Rewriting the World Water Script: Defining the Freshwater Access Crisis

What You Need


  • Writing paper
  • Pencils
  • Pens
  • Unlined drawing paper
  • Colored pencils
  • Markers
  • 5  one-gallon plastic jugs filled with water
  • Post-it® notes
Rewriting the World Water Script: Defining the Freshwater Access Crisis Photo Credit: Cecilia Snyder. Girls carrying water. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via flickr


To understand and empathize with the challenges to daily living that a lack of access to freshwater poses, and to imagine innovative green solutions to it.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that make up the Inventing Green Project, a collection of resources that engage 6–12 students with invention education. Invention education encompasses the idea that learning is powered by hands-on experiences that allow students to turn ideas into inventions with impact. You can learn more about invention education by reading the Invention Education part of the Invention Education Educator's Toolkit.

This lesson is the first of a series of three lessons that focuses on the issue of the lack of access to safe drinking water in many parts of the world. In this first lesson, students will focus their research on understanding the crisis of access to freshwater that is safe to drink in tropical and near-tropical societies and its impacts on people’s daily lives.

Students will use technology to address an urgent social problem of water stress. They will experience how difficult and heavy water is to move by physically transporting up to 40 pounds of water in one-gallon jugs. They will then use that experience to brainstorm and creatively design innovative low-tech alternatives to transporting water.

Few modern Americans experience the “water stress”—lack of access to safe drinking water, lack of sanitation, lack of water delivery infrastructure—that much of the world faces. As a result, American students typically have not experienced how difficult water is to transport without the physics-based infrastructure of pipes, pressure gradients, and pumps that Americans take for granted every day—and which are a major public health victory of the 20th century.

As a green invention lesson, it supports the learning goals by prompting students to explore the abilities of science and technological design to solve human and social problems through creative and evidence-based inquiry and collaborative innovation.

In the second lesson in the series, From Woodpeckers to Water: Virtual and Rapid Prototyping Models for Easing the Freshwater Access Crisis, students will develop engineering solutions for solving the problem of access to freshwater sources in developing countries by examining case studies of design and exploring models.

In the third lesson in the series, Design Challenge, students will build and evaluate prototypes for water transport in a design challenge using a number of evaluation criteria.

Students will build as well as discuss water transport designs they propose in cultural, social, and economic contexts. They will consider possible risks and resource allocation questions. From an operational point of view, students will consider the realities of how their proposed solutions could be locally manufactured or acquired, funded, maintained, deployed efficiently, and retired responsibly when their lifespan is over.

The entire three-lesson set incorporates green habits of mind related to lean and agile systems; design-led project management, and bottom-up, culturally relevant social entrepreneurship that is grounded in a moral statement from the United Nations General Assembly, summarized below.

In July 2010 the U.N. General Assembly confirmed the human right to water and sanitation (PDF). In particular, the Assembly recognized the right of every human being to have:

  • Access to sufficient water for personal and domestic uses, between 50 and 100 litres of water per person per day
  • Water which must be safe, acceptable, and affordable—water costs should not exceed three per cent of household income
  • Water that is physically accessible, meaning the water source has to be within 1,000 metres of the home and collection time should not exceed 30 minutes

Sadly, these goals have not been met. According to the Millennium Development Goals Report 2012 (PDF), an estimated 783 million people, or 11 per cent of the global population, remain without access to an improved source of drinking water. Such sources include household connections, public standpipes, boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs, and rainwater collections.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Next Generation Science Standards: 

Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science

  • HS-ETS1-1 Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants.
  • HS-ETS1-2 Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.
  • HS-ETS1-3 Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
  • HS-ETS1-4 Use a computer simulation to model the impact of proposed solutions to a complex real-world problem with numerous criteria and constraints on interactions within and between systems relevant to the problem.

Natural Resources

  • HS-ESS3-1 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.

Planning Ahead

Time: This lesson will take five class periods (~ 1 hour each day), though this can be adapted to fewer days.

Structure: The water transportation exercise described in in the Motivation section could be coordinated with your janitorial staff so as not to waste the water students collect, but instead to use it for landscaping or cleaning, for example.

Upcoming lessons will include designing and building models. A partnership with a college or maker space/FabLab could be beneficial, and you may wish to arrange the time for a field trip or open lab. Starting a school club afterschool might be an option to accommodate highly engaged students who want to pursue this topic further.

Teacher Role: In invention education pedagogy, you have a reduced instructional role in this lesson. You should function more as a facilitator or project manager. This is because invention education encourages student initiative, leadership, and team-building so that through their engagement students form a tight, problem-solving creativity corps. You can learn more about invention education and/or finding mentors to help you and your students by reading the Invention Education Educator Toolkit.

Student Leadership: This lesson requires each student to take turns as needed to perform leadership, administrative, and operational roles in the project by assuming and inventing titles as needed. Eventually, these roles replace most of your involvement because students respond to the needs of the project and generate titles themselves to become a self-organizing and assembling unit. We also suggest that you provide your students with the Invention Education Toolkit student sheet so they can get background information on invention education.

Materials: 3-ring lab binder/notebook that serves as a class day-by-day Discovery Diary and includes graph paper, notebook sheets, and sticky notes. NOTE: It is the legacy process document from which students can document and reconstruct this effort, present project recaps, and use to improve subsequent efforts. It should be full of notes and sticky notes that could be redacted later.

Technology: If your class can use mobile devices, apps such as Max Belief Comix can help students create a comic for use in the Development section.


Day 1
Begin this lesson by having students engage in an activity that will help them to understand how difficult it is to carry the amount of water needed by a person each day. Before they begin the activity, you should inform students of these three facts:

  • The United Nations estimates that one human ADULT needs 50 liters (~13 gallons) of water a day for drinking, cooking, and hygiene.
  • Because many parts of Africa are highly water-stressed, the average African FAMILY has access to approximately 19 liters (5 gallons) for use daily.
  • Water is heavy. One gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds. Hand-carrying 5 gallons requires the strength and stamina to transport 41.7 pounds.

Option 1. Fill five one-gallon jugs with tap water. Each student should try to hand-carry five gallons of water, by holding one or two jugs at a time in their hands and making multiple trips up a short flight of school stairs to understand that water is heavy and moving it is physically demanding.

NOTE: the goal is merely to feel the weight and exertion needed to move water. Neither encourage nor allow students to risk physical injury by “competing” to see who can carry the most the fastest. Do not put the jugs on shoulders or heads.

Modification, Option 2.  If the stair climb activity is inappropriate for the school, class, or students, students can form a “fire brigade” line and, standing still on level ground, pass the five, one-gallon jugs up and down the line by hand, one at a time, until all five gallons have been moved and reached the end of the line. Students may step out of the line after handling one gallon if the exercise is difficult for them.

After the water-transport exercise, prompt students to discuss these questions:

  • What are your impressions of hand-to-hand water transport? How does this feel to you, as a condition of every day of your life?
  • Are there risks to moving water this way? What are they?
  • Are there benefits to moving water this way? What are they?
  • Are there costs to moving water this way? What are they?
  • Consider this a closed system: no new materials or inputs are available. How could you make moving water easier without any new materials?
  • Consider this open system: one new material or input is allowed. What one thing can you think of that would make this easier?

(Answers may vary. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)


Technological solutions require scientific data generated by research to solve problems. This lesson is a creative engineering exercise in which students research the problem of access to freshwater that millions of people in the world face.

Day 1, Research: 30 minutes
Students should follow up the Motivation activity by beginning research in class that is continued at home. In class, students should work in small groups to conduct Internet research on the freshwater access crisis using the Rewriting World Water Script student esheet to start their research. Students should pay particular attention to roadblocks and possible solutions to the freshwater access crisis as they are doing their research.

They should use their student esheet to go to the highest quality sources such as top level domains of educational, governmental, and select non-governmental organizations and other credible sources. These include:

Encourage students to expand on this list, sharing other helpful resources. They can then create a common class bibliography on the topic that they compose on a shared-resource such as Google Drive.

While researching and locating additional resources, students should take notes to help them prepare to write a report on what they've learned about the freshwater access problem.

Day 2: 1 hour
For the first 30 minutes of class, students should work individually to write the first draft of a report based on their research.

For the second 30 minutes, students should work in groups to share their reports and identify key messages. Once students have shared their reports, each group will select one of the media formats listed below into which they will plan to translate their key messages. NOTE: In class, students only plan for translating their messages; they do not have time to do it. The media translation requires collaborative homework time, and this may be assigned after Day 5 or completed as extra credit.

Suggested Media Formats 

  • An outline for a blog entry with illustrations
  • A storyboard—this is a scene-by-scene description, often with image, for a scripted scene in a play or video documentary or YouTube video; a storyboard for a video public service announcement. You can get a 14-day free trial of the online Storyboard That for your students to use. Or, you can download some templates from Storyboard Templates.
  • Sketches for the introductory panels and narrative of a graphic novel or cartoon. If mobile devices are available, free apps help students make comics, such as Make Belief Comix. There's a free version and an ad-free $1.99 version.
  • Two minutes of a recorded podcast
  • Social media awareness campaign via FaceBook or Instagram pages
  • An infographic advertising poster as the beginning of a public awareness campaign.

Day 3: 1 hour class and 1 hour homework
Students should draw inspiration for understanding problems and designing culturally-appropriate solutions by watching the Hippo Roller video and discussing a case study of improving freshwater access with the Hippo Roller Water Project.

Now pass out the Hippo Roller student sheet, which students can use to take notes to prepare for the class discussion.

After students have watched the video and read about the Hippo Roller, ask them these questions:

  • How would you describe the Hippo Roller to a general audience?
  • How would you describe it to a technical or a scientific audience?
  • What problems does it solve?
  • What problems might it create?
  • For whom is it best suited?
  • What’s missing from its design, in your opinion?

(Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Students should now begin work on the Hippo Roller Essay, which may be worked on as a group submitting a single student sheet that is started in class and finished as homework. Students should write a persuasive summary for or against the Hippo Roller's use—or its needs for modification—in which they advocate for greater awareness of and financial support for developing a solution to the freshwater access problem.

Day 4: 1 hour
Students should revisit, share, and discuss group project plans developed from their research and reports from the previous days, treating them as drafts undergoing iterative improvement through revision. If time allows, encourage students to change groups during critique, revision, and editing of their ideas and “translation” blueprints to move their messages into a new media format. Students should revise their plan in preparation for final review on Day 5.


Day 5
Using the Post-it® notes, each group should write three things, one per note, they revised in their previous iterative improvement of the media plan. They should take into consideration points made during discussion and from the Hippo Roller case study both during class and from homework. They should read their notes aloud to get class feedback—and revise as needed, using extra Post-it® notes.

When all groups have spoken and revised their main Post-it® notes points, all groups should then place their “best points” on the class white board or wall.

The visual assessment here shows students have collaborated to improve their brainstorming and application of research data for one aspect of the solution—communicating the problem, and suggesting ways science and technology can be used to ease human suffering. 


Follow this lesson with the next two lessons in this inventing green series:

If desired, students can complete the media translation project they have developed throughout this lesson, either as an additional assignmemt or as extra credit.

Having a mentor to guide you through the steps of inventing can facilitate the process. Mentors can help across the innovation continuum, from early concepts, to builds and revisions, to suggestions for how to broadly communicate about an invention and the problem it solves in order to encourage diverse buy-in and community support.

Students can use the Invention Education Toolkit student sheet to begin a “networking leads” database of possible mentors. The goal for this lesson could be to identify and work with mentors to develop messages about the global water access problem.

NOTE: Students may eventually partner with adult mentors to present their ideas—or their finished product—at the students’ initiative. Developing and connecting with a mentor is an important part of learning to network to advance and test ideas and benefit from a broadly engaged community. You can consult your Invention Education Toolkit teacher sheet for ideas on how to create the mentoring spreadsheet, as well as addressing safety concerns. It includes a compendium of sources to contact and also is a means of tracking the progress of relationships and outcomes. Possible venues for meeting mentors include: at a school assembly, Rotary meeting, community-action group, various online meeting apps, or other forums students can use to communicate the message about the global water access problem. 

The Hippo Roller is one successful response to the water transport problem. As the name clearly shows, it was inspired by an animal, the hippopotamus.

As students think about why that is so, ask them to explore the concept of applying science in one field—zoology and animal physiology—to another—engineering mechanical transport of water.

Using the Science NetLinks lesson on Super Water Repellent, nature’s own waterproofing, extend the concept of what technological solutions animals can inspire. It is a field called biomimicry, and we will explore it further in this series.

Funder Info
The Lemelson Foundation
Based in Portland, The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives. Inspired by the belief that invention can solve many of the biggest economic and social challenges of our time, the Foundation helps the next generation of inventors and invention-based businesses to flourish. The Lemelson Foundation was established in the early 1990s by prolific inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy. To date the Foundation has made grants totaling over $200 million in support of its mission. For more information, visit http://lemelson.org.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards

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