The following is an audio transcript of the video lesson plan Who Polluted the Potomac?

Hello my name is Barbara and this activity is called Who Polluted the Potomac?

In this lesson students will listen to an interactive story to experience the pollution of a local river over time and propose methods to protect the river from current and future pollution.

This lesson is for upper elementary and middle school students, and fits well into Science, Social Studies, English Language Arts and family and consumer science classes.

By the end of this lesson students will be able to:

  • List three pollutants that can impact rivers.
  • Draw connections between individual actions and the pollution of a watershed.
  • Develop strategies for minimizing and counteracting water pollution.
  • Explain how population growth impacts the health of our nation’s rivers.

The main concept we want students to take away is: The histories of local rivers provide insight into human impacts on an environment, especially as populations and technology change over time.

For this lesson you will need the following items:

  •  A clear gallon jar or bowl of water to represent the river
  • 16 small lidded containers, and a slotted spoon. Each of these items represent the characters in the story. You’ll label the small containers using the labels provided in the lesson plan and fill each container with the ingredients as listed in the chart provided as well.
  • Finally, you will need a copy of the provided story “Who Polluted the Potomac?”

As a note – since we are located in Washington D.C., we use the Potomac River as an example in this lesson. Throughout the story you will see italicized names that are specific to the D.C. area. We encourage you to change the names and other details to reflect your own community and history.

In class you will want to distribute one container (or character) to each student.

Tell students that you are going to read a story of the Potomac River, and observe the changes to the river that humans made over time.

Instruct students to dump the contents from their container into the bowl of water (the river) when they hear their character called in the story.

As you are reading the story, add some emphasis to each bolded character name, and pause after each question, to give the students time to think and respond.

I am going to read the first part of the story, which includes the first three characters so you can get the feel for how it would go in class. Then we are going to speed up the video for the middle of the story.

For more than 10,000 years, people lived on the banks of this river. During that time, they raised families, hunted in the forests, grew crops, and caught fish. Imagine that the bowl of water in front of you was taken from the Potomac River by a Nacotchtank (na-COTCH-tunk) about 500 years ago.
Ask students – How does the water look to you? Does this look like water that you might drink? Swim in? Eat fish from?

The Nacotchtank built small seasonal villages and a fur trading town on the banks of the Potomac. They cut trees, used wetlands, planted crops, quarried rock, and fished. We can guess that all of these actions led to NATURAL DEBRIS, like twigs, leaves and pebbles, being washed into the river. While there is some archeological evidence that helps us imagine what their life may have been like, there isn’t evidence that they greatly impacted the river itself.

Ask students – How do you think the Nacotchtank used the river?

About 400 years ago, European colonists arrived to this place. One of the first Europeans wrote about the Native American communities, the “sweet water” of the Potomac, and the abundance of fish. The colonists pushed the Nacotchtank away from the banks of the Potomac, and many others died from diseases the colonists introduced. Colonists built permanent plantations to feed the city’s growing population. SOIL washed off plantations and into the river. The European settlers introduced new animals to this land, including livestock. Farmers kept pigs and other animals in their BARNYARDS. As rainwater drained out of the barnyard, it carried some of the manure into a little creek behind the farm. The creek flowed into the river.

Ask students – How do you think the European colonists used the river?

By 1800, Washington, DC had been established as the new nation’s capital, and, gradually, the city grew on the banks of the Potomac. (Video speeds up through the middle of story)

One weekend, a group of VOLUNTEERS visits the river. They walk up and down the riverbanks and collect trash. They gather over 100 bags of garbage that will go to a recycling center, or proper landfill, and will no longer pollute the river.

The Nacotchtank people living today see a very different river than their ancestors saw 500 years ago.

Discuss how rivers are a shared resource, so individual actions and choices impact the entire community. Everyone played a role, either directly or indirectly, in polluting the Potomac River.

Ask students – What are similarities and differences in the way we use the river compared to the Nacotchtank people and the European colonists?

Students may recognize direct similarities, like transportation and food, but may not realize that the water they use every day from their tap, also may come from a local waterway.

It’s also interesting to have students consider: What do you imagine the river will look like in another 50 or 100 years?

Let’s go back to our bowl of water, it looks really dirty! We don’t want students to leave the lesson discouraged, so in the lesson, we recommend that you have students brainstorm things people, communities, or governments can do to keep the different pollutants from the story, from getting into the river in the first place.

As an extension to this lesson, challenge students to come up with ways to clean the water in the bowl, and test them out in class, which is a great way to practice their engineering skills.

And that’s Who Polluted the Potomac!

We also have a lower elementary version of this lesson called “Who Polluted the River”, that is great for K-2 students, and another version titled “Code Blue: Endangered Oceans” for high school students.

For theses, and even more interactive activities, check out

Thank you for watching!