Urban Watersheds

This week, an environmental enrichment class at Bed Stuy Collegiate began exploring how water moves through our urban environment by making paper models. Try adapting this lesson in your own classroom for an engaging hands-on way to get kids thinking about stormwater management.


  • Sturdy paper
  • Non-permanent markers
  • Newspaper
  • Spray bottle
  • Water

Background Discussion:

  • Stormwater: A hero or a villain? Have students share out a few thought on this question to gage their prior knowledge. Show the student pictures from The Mannahatta Project (click on link to find more Social Studies-oriented lessons on the ecological history of NYC) to get the students thinking about how our built environment has drastically changed our natural environment over the past 400 years.
  • Have students think about how water, a rain storm or storm storm, behaves differently in the New York of today compared to New York 400 years ago.
  • Students usually mention flooding, puddles, and watering plants and trees in making their case for stormwater as a villain or hero.
  • That leads to a discussion of stormwater runoff, or how water behaves when it hits an impervious or pervious surface. We discuss what stormwater might be picking up as it rushes into the sewer drains.

watershed-dryModel Making:

  • Have each student crumble a sturdy piece of paper into a ball.
  • Flatten out the piece of paper, now they have the base of their topographical cityscape maps.
  • The students use blue markers to predict where the water will flow and where puddles or “floods”  will appear on their map.
  • The students then use other colors to draw in other pollution sources that came up in the discussion from earlier (i.e. buildings, cars, people walking pets, litter)

watershed rained onThe Stormy Demo:

  • After placing their maps on newspaper, have students pass around a spray bottle to simulate the rain cloud rolling over their urban landscape. Start with 3 sprays and if no puddling happens, give a couple more.
  • Have the students observe how the water behaves on this impervious surface. Were their predictions correct? What else got swept up in the water? How does what happens in this model translate to real-word stormwater runoff?
  • Have students share out their observations.


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