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Lesson Plan: Pollution in Our Watershed

(Courtesy the California Academy of Sciences). (Update 8/2018 – the link and lesson no longer exist. This California Academy of Sciences activity on marine invertebrates’ adaptations for students in grades 3-12 covers some of the same material.)

Grade Level: Grades 2 – 8 

Time Required: 10 minutes for preparation and 30 minutes for the activity.

Teacher Background

By building a simple watershed with paper and markers, students will understand how pollution accumulates in our water sources, especially from pesticides used in agriculture.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

1. understand what constitutes a watershed.
2. understand how pollution accumulates in our water sources, especially from pesticides used in agriculture

California Content Standards

Grade Five
Earth Sciences

3d. Students know that the amount of fresh water located in rivers, lakes, underground sources, and glaciers is limited and that its availability can be extended by recycling and decreasing the use of water.

Grade Six
Earth Sciences

2a. Students know water running downhill is the dominant process in shaping the landscape, including California’s landscape.

6b. Students know different natural energy and material resources, including air, soil, rocks, minerals, petroleum, fresh water, wildlife, and forests, and know how to classify them as renewable or nonrenewable.


  • 1 page of white typing paper per team
  • 1 page of card stock per team
  • permanent markers of multiple colors; washable orange marker
  • tape
  • spray bottle
  • water


watershed: a continuous ridge of high ground forming a divide between two different drainage basins or river systems. The region enclosed by such a divide and draining into a river, river system, or other body of water.

pollution: the contamination of air, water, or soil by substances that are harmful to living organisms. Pollution can occur naturally, for example through volcanic eruptions, or as the result of human activities, such as the spilling of oil or disposal of industrial waste.

pesticide: a chemical used to kill harmful animals or plants. Pesticides are used especially in agriculture and around areas where humans live. Some are harmful to humans, either from direct contact or as residue on food. Others are harmful to a range of organisms in the environment because of their high toxicity.



Students will create watersheds using paper and markers. Precipitation will occur and marked areas with pesticides/pollutants will drain down into rivers, lakes, and streams ending up in the ocean.


It can be messy.

1. Students will crumple a piece of white paper lightly. This will look like a topographical map.

2. Students will then use their permanent markers to outline and define various areas in the watersheds using appropriate colors such as:
Black or brown—mountains
Green—agricultural areas
Blue—rivers, lakes, streams, ocean
Gray—urban areas and buildings

3. Ask student teams to determine how many watersheds are in their model. Review the definition of a watershed.

4. Using a washable orange marker, students will “spray” pesticides on the crop areas by making lots of dots and streaks over the green agricultural areas

5. Students will then tape down the four corners of the crinkled paper onto a larger piece of card stock. To give the watersheds model a variety of elevations, the paper should not be taped completely flat.

6. Now it will rain. The teacher will walk around and spray each map with the water using the spray bottle.

7. Students will most likely be able to observe the movement of pesticides/pollution (orange water) from the fields to the streams, rivers, lakes and ocean.


  • What are some solutions to pesticide use on crops? (Organic farming does not permit the use of synthetic pesticides)
  • What are other sources of pollution in fresh water? (Chemicals from factories, oil leaks from cars, untreated sewage, fertilizer from farms, golf courses, and lawns, household cleaner, medicines)


* Vocabulary definitions: The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Retrieved October 22, 2007, from website:

* Drainage basins. Retrieved October 22, 2007 from

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