Water in Extreme Environments: FAQs

How much do I need to know about the water reuse process?

Everything you need to know is outlined in the Educator Guides and Educator Resources on our website. Definitely check out the 7 short videos that introduce all concepts in the unit.


How do I help students understand the engineering process?

Use Prep Activity 1, this is designed as an introduction to the EDP. Make sure to post the Engineering Design Process poster and point out the steps to youth as they complete the process or do an in-depth reflection at the end.


How long does this unit take? How much preparation is involved?

Each activity is approximately 55 minutes. There are 11 activities in the entire unit, so budget about 11 hours of instructional time. Please account 1 to 2 hours to familiarize yourself with each Educator Guides. If you are gathering your materials, plan a trip to a general merchandise big box store and a landscaping store. A quick reference for prep timing and activity timing is included in our Back Pocket Activity Essentials: Science and Engineering.


Do I need an assistant to run this unit? Is there special equipment needed?

An assistant would certainly be useful to assist large groups of youth in these activities, but if adequate preparation and clean up time is available, it is entirely possible to lead these activities solo. Aside from the consumable materials listed in the Educator Guides, you will need access to a printer, access to the internet, and ideally a projector to watch the videos in the Engineering Everywhere Prep Activity 2 and Science Series Activity 1 and any other visuals and videos on our website that you find useful and instructive. Reference: Water in Extreme Environments webpage


What can be cut out if time is short?

The Science Series and Engineering Everywhere Activities build on their concepts respectively but are stand-alone units. It is not necessary to complete one in order to teach the other. If youth are very familiar with technology and engineering, then the Engineering Everywhere Prep Activities 1 & 2 can be cut, with the exception of the Engineering Everywhere Special Report Video. If youth are inexperienced with the engineering design process, we recommend that you include them. Because color is mostly unaffected by the filtration procedures in these activities, a charcoal filter demonstration over multiple days is included in the guide. If time is short, consider if this is important in aiding the understanding for your particular group of youth. Please allow ample time for creativity in the building Activities 4 & 5, and allow ample time at the end of each activity for reflection and clean-up.


How many youth should be in each group?

The materials list in the Engineering Guide is designed for 8 groups of 3 youth. Make sure that your groups aren't so large that there aren't enough tasks to go around. Also, assigning roles like the note taker, the materials gatherer, the tester, and the presenter will help everyone stay involved. If time allows, a team-building activity prior to beginning the unit can set the stage for collaborative success. Activity 2 in the Science Series can be done in larger groups.


How much will the materials cost? Do I have to use the exact materials listed?

You can purchase a complete materials kit online from the Museum of Science EiE Store for $425. If this is out of your price range, you can purchase the materials individually at any general merchandise big box store. A complete materials list is included on page xvii of the Engineering Guide and on page 10 of the Science Guide. Feel free to use your creativity to substitute materials if that works better for you, but test them out first to make sure they will work.


If I were to buy the materials in bulk on my own, are they easy to obtain? Are they expensive?

None of the materials in this unit are particularly difficult to find or individually expensive. You should be able to purchase everything you need at a Big-box store with a grocery & craft section, and an additional trip to a garden or landscaping supply store (limestone, soil, & sand). Many of these materials might even be in your home, yard, or at the homes of your youth. Consider using the letter to families on page xxiii of the guide to crowd-source supplies. We have found that some activated charcoal works better than others for the yellow food color reduction demonstration. We found success with activated charcoal sold for fish tanks.


Where can I find a glossary of terms and acronyms used in this unit?

There is a glossary of terms included in both the Engineering Guide (p. xvi) and the Science Guide (p. 16). These and additional terms are also available on our website in the Water in Extreme Environments Vocabulary.


What are some real-world examples of water filtration and reuse?

If time is available, consider having youth research or research as a group water issues in Flint, Michigan, the International Space Station, and war-zone refugee camps. If time is short, guide youth to page 7 of the Student Notebook and ask if youth have experience with any of these example filters.


What else can be done if groups finish early?

If only a few minutes remain, have these groups make flyers or posters for the engineering showcase! If there is more time disparity between groups, have these youth brainstorm or research real-world water contamination problems mentioned in the preceding question. In activities, P1, A3, A4, and A5: give the group new criteria and constraints. For example, in Activity 3, redesign your system so that you are reusing water at two or even three locations (may need to create a T-intersection) and maximize efficiency by shortening total pipe-length by 4 inches or more.

As the educator, should I have made a successful tower prior to leading this activity?

It is not totally necessary to have a successful tower made. However, making one in advance can help you identify sticking points for youth ahead of time. It also may be helpful to familiarize yourself with the strategies of folding or rolling cards, in case youth need a little more instruction.


What is the difference between a criteria and a constraint? What are some relatable examples?

When engineering a device, the criteria are the requirements for solving the problem. The constraints are factors that limit how you can solve the problem. For example, say you need a funnel to pour flour into a small jar. You don't have a funnel (the problem). You need to design something to get the flour into the small opening without spilling it (the criteria). All you have is paper and a roll of clear tape (the constraints). One solution might be to roll the paper into a cone with a small opening and tape it so that it doesn't unroll (the engineered device).


Can I allow my students time to fix their structures or improve their designs

Sure! If you have extra time available it would be a great idea to introduce the "Improve" step of the engineering design process.

My PowerPoint isn't working, what are some troubleshooting tips?

Make sure you are in presentation mode. Also, press the home button on the answer slide to return to the game board. This should work on both Mac and PC platforms. And as always, try a whole computer reboot. If this is still not working for you, you can set-up a low-tech version using sticky notes and chart-paper or a whiteboard. This option is depicted on page 10 of the Engineering Guide.


Did we use the Engineering Design Process in this activity?

Since youth are learning context and vocabulary in order to design their own reuse system, this would be in the "Identify" step.


What are some other real-world examples that I can use to get youth engaged?

If time is available, consider having youth do individual or whole group research on water issues in Flint, Michigan, the International Space Station, and war-zone refugees camps.

The 0-2 scales for clarity and color are very counter-intuitive. Is there a way to explain or adjust this so that makes it easier

Yes, with the exception of pH, the higher the number, the higher the quality. The lower the number, the lower the quality down to zero.


According to the coding for pure, grey, and wastewater, why do none of my samples fit the requirements?

The categories were created with the model samples in mind, however, it is possible to get samples that score outside these ranges. For example, you may have a sample you would classify greywater but it scored 1 for color based on how youth define color (i.e. is white a color?). Refer to the back-pocket activity essential for this activity for a visual cheat sheet that may help.


What does pH paper tell you? Why do you use it?

pH paper is a visual indicator used to determine whether a substance is acidic, neutral, or basic. Please refer to the vocabulary on our website for an explanation of acidic, neutral, and basic.


Where can I find visuals for the water samples and possible test results?

Check out our videos: How to Test the Waters Parts I & II on the PLANETS website.

It is very difficult to see the clarity in the filter base when only a 1/2 cup is used. How can I address this?

Pour the filtered water from the base into a measuring cup and reading clarity through this. Alternatively, if you made or don't mind making extra water samples, have youth filter a whole cup.


I'm concerned about youth trying this at home. Should I let them know that this may not really work in "Real life?"

Yes, it's important to acknowledge that you can't treat all used water with filtration. For example, you don't want to filter toilet water and re-use it because filtration will not remove all biological contaminants. You can also point out that industrial water filters use expensive equipment, large amounts of filter materials, and have undergone many rounds of testing and improvement before they are put to use.


Why aren't the groups using charcoal?

Charcoal is a great filter material, but food coloring is tough to remove. Charcoal takes a long period of time to work on color, which is why it is set up as a multi-day demonstration in the Engineering Guide. It is not possible to achieve results within the short timeframe youth are filtering the water samples.


Do some materials work better than others?

Yes, have the youth compare and contrast each material in the chart on page 9 of the Engineering Notebook. Industrial filters use different materials depending on what contaminants they want to remove.


Are some contaminants harder to remove or reduce than others?

Yes, as mentioned above color is difficult to remove, as are biological contaminants. In this unit, color and pH are more difficult than visible particulates and cloudiness.


Are there some contaminants that cannot be removed with filters?

Yes, anything dissolved in water will pass through a physical filter. A chemical filter (like limestone) will reduce or remove certain chemicals dissolved in water. Often water is boiled, evaporated, or distilled to get things like salt out.

Why were some rooms left out of redesigning water usage for a house (Act. 3)?

The kitchen and rooms that don't create used water were not included for simplicity. Wastewater associated with cooking would add an unnecessary dimension of complexity to the unit. This would be a good opportunity to brainstorm with students what other contaminants and how to treat them, however, for going beyond the unit.


Is there more than one right answer?

Yes, just like in real life, there are always multiple ways to solve this problem. Help youth understand this by modeling the expectation that there can be many viable solutions, and allow them to make design choices even if it is not the way that you would have done it. Encourage youth to think outside the box or even "think outside the home" to the landscaped and edible plants.


How can I make this activity more inclusive for those that don't live in a house or have washer/dryers in their home?

Use the term "home" rather than "house." Ask youth to think about how a laundromat could reuse water (a local park, etc.). Ask, do you think a whole apartment building/complex or group home could reuse water?

Is there more than one right answer?

Yes, just like in real life, there are always multiple ways to solve this problem. Help youth understand this by modeling the expectation that there can be many viable solutions, and allow them to make design choices even if it is not the way that you would have done it.. Encourage youth to think outside the box or even "think outside the home" to the landscaped and edible plants


Should the students engineer processes that are different from those already used? Can there be more than one line of re-use?

This depends on the amount of time you have to complete your unit. If you have limited time, the same or similar processes can be used and then improved in Activity 5. With more time, consider adding a constraint to spur creativity For example require a new design with only one output, or you can only use one filter base but can use multiple materials.


Is there a way to structure this activity so that it is self-paced?

For students who finish early, see examples of ways to extend the unit in the overview FAQs and Going Beyond the Unit.


How do we help kids who struggle with confidence?

First ask questions to identify the problem, then empathize with youth. After it's clear that you see, hear, and understand, try using our own experience or real-world examples of successful people who have struggled along the way but kept at it. If youth have struggled in school, make it clear that there is no consequence to taking a risk in this unit and trying things out. There is no reward or consequence for succeeding or failing; the whole point is to try, test, and improve. More optional inspiration: "Imagination is more important than knowledge" - Albert Einstein


How do we help kids with failure?

Failure is a big part of the engineering design process. Engineers learn from every mistake they make and the ultimate solution is better off for it. Engineers sometimes make mistakes on purpose so they can learn how to avoid them later when it's more crucial to get it right. Mistakes and failure can even lead to new inventions to solve problems that weren't even part of the original goal. It often takes multiple rounds of failure and improvement to achieve the desired results.


Does the source water for laundry, shower, sink, toilet, etc need to meet any requirements or is this subjective and based on your own preferences?

Tap water is sufficient for the activities in this unit. Note that water quality is an important issue, and it can be different in different cities and homes depending upon the water source, water treatment, and piping used. If time is available, consider having youth research or research as a group water issues in Flint, Michigan, the International Space Station, and war zone refugee camps. If time is short, guide youth to page 7 of the Engineering Notebook and ask if youth have experience with any of these example filters.

What are some other constraints that I can add to inspire improvements for those who finish early?

Ask the youth, can you redesign your system so that you are reusing water at two or even three locations. If you change your location to the international space station, how would you need to improve your design to be even more effective?


How can we help students who do not want to modify what they have made?

Focus for a minute on how great it is that the youth are proud of their process! Ask them what aspects they are proud of and do not want to lose. Explain that it's important when improving a process to not lose what does work well but improve the aspects that don't. Point out how much more proud they'll be when the process is even better.


How do we help kids with failure?

Start by empathizing and validating their feelings. Then explain that failure is a big part of the engineering design process. Engineers learn from every mistake they make and the ultimate device is better off for it. Mistakes and failure can even lead to new inventions to solve problems that weren't even part of the original goal. Explain this to youth and that their failure is a common and important part of the process.

How can I get youth to communicate their process and data clearly? How can I provide more scaffolding for this concept?

Try providing examples of maps, graphs, charts, and annotated drawings so that students can fill their own data into a provided format.


How can I get my parents and organization excited about the engineering showcase?

Consider having youth run a marketing campaign by using brain-breaks or downtime to create posters or flyers. Send invitations to family, administrators, staff, community partners, etc.


I have never done this before. How should I prepare for the showcase?

The Engineering Guide has a flyer on page 83 that you can copy and post all over your organization. Try having youth that finish early decorate these and post them outside the room. You can send this home with parents as well as an invitation if time is limited for creating a letter. Consider offering snacks and drinks to make it more of an event. Set time aside prior to the showcase so that youth can help set up stations to show their guests what they made and how to test it. You can even have youth practice the presentations.

Does it matter what type of potatoes we use?

No, all potatoes will work and even an apple will work in a pinch. The best results would likely be achieved with a russet potato because it can be cut into similar sized strips more easily and there is less surface area covered in skin.


How can I teach this lesson if I don't have access to a projector?

If you have time and materials available, you can demonstrate the concepts in the "Earth's Water" Video with a gallon of water, 4 pre-labeled cups, and measuring spoons. Watch the video yourself to prepare and use the following measurements. You can even have students do this as an activity in groups. Cups and measurements: Fresh Water - 9 tbs, then from this: Frozen Water - 4.5 tbs, Groundwater - 4 tbs, Fresh Accessible Surface Water - remaining 8 drops.

Can I get instructions on how best to print the cards?

Download the PLANETS cards file from our website. Although printer settings vary, choose the following settings if offered: Actual Size, Print on both sides of paper, Flip on short edge, Landscape, Full color.


How many card decks should I make? Is it easier for students to have bigger groups?

You may want to consider a balance between group size and the number of decks you are able to print and cut. It is possible to do this lesson with only one deck of PLANETS cards and work together as a whole group to sort the cards in various ways. 2 to 4 decks might serve your group better if you have a lot of youth doing this at the same time. While filling out the charts, only one deck of cards is used for the entire class.


Why were some moons left out?

Not all moons, asteroids, and dwarf planets are represented in the cards because there would be way too many cards (there are over 150 moons and millions of objects in our solar system)! The planetary bodies were chosen to represent the variety of planetary bodies in the solar system with respect to water.

Can youth choose Earth for analyzing the water reservoir or should I remove that card?

Depending on your group dynamic, you may want to remove the earth cards. The earth reservoir cards are a good example for the whole group to compare other reservoirs in an objective way.


How do we know if water is usable on other planets?

The short answer is, we don't. This is a big area of scientific uncertainty, which is just another way of saying we don't know. More exploration and data is needed to learn about the water on other planetary bodies. To learn how we can gather data from other planets without the risk of humans traveling there, consider using our other unit on Remote Sensing on our website. For the purposes of this activity, ask do we already have evidence that its not usable? For example, is the water mixed with another chemical? Do we have evidence that it might have salinity? Use the information we do have to explore and find out!


Do we know if water is habitable on other planets?

No. It’s important to highlight we don’t know if water is habitable on other planets. Life as we know it on earth requires water, a source of carbon for organism metabolism, and a source of energy to fuel that organism metabolism. When looking for habitable water on other planets, the best we can say is that its potentially habitable. This is another big area of scientific uncertainty, see the previous question for more on scientific uncertainty. For the purposes of this activity, ask questions like: "Do we already have evidence for water being habitable on that planetary body? For example, is the water liquid?" "Do we have evidence of a heat source?" Use the information we do have to explore and find out! Reference: Remote Sensing


Can youth present their choices in different ways?

Yes, youth can present from an argument paragraph they crafted by the group, a drawn model, the score chart in the Science Notebook, page 6, or the cards themselves. There is room for optional notes or drawings in the Science Notebook, p. 7 & 8. You can offer the option of presenting their choice in a song, rap, play, or other artistic expression.


What are some resources that I can use to learn more about the planets, and other challenges to exploring the solar system like gravity, weather, extreme temperatures, radiation, great distances and the energy required to travel them?

There are many amazing NASA resources for youth to explore, plus many opportunities for educators to connect. Check out our Going Beyond the Unit links on the Water in Extreme Environments webpage.


Is there a correct answer?

No, there is the potential for many different answers. The important part is that answers are justified with data. The activities may lead youth to choose the following cards with liquid water: Europa, Uranus, Titania, Ganymede, Callisto, Pluto, Titan, Triton, Enceladus, & Dione, but it’s entirely possible to have a justifiable reason for choosing a different planetary body to explore. What matters is that youth justify their selection with an evidence-based argument.