Rapid Water Test: Lesson Plan

Learn about testing water quality in freshwater systems and in coastal waters. Then find out how testing is being used to determine water safety at North Carolina beaches.

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Alignment to NC Essential Standards

  • 8.E.1.3 — Predict the safety and potability of water supplies in North Carolina based on physical and biological factors, including: 
    • Temperature 
    • Dissolved oxygen 
    • pH 
    • Nitrates and phosphates 
    • Turbidity 
    • Bio-indicators 
  • 8.E.1.4 — Conclude that the good health of humans requires: 
    • Monitoring of the hydrosphere 
    • Water quality standards 
    • Methods of water treatment 
    • Maintaining safe water quality 
    • Stewardship 

Learning Outcomes

  • Students will identify ways that water quality is assessed. 
  • Students will describe how water quality standards are used to protect human health.

Essential Questions

  1. What factors affect water quality? 
  2. How are water safety standards used to protect human health? 
  3. How are coastal waters monitored for their water quality? 
  4. What are swimming advisories, and when are they issued?

Essential Vocabulary

  • Water quality 
  • Macroinvertebrate 
  • Microbe 
  • Stormwater runoff 
  • Pathogen
  • Septic system 
  • Swimming advisory
  • DNA
  • Bacteria


Students will complete an online interactive activity simulating the collection and identification of macroinvertebrates to gauge water quality in rivers and ponds. The interactive activity teaches students that some macroinvertebrates can only live in clean water, some can live in a wide range of water conditions and some can tolerate more polluted water. Determining the abundance of each type of macroinvertebrate allows the water quality to be assessed.


Students will assess water quality in a local stream


Students will discuss whether it is important to also monitor coastal water quality. Why or why not? Then students will gather information about water quality standards and the importance of monitoring coastal water quality at the following websites:

EPA — What are Water Quality Standards

EPA — LEARN: Human Health at the Beach 

NRDC — Testing the Waters 

NCDENR — NC Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Program  

Students should take notes using a three-column K-W-L graphic organizer. Before they begin their research, they should write in the first column, K, what they already know about water quality standards and how water is tested. In the second column, W, they should write what they want to learn. As they do their research, they should write what they learn in the third column, L. Students should use their K-W-L graphic organizers to help them prepare their fact sheet in the Evaluate portion of this lesson.


Students will view the NC Science Now video Rapid Water Test. After viewing the video, students should answer the following questions. They can then discuss their answers with a partner or in small groups.

  1. What are the two sources of pathogens in the ocean? 
  2. What is the relationship between population density and the amount of pollution entering bodies of water? 
  3. In general, what is the quality of water at North Carolina beaches? 
  4. How is bacterial DNA used to assess water quality? 
  5. What is the advantage of having a test that can quickly determine water quality?


Using information gathered throughout the lesson and from additional research, students will work in pairs to produce a fact sheet for the general public about coastal water quality and the issuing of swimming advisories. Each fact sheet should include the following: 

  • The purpose of monitoring coastal waters
  • Sources of pathogens in the water 
  • Why swimming advisories are issued
  • Examples of signs used in posting advisories
  • What determines the length of time a swimming advisory stays posted 
  • Where to find information about water quality at specific North Carolina beaches

Evaluation Rubric 

Additional Resources:

NCDEQ — NC Division of Water Resources 

USGS — USGS Water Science School 

DEH — The Facts: Recreational Water Monitoring in North Carolina  

EPA — Find Information about your Beach EPA