what we’re doing,” she says. “In fact, we have trouble meeting the need with the educator team we have in place.”

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Plummer says the goal is to see students use the conservation techniques in their own lives and start conversations with their parents about how they can work as a family to protect the watershed.

“We do outreach aimed at adults and homeowners as well, but sometimes I feel that the point can get driven home if we can get the kids passionate about it,” she says. “We also provide follow-up materials for teachers to continue the lessons as part of the in-class curriculum. We know our time with these students is limited, so it’s about making the biggest impact we can.”


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