Tracking Pollution: A Hazardous Whodunit

United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Map , Lesson/Lesson Plan
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.


Average Rating

3 (1 reviews)

5 star
4 star
3 star
2 star
1 star
Most Recent Review

3 needs student documents

This link does not contain the student documents -- only a teacher guide. I found the student documents here:


A fictional town, where every home and most businesses have a private well, has discovered that the groundwater is contaminated with some kind of fuel. Possible sources of the fuel spill include the Heating Oil Company, the Trucking Company, or the Gas Station. Students will play detective and determine where the pollutant is coming from. Since cleaning up groundwater contamination is a very expensive job, students should be very sure of the location to start the clean up. It is up to the students to solve the mystery. Students will make a topographic map, use it to predict groundwater flow and investigate the most likely source of groundwater contamination. Using a map of the town and the contaminated wells, students will collect data and answer questions about the flow of groundwater and pollutants. While no expectation of time is given on the lesson, this may take one, 45-minute class period.


The student version of the lesson plan is located here:

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

HS-ESS2-5 Plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on mechanical and chemical investigations with water and a variety of solid materials to provide the evidence for connections between the hydrologic cycle and system interactions commonly known as the rock cycle. Examples of mechanical investigations include stream transportation and deposition using a stream table, erosion using variations in soil moisture content, or frost wedging by the expansion of water as it freezes. Examples of chemical investigations include chemical weathering and recrystallization (by testing the solubility of different materials) or melt generation (by examining how water lowers the melting temperature of most solids).

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Using a map of the town and the contaminated wells, students collect data and create a contour map to determine the direction of the flow of groundwater. Although the lesson includes specific directions on how to determine the groundwater flow direction, the teacher could give students only the map to start and have the students plan how they would investigate the groundwater contamination mystery. After planning and conducting the student designed solutions, students can explain their conclusions. Then the contour mapping solution could be conducted if no students thought of this method of investigating the mystery. Teachers could have students view an animation on groundwater flow such as:

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students conduct an investigation into the mystery of which company is responsible for the groundwater contamination. The practice could be more fully addressed if the contour mapping directions are not given to the students at the start of the lesson. Instead, have the students plan their own investigation, conduct their investigation and present the conclusions based on the evidence from their collected data. The contour mapping directions could then be used to refine the design of the student developed investigations.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students analyze the data from the map after drawing contour lines and examining the location of the contaminated wells. Several conclusions can be drawn and the students should be asked to argue their answers based on the data and their interpretation of i

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students focus on the capacity of water to carry contaminants large distances via the flow of groundwater. This will be discovered when the students complete their contour map of the town. Students could review ground water flow by visiting this section of the USGS website:

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students will see that the fuel spill that is contaminating the groundwater is following the downhill contours of the town. Students could be asked to draw where the fuel spill will move in the future. Or could be given a new site for a fuel spill and plot on the town map where this new spill would spread.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Students must analyze data (Practice) to determine the source of water contamination which is affected by the structure of the land (Cross Cutting Concept) and the flow of water which picks up the contaminants (Disciplinary Core Idea). Teachers should require students to form their explanation using a claim, evidence, reasoning format ( to ensure better alignment to the dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards.

  • Instructional Supports: Students are engaged in a relevant and authentic scenario of water contamination as they investigate the phenomena of ground water flow. This lesson requires that students use and build on their prior knowledge to deepen their understanding of the phenomenon. The teacher must provide guidance in accessing prior knowledge, such as using and creating a topographic map and processes that cause groundwater pollution. Multiple opportunities exist through discussion for students to both clarify their ideas and receive feedback. The teacher will have to orchestrate this. Questions are provided for students to answer, but no directions are given for feedback from their peers or the teacher. An extension is provided in the lesson plan to support differentiated instruction, where the students could extend the contour mapping activity to a map of their hometown. It would be up to the teacher to develop any tools to support struggling students.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Questions are provided to guide students in the analysis of their contour map data. If teachers have students answer the questions using a claim, evidence, reasoning format, there will be direct evidence of three dimensional learning. No answers are given in the lesson to the questions. No scoring guides or rubrics are provided.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Teachers will need a computer with internet access to download the lesson. Students can complete the entire lesson with only pencil and paper.