January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

But What Is “Good”?! Learning and Using Observational Skills by Studying Water Taste

Posted: Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

by Joanne Michael

The beginning of the year is a fantastic time to get to know how skilled your students’ observations are when working on an experiment. While there are a number of brain teasers and visual slight-of-hands that can accomplish this, I like to do a lab that I call “Which Water is Water?” to quickly assess their skill set. From doing this, I have an immediate data set of which students are skilled at noticing subtle differences between two or more items, which students can describe something with detail, and which students are good at sitting back and allowing others to do the dirty work. Best of all the students LOVE this lab; they ask me mid-year if they can do it again! I normally do this with my 5th grade classes, but it can be done with any grade level. With the current drought occurring within California, it is also a fantastic time to discuss water sources and conservation.

Collect as many different types of water as you can. I normally get distilled water, tap water (from the drinking fountain at school), filtered water (either bring a Brita®/pur® pitcher from home and filter the school water, or pour some into a bottle from home), and bottled water. For added challenge, select multiple brands of bottled water! Sparkling water can work as well, but as there are obvious bubbles, it makes that one pretty easy to distinguish. Pour each into a large (at least 12 ounce) new clear plastic cup, and write a letter on the outside with a marker to help distinguish the waters from each other. In my science lab, I have the students sit in tables of 4, so each table has a cup with an A, B, C, or D on the outside when they walk in. Each table also has 4 Dixie® cups (or similar), and an empty bowl.

I begin the lesson by reviewing the water cycle, which we discussed in previous years, and where a lot of our water is collected and used around southern California. I also go through the definitions of the various types of water, to make everything as clear as possible. The students then select a type of water, and pour it amongst the four cups. Before tasting, they must smell the water – does it have a scent? They then take a tiny sip, and allow the water to move around their tongue to get as many different “flavors” as possible.

From there, they write observational details about their water. I do not allow them to write “opinion details” – what tastes gross to one person may be absolutely delicious to another, and so that isn’t a scientific observation. Does it taste soapy? Like dirt? Does it have an aftertaste? Taste sweet? Does the flavor absolutely disappear? They write down all observations. I encourage the students to take tiny sips, so that they can do multiple tastings if they need to do so. They can have a group discussion if they would like, but they are to write down their own observations. If the student does not like the taste at all, they can dump the rest of their sample in the bowl; likewise, if they really enjoy it, they can pour more from their big cup. After they have tasted all of the samples, they try to identify which water is which – which sample is the distilled water? The bottled water?

When the class is finished, we take a quick poll as to what they think each sample was, and show the answers. The students are normally surprised at the results – most often, they assume the bottled water is the distilled water, because distilled water is “pure” water – of COURSE it would taste the best! We then discuss the importance of different types of water, keeping our drinking water clean, how to conserve water, etc. Within the span of 45 minutes, I now know which students are skilled at minute observations, which students are leaders within a group, the general skill level at scientific adjectives, and if there are any students that need additional help in fine motor skills. The students are thrilled – they spend an hour drinking water, and not getting in trouble for consuming something in science lab! It sets the stage for the rest of the year for the students as well – they see the expectations in the science lab, and know that we will work hard but have a lot of fun in the process!

Modifications: I do this lab with my 5th grade students, but could very easily be done with any grade level. For added difficulty, only use different brands of bottled water, and try to have the students identify the different brands.

This idea originally came from One Water.

ABBREVIATED LESSON PLAN:

Grade Level: 5th

Science Area: Earth science

Science Standards Reference (1998 version): 5.3.d: Students know that the amount of fresh water located in rivers, lakes, underground sources, and glaciers is limited and that it’s availability can be extended by recycling and decreasing the use of water.

5.3.e: Students know the origin of the water used by their local communities.

Other Subject Area Standards Reinforced: “Going Green”

Title of the Lab: Water is Water

Time Required: Set-up – 10 minutes; Duration- 1 hour

Goal of the Lab (student outcomes): students will use their senses to try to taste the difference between different types of water, and to understand the various processes involved in obtaining the different types of water.

Description/Abstract: Students will taste four different types of water: tap, filtered, sparkling, and distilled. After learning about the process used for each type of water, they will write down which one they think is which, based solely on the taste. Afterwards, the teacher will reveal the answers and lead a discussion as to why they all taste so different.

Materials Needed: (per group of 4)
4 small disposable cups (Dixie® cups work perfectly)
4 larger new cups, labeled A, B, C, D, with the various waters inside
1 small bowl

Procedure:

1) Tell students to pour a little bit of water from cup A into each of the 4 small cups. Do a proper observation of sample A including smell, look, and taste. Write observations on data sheet.  Pour out the rest of water (if they wish) into the bowl in the middle of the table.

2) Repeat for samples B, C, D. The samples may be similar. Have the students do their best to find differences between them all. Offer up suggestions, “Is it fizzy?” “Does it leave an aftertaste?”

3) When all samples have been tested, reveal answers. How many students mixed up the tap water and the bottled water? Why does the distilled water taste so strange? That’s the only one that is actually “pure” water! Show where the various waters came from on a map of California.

Assessment method: Water Worksheet

Joanne Michael is the K-5 science specialist at Meadows Elementary in Manhattan Beach, CA, and CSTA Intermediate Director.

Written by Joanne Michael

Joanne Michael

Joanne Michael is a K-5 Science Specialist for Manhattan Beach Unified, former CSTA Upper Elementary director, and is a current CSTA member.

2 Responses

  1. This is a great lab! I have done a similar lab with distilled vs tap and students are always surprised to find that pure water tastes funny. To be rigorous do a triangle test where two cups are the same and one is different. If tasters can consistently identify the one that is different it means the difference is real.

  2. I second Pete’s opinion about this lab. My version is done when students learn about the needs of living things (in what used to be 7th grade life science)! I really like including one natural mineral water; students are always astounded to learn it isn’t artificially created by a company. I also add an extension where students determine the amount of water they drink in one year and then calculate the supply cost. Another eye opener for them…many think the water coming out of their tap at home is “free.”

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