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Teaching Kids About Water Issues

By Kristina Hulvershorn
Tasked with teaching water conservation to a group of kids ranging in age from 8 to 18, I enlisted the help of Aspen, one the teens who would be in the group, a few days before we would all meet. He and I wanted to strategize a way to let everyone really engage with the material, in spite of their age or background knowledge. One of our challenges was to encourage the students to make connections between water usage and food choices. Every piece of food we eat has a water footprint, and some kinds of foods require much more water than others. The data was pretty heavy and even adults glaze over when simply told the statistics.
“What if we use these bottles that are about to be recycled to symbolize a larger amount of water and we have a bottle for each food choice?” I asked him. Aspen told me that the water had to be blue for a stronger visual effect. I trusted him and we set to work measuring, dying, and labeling the bottles.

We decided that one bottle should represent 500 gallons of water, which is pretty close to the amount of water in five hot tubs. As we expected, we needed a lot more bottles to explain how much water is needed to produce chicken, pork, and beef than we did for other kinds of foods like vegetables. In fact, to fairly convey how many gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of beef we needed ten full bottles (to symbolize 5,214 gallons!), compared to the mere ounces to symbolize most of the vegetables. You read that correctly—ten hot tubs’ worth of water to produce one pound of beef.
When it came time to do the activity with the students, I strategically gave the hamburger to one of my wiggliest students. One by one, I asked each student to come up and find the label with the amount of water that correlated to their food. We learned that tomatoes require 23 gallons, potatoes require 24, and so on. When it was his turn to show us how much water is needed for the hamburger, I asked him to come up and suggested that he may need a friend to help. He gladly boasted, “I can handle it by myself.” As he attempted to haul 10 bottles of water back to his seat, several fell to the floor. We all laughed with him and no spills happened, but that movement, that action, burned that number (and, more importantly, the significance of that number) into all of our minds.
Four months later, when I saw him, I asked him, “How much water does it take to produce one pound of hamburger?” He smiled and told me, “Over 5,000 gallons!”
This activity is now housed as an exhibit in “be the change” and people are always drawn to these mysterious blue bottles. Finding ways to convey difficult, often depressing data and statistics in playful and hands-on ways is one way we are helping people to make the connections between their everyday actions and the impacts they have on our planet, on animals, and on other humans.
“Be the change” is the first humane education exhibit of its kind. It is housed in Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Photo Credit: Max Guitare / Flickr

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