- Trout in the Classroom – Fall Conference 2018
- Workshop & Lesson: Systems Thinking: NYC’s Water Supply
- Facilitated by NYC Department of Environmental Protection, Robin Sanchez
- To learn about the complex and essential NYC water supply system.
- To model systems thinking and understand how different aspects of climate and the environment are interconnected.
Suggested Grade Levels: #
4th – 12th
Simply put, everything is connected. Consider baking a cake, for example. All of the ingredients needed to bake a cake rely on each other. If you do not have one ingredient, you cannot make the cake and altering one ingredient (or the quantity) will alter the entire cake. All of the ingredients work with each other to create a final product, so essentially they are all connected. This same principle can be applied to the Earth. Earth systems work in tandem to create environments conducive for life.
The National Science Foundation beautifully articulates this as, “You, the climate, and the Earth are all systems of systems. Understanding systems—the connections among individual components—is as important as understanding those components in isolation.” It is easier to understand Earth systems when we can situate humans within them. More generally, the term “systems thinking” describes “understanding [of] a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the components that comprise the entirety of that defined system.” Earth’s four major systems include air, water, land, and life.
For the purpose of this lesson, we will model the New York City Water Supply System. You can easily replace this with any other system you can think of. For example, you could begin by modeling a simple food chain, or your school community, including the different stakeholders (i.e. students, parents, teachers, and natural components—air, trout tank, plants in schoolyard, etc.). What other systems can you model?
- String or yarn
- Color paper
- Large sheet of white paper
- Printed picture cards
- Blank picture cards (on color paper)
- Ask students, “How have you used water today? Where do you think your water came from?”
- Explain to students where our water in New York City comes from, how it is conveyed from upstate watersheds, including freshwater lakes and reservoirs, by gravity through tunnels and water mains before it flows into the pipes in our homes and buildings.
- Show students pictures of the water supply system and ask them to try to identify what they observe. Project sample pictures for the class to view or pass out sample picture cards (see examples at end of lesson) for students to look through. Ask students, “Have you seen these before? What function do they serve?”
- Break students into small groups. Explain that each group will use the materials provided to create a flow chart or visual depiction of the water supply system.
- Using a large sheet of white paper and markers, each group will organize provided picture cards to depict the flow of water through the water supply system.
- Have students begin by using the provided picture cards, including:
a. Precipitation – freshwater, rain and snow that falls to the ground
b. Watershed – three NYC water systems; area of land that captures and drains water to a waterway
c. Mountains – elevated areas of land that capture rain and snow
d. Forests – natural areas of trees and plants that act as filters for water
e. Wildlife – species commonly found in NYC’s water supply system
f. Streams – flowing waterways that drain surface water into larger bodies of water
g. Reservoirs – 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes store large quantities of water
h. Water quality – scientists sample and monitor drinking water quality throughout the system
i. Aqueducts and water tunnels – pipes that convey drinking water by gravity
- Allow students 5 minutes to look through the picture cards.
- Give students 15 minutes to create their water supply system. Students can connect the picture cards by drawing how the water flows from one place to the next (i.e. streams, pipes). Have students add arrows to show the direction of flow.
- Optional: students can also tape string/yarn to connect the picture cards in the flow chart. Students will then manipulate the string/yarn in Part II as new picture cards are added to the flow chart.
- Have groups share out their systems with the class, and discuss their decision-making process.
- Explain that in many ways we play a role in this system. Encourage students to brainstorm how their actions and behaviors relate to the water supply, and depict their influence on the system by using blank cards that students can write and draw on. Instruct students to use the provided blank cards (pre-cut color paper; select one color) to illustrate our role and involvement in this system.
- Below are some examples of what can be included:
a. Water use
b. Water conservation
d. Street tree care and tree planting
e. Stream restoration
h. Invasive species removal
i. Water quality monitoring
- Flow charts will vary. Students can create systems that are cyclical, linear, or branch-like (showing numerous directions or inputs/outputs).
- Ask each group to present their flow chart, and have students explain the placement of their initial picture cards from Part I and additional cards from Part II.
- Now, have students consider what they know about climate change. How are the water cycle and climate change interconnected? How do you think such changes affect the New York City water supply system?
- Encourage students to brainstorm how their flow chart of the water supply system will now look with the influence of climate change. Students can use markers and cut up additional color paper (select a different color) if they would like, to alter and/or highlight how climate change affects the different components of their system.
- Below are some examples of changes that can be included:
a. Temperature – higher temperatures, increased evaporation
b. Precipitation – drought conditions, snow cover, heavy storms
c. Water quality – runoff, turbidity, stream erosion
d. Habitat – availability of resources, invasive species
- Have groups share out and discuss afterwards.
- Where do we fit within this system? How do we affect this system?
- Were you unfamiliar with any part of the water supply system?
- How can we be good stewards to help the system function properly?
- What are actions we can take to help maintain or improve this system and our natural resources?
- How does climate change impact these existing systems?
- How do our actions as stewards shift as we learn more?
Additional Assignments: #
- Further explore the map, New York City’s Water Story: From Mountain Top to Tap, with the complementary teacher’s guide. Request a class set of 11×17 student maps from NYC Department of Environmental Protection by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Learn about our role in the New York City wastewater treatment system by following the subsequent lesson, Systems Thinking: What happens to our wastewater?
Lesson Plan pdf and Sample Picture Cards: #
Access the pdf of the Systems Thinking Lesson Plan and you will find some sample picture cards that depict the water supply system. You can also include additional pictures. Blank boxes are provided for the picture cards that will be included in Part II of the lesson.