Brief Description: This civil engineering unit includes three long-term projects that are all designed to help a town, Porterville, CA, with their drought. Each group of students picks one project to work on for the entirety of the unit. The three options are building a drawbridge, a well, and an irrigation system.These projects are introduced as three separate problems that students must think critically about and then explore possible solutions.

Grades: 5, 6, 7, 8

Time:  4 hours

Keywords: civil engineering, drought, irrigation system, drawbridge, pulleys, well, water conservation

Lesson Objectives

  • Students will think critically about a presented problem (a drought) and come up with their own solutions
  • Students will use the Engineering Design Process to research, plan, design, build, and test their drought solutions


  • duct tape
  • masking tape
  • cardboard toilet paper rolls
  • cardboard
  • string
  • straws
  • popsicle sticks
  • rubber bands
  • plastic bottles
  • popsicle sticks
  • small beads (for testing)
  • pulleys
  • plastic cups
  • hole puncher
  • manila folders
  • Rulers
  • Other requested materials


Day 1 (Use powerpoint in Resources)

    1. Introduce the Engineering Design Process. Go through step by step describing what an engineer does at each stage of the process.
    2. Introduce Civil Engineering. Civil Engineering is a type of engineering that deals with the design, construction, and maintenance of the manmade and natural environment. Civil engineers are involved in the design and construction of buildings, roads, bridges, canals, and dams.
    3. Discuss the water cycle.
      1. Precipitation
      2. Evaporation/Transpiration
      3. Condensation
    4. In this unit, students will serve as engineers in California to help them think of solutions to deal with the drought that has plagued them for months. A drought is a prolonged period of abnormally low rainfall; a shortage of water resulting from this.
      1. Porterville, California is suffering from the worst drought the state has ever seen.
      2. They have had no running water for over 6 months. This means they have had no tap water. They haven’t been able to flush a toilet, run the dishwasher, do laundry, wash their hands, or take a shower. Citizens of Porterville have had to use bottled water for everything.
    5. Porterville has three big problems that take priority. Each group gets the pick one of the following projects to work on for the remainder of the unit.
      1. Project #1: Citizens of Porterville are seeking ways to access their own sources of water. Because tap water is no longer an option, people are resorting to well water. A water well is a structure created in the ground by digging or drilling to access groundwater (water held underground in the soil or in pores and crevices in rock) or underground aquifers (a body of permeable rock that can contain or transmit groundwater). The well water can be brought up by a pump or using using containers that raised mechanically or by hand. Design and build a well basin as well as a way for people to bring the water up.
      2. Project #2: Farmers in the town still need to be able to water their plants. Without running water, it is difficult to get water in all directions of their farm. Irrigation is the method by which water is delivered to plants. There are four methods of irrigation: surface, sprinkler, drip/trickle, and subsurface. Develop a system to transport the water throughout the farm. The system must go from one side of the room/carpet/table to the three others.


  • Project #3: Porterville’s only bridge to the next town has recently become unusable. Design a bridge that will allow tall boats to pass under it and hold up many cars during rush hour. The bridge must span 1-2 feet over two desks, must hold up toy cars, and must be able to allow tall boats to pass without being moved/altered by hand.
  • Project #4: If if ever does happen to rain, the people of Porterville are hoping to collect the rainwater. Design a house that is specially designed to harvest the rooftop rainwater.


  1. Allow students to brainstorm solutions for each problem individually. Then have students get into groups of 2-4 and have them discuss which project they want to complete.
  2. Students should then work with their group to plan and sketch a detailed solution. Have students make a list of materials they would like to use for building for the next few weeks.

Day 2

  1. Remind students of the purpose of civil engineering and the problems that Porterville CA are facing.
  2. Allow students to begin building

Day 3

  1. Students should continue and finish building
  2. If students finish early, have them complete the Final Presentation Worksheet (attached in Resources)

Day 4

  1. Students should have completed their first prototype of their design so today will focus on testing and redesigning.
  2. Tests:
    1. Project #1 Test: Bring the water from the bottom of the basin to the top (ie- lift a bucket of water, or pump it out)
    2. Project #2 Test: Use beads to represent water to prevent water-logging your classroom. Pour beads into one side of the irrigation system and see if they successfully flow to all three other sides.
    3. Project #3 Test:  Test to see how much weight each bridge can hold (using weights, toy cars, or classroom objects). How does this bridge move to allow tall boats to pass through or under it?
    4. Project #4 Test: Using beads, pour them onto the students’ houses and see how much the house collects. What percent of the rainwater that fell ended up in water collection basins?
  3. Allow students to redesign and then retest.
  4. Have students present their projects and discuss what worked, what did not work, what was challenging, and what other drought solutions they have come up with.
  5. Finally, conclude the unit by discussing with the students what they have now learned about the engineering design process as it relates to their projects and what they learned over the course of the activity. Furthermore, tell the students about how their projects relate to real-life solutions that are built to solve these three problems (wells, irrigation systems, and draw-bridges).

Extensions and Modifications

  • Limit students’ materials use by providing them with a budget to “purchase” materials that they did not originally request after their first day of planning. Inform the students that they can purchase any extra materials they need with the coins you will provide them (gold LEGO coins). The list of prices we used is below: Budget: Each group gets 50 gold Prices for materials beyond what was on their first list:
  • Duct tape 1 coin/6 inches of tape
  • Masking tape 1 coin/6 inches of tape
  • String coins 1 coin/1 foot of string
  • Straws 1 coin/5 straws
  • Popsicle sticks 1 coin/5 sticks
  • Paper clips 1 coin/3 paper clips
  • Rubber bands 1 coin/5 rubber bands
  • Cardboard 2 coin/1 square foot
  • Plastic cups 2 coins/1 cup
  • Cardboard Toilet Paper Rolls 2 coins/5 rolls
  • Manila Folders 1 coin/1 folder
  • If students finish early, let them design and build a solution for one of the other problems.



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