How Many People Can the Aquifer Support?

Samantha Lindgren, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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The simulation has several conditions in which students are able to collect and analyze data. The first of these scenarios models the water table in an area where there has been no human development. Students observe the annual, cyclical pattern of the water table over a five-year time period, and then use this as the control for comparison to other scenarios. Students then investigate scenarios in which a city, or a city plus a farm, are added. Students can choose to add wells to the city and the farm and select well pumping rates to meet human consumption needs in the city. Wells that are added in the farm scenario have predetermined pumping rates and are active during the growing season only.

As students add wells and gather data, they observe the effects on the wetlands, outflow of the river, and changes to the water table. When a single cell on the map is selected, a graph is generated showing water table data over a five year period for that cell. Using the graphs, students can quantitatively make observations and use data in order to create computational models. They can analyze and interpret the results of pumping over time and the effect on the water table and river outflow. Students can calculate the area of the wetland using the graphs generated by the simulation for each scenario. Examining cross-sections of the map also encourages students to make qualitative observations.

Students can further investigate the relationship between surface and groundwater by adding a drought option to each scenario. Students will collect and analyze data as before, and draw conclusions across the investigated scenarios to understand the effects of drought. After examining current data and news articles from California, students are asked to construct explanations based on evidence collected in the simulation for how the availability of fresh water, in addition to natural hazards such as drought, and climate change, influence human activity.

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Learning Goals

HS-ESS2-2: Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth's surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems.

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.

Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
Developing and using models
Analyzing and interpreting data
Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Writing, collaborative work

Context for Use

This unit of study is intended for high school students studying Earth Science concepts and is best suited for grades 10-12. The unit could be adapted for Middle School or early undergraduate studies.

Students must understand how to read graphs and plot data. Students must also know how to choose independent and dependent variables.

This is a unit of study that can fit within a earth, environmental, or integrated science course. It is intended to take 1-2 weeks to complete and meets the intent of three NGSS performace expectations.

Description and Teaching Materials

Activity: Student Tasks (Acrobat (PDF) 517kB Aug17 16)

Task 3 Resources:

Teaching Notes and Tips

Instructors Notes: Teacher Lesson Plan Set (Acrobat (PDF) 972kB Aug17 16)


In collaborative groups, students create computational models of the data collected within the simulation to make predictions about the longterm sustainability of the aquifer. The assessment task of this unit of study contains two parts: the model, which includes the students' claims about the aquifer supported by evidence, and a written summary.

References and Resources

Groundwater Education Applet: