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Primary Sources in Science Classrooms: Dimensions of Water Quality

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This post was co-written by Trey Smith, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Science Teacher in Residence, and June Teisan, 2014-15 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.

Throughout history, humans have devised methods for transporting, testing, and transforming water, a limited natural resource. Examining historical primary sources invites students to grapple with the local, global, social, political, and scientific dimensions of water.

 Downloads A Woman Dropping Her Tea-cup in Horror upon Discovering the Monstrous Contents of a Magnified Drop of Thames Water Revealing the Impurity of London Drinking Water. William Heath, 1828
A Woman Dropping Her Tea-cup in Horror upon Discovering the Monstrous Contents of a Magnified Drop of Thames Water Revealing the Impurity of London Drinking Water. William Heath, 1828

From Sacramento Daily Record Union, January 22, 1892
Sacramento Daily Record Union, January 22, 1892

Begin a unit on water with this 1828 political cartoon from London. Instead of telling students about the cartoon, encourage them to record observations, reflections, and questions. Students might wonder:

  • What was the cartoon’s purpose, and who was the intended audience?
  • What does “monster soup” mean?

After examining the cartoon, students might be inspired to:

  • find out more about the London water supply in the 1800s,
  • determine where their community’s water comes from, or
  • examine water samples with a microscope.

Use historical newspapers to investigate water quality concerns. This 1892 article describes sewage-polluted waterways. An article from 1911 connects water and health. What impact are humans having on ecosystems according to these articles? Students might consider cause and effect relationships in the texts and then compare them with newspaper articles written about water quality today.

Beyond illustrating the intersections among water, society, and politics, primary sources show how scientists and engineers work to improve water quality. Introduce students to chemist Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards using excerpts from her 1911 book, Conservation by Sanitation.

Excerpt from page 63, Conservation through Sanitation, 1911
Excerpt from page 63, Conservation by Sanitation, 1911

An excerpt from page 63 highlights Richards’s key argument: assessing water quality is complex, but trained engineers–with broad scientific and local knowledge–can untangle the puzzle. Ask students what kinds of scientific and local knowledge someone might need to evaluate water quality. The book by Richards is full of suggestions.

Richards further addresses the complexity of testing water quality on page 72, explaining that location and context of a sample matters.

Excerpt from page 72, Conservation through Sanitation, 1911
Excerpt from page 72, Conservation by Sanitation, 1911

Ask students why they think context matters when it comes to testing water samples.

Richards’s fieldwork along Massachusetts waterways and her advocacy led to statewide water quality standards and a municipal sewage treatment plant in Lowell, MA, both the first in the nation. As students learn about Richards, they might research historical and modern technological solutions intended to reduce human impact on water systems. Richards outlines some of this history in her book.

To initiate discussions about data, draw students’ attention to an excerpt from page 75.

  • What is Richards suggesting about data collection?
  • What might students learn about the nature of science from this passage?
Excerpt from page 75, Conservation through Sanitation, 1911
Excerpt from page 75, Conservation by Sanitation, 1911

Political cartoons, newspaper articles, and scientific writings provide different lenses through which students can study water.

Each artifact has the potential to catalyze and deepen learning that includes contributing to citizen science projects, creating better water filtration systems as part of an engineering design cycle, or taking other informed action about water-related issues. What do you imagine your students might do?

Comments (3)

  1. This is very clever and just the sort of thing to hold student interest at the beginning of a water science unit!

  2. I am placing a link to this page in my blog.

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