Water Use in Hydraulic Fracturing Lesson

Students collect data to make calculations about their daily water usage and then turn those calculations into a scale model to compare personal usage amounts to water use at local hydraulic fracturing sites. Students will find information about water usage by hydraulic fracturing sites in their communities using FracFocus.

Activity developed by UCAR AirWaterGas Teacher-in-Residence Shelly Grandell, from the Cherry Creek School District, with the assistance of AirWaterGas science advisor Gregory Lackey.

Grade level: 6-8

Time Required
Teacher prep time: 30 minutes to gather materials and print student sheets
Class Time: 2-3 block periods (more if you plan to use CAD for 2D/3D modeling)

Learning Goals

  • Students will collect data to understand that water consumption amounts vary depending on the purpose.
  • Students will apply data collected to construct a scale model that demonstrates the comparisons of direct and indirect water usage.
  • Students will debate whether hydraulic fracturing poses a threat to the amount of fresh water resources available for human use.

Lesson Format (Content): Data calculations, data collection (various online and print resources), team design challenge

Standards (Next Generation Science Standards)

  • ESS3.A Natural Resources Humans depend on Earth’s land, ocean, atmosphere and biosphere for different resources, many of which are limited or not renewable. Resources are distributed unevenly around the planet as a result of past geologic processes.


  • Water Quantity Lesson Student Guide
  • Water Quantity Lesson Student Guide Part 4 KEY
  • Well Data Sheet
  • Water Use Data Sheet
  • USGS Water Use Fact Sheet– use only if there is no internet available for Part 1, MUST have student internet access for Parts 2 and 3.
  • Student group access to internet
  • Calculators
  • Materials for student design project
    • Small, physical objects, ie. adding machine tape, beads, cardboard, paper, anything they can potentially model up to 500 million gallons with. Keep the space in your room in mind. To limit the impact on space in the classroom, consider suspending some of the models from the ceiling after construction, or perhaps down a hallway.
    • You can also have students use technology to design the model. Free websites such as Scratch or Alice can allow student to write a 2D or 3D program to model the water amounts. These projects would take another 2-3 periods for students to learn how to use them, but are relatively simple.
  • Water Resources Risk Reading (optional)

Preparation – 30 minutes

  1. Print out Water Quantity Lesson Student Guide, Well Data Sheet, Water Use Data Sheet
  2. Gather materials for students to engineer their scale models with ahead of time, and have materials ready to go for days two and three.

Project a picture or graphic of a food item such as a sandwich or burger. As students come in, ask them to complete the bell starter in their journals.

Bell starter/warm up: Have students write in their journals (or sticky notes) all of the ways water is needed to make that one food item. When they are done, have them share out. Here is an example:

Give students a few minutes to write down their thoughts and then ask them to share out with the class. Students may identify things like:

  • Water to grow the lettuce
  • Water to grow the tomatoes
  • Water to grow wheat for the bun
  • Water to mix with flour for bread

Some items they MAY think of:

  • Water for the cow (beef)
  • Water for the cow (cheese)
  • Water for the sesame seeds
  • If there is ketchup etc…water for those

Some items they may not have thought of:

  • Water to make the steel for the equipment needed to harvest/produce various components
  • Water to extract the oil/natural gas needed for:* Tractors to plant/harvest (fuel and steel), Jet fuel (transport products), Plastics (containers and prep materials), Fuel for food delivery/transportation, Steel, wood (production), plastics for restaurant and prep equipment

At this point, lead the class into a discussion about water use and hydraulic fracturing. Ask them how much water they think they use in a year and how that compares to the amount of water used to frack one well. Have them throw out some numbers, and record their brainstorm on the board to reference later when they have done the research and KNOW the actual comparison.

Day 1 — Water Quantity Discussion and Activity

  1. Begin with the bell starter activity (see above) (5-10 minutes).
    Put students into group of 2-3 and make sure they have access to the internet (or have the USGS Water Use Fact Sheet printed beforehand). Pass out Water Quantity Lesson Student Guide.
  2. Have them complete Part 1 on page 1 of the Student Guide. Students will need to come up with as many uses for water as they can. Set a time for 3-5 minutes.
  3. Have the students share out all of the ideas they came up with. Students will likely list mostly DIRECT uses such as drinking, showers, toilets, etc., and not as many INDIRECT uses (5-10 minutes).
  4. Read the information about direct and indirect uses out loud to the class.
  5. Tell them to think of more INDIRECT uses such as those in the cheeseburger discussion.
  6. Give them a few more minutes to think of INDIRECT uses (5-10 minutes).
  7. Share out.
  8. Ask students to complete the definition, example and illustration section in their groups (10 minutes).
  9. Come back together as a class and have a few students share (5 minutes).
  10. Prediction Time! Have students work in groups to make predictions about the AMOUNTS of water needed for everyday tasks. Give them a few minutes to do this (5-10 minutes).
  11. Direct students to the USGS website link in Part 3 of the Guide, or ask them to look to their USGS Water Use Fact Sheet.
  12. Ask students to work together to find the ACTUAL amounts and fill in the column C of the table on page 1 of the Student Guide (10-15 minutes).
  13. Share out some numbers and discuss the comparisons between their predictions and the actual numbers (5 – 10 minutes).
  14. Move on to Part 4: Water use over time on page 2 of the guide. Read the opening statement out loud about how much water the average family of 4 uses in a day.
  15. Ask students to work in their groups to calculate the amounts of water used over a year, then and the numbers for the individual. NOTE: depending on math skill, you may have to do this as a class (5-10 minutes).
  16. Once done, share out answers and make sure they have them correct using the Water Quantity Lesson Student Guide Part 4 KEY.
  17. Have students answer the reflection question “Look at the amount of water you would use in a lifetime. Do you think this number is high or low? Why?” (2-3 minutes).
  18. Come back together as a class and explain that they need to now calculate what their family’s water usage looks like. (Remind them that this is an average number based on U.S. water information, it doesn’t exactly represent what they use, but it gives a good estimate) (10 minutes).
  19. Once they are all done with those calculations, have students share their findings within their groups. Ideas for sharing out would be to have students get into groups that have the same number of people in their house, then compare their answers (they should be the same). Or, have students create a graph representation with the classroom data showing # of family members and water used. NOTE: these will add more time onto the lesson.
  20. Have students answer the reflection question at the bottom of page 2 “Does this number surprise you? Why or why not?”(2-3 minutes).

Day 2 — Water volume data collection

  1. Complete any portions of Day 1 that did not get finished before proceeding with student data collection activity.
  2. Pass out the Well Data Sheet and the Water Use Data Sheet (Note: numbers from Day 1 have been rounded and added into the table for the students).
  3. Have them look at the different items on the Water Use Data Sheet.
  4. Ask students to fill in the FAMILY USE NUMBERS using their calculations from the bottom of page 2 of the Student Guide.
  5. Make sure all students have access to the internet for this part (NOTE: FracFocus website works best with Google Chrome!).
  6. Have students access the FracFocus website for collecting water data for 14 oil and gas well sites around Colorado.
  7. Use pages 3 to 5 of the Student Guide to walk them through navigating the map search tool. The guide takes students it goes through the site step by step to access the PDF files for each site.
    Once students have familiarized themselves with the site, it is time for them to collect data. Remind them as they go to work independently, that they need to make sure 4 of the 14 wells are near their school (if this applies to your location) (35-45 minutes).
    At the close of Day 3, have students share out some of the numbers they have found. The number will vary, some are as large as 12 million gallons, other wells use as little as 30,000 gallons.

Day 3- Water use comparison model design and construction

  1. Have students begin the day by completing page 6 of the Student Guide. Have them check in with their calculations and model design before beginning their model. Encourage students to start with a workable number, such as the individual lifespan use of 3,000,000 gallons or the amount used in one day (37,000 gallons). This will make their model representation more realistic, it will be difficult for them to try and use a 1 gallon representation (remember, they need to model up to 500,000,000 gallons).
  2. Once approved, give students their materials and let them build.
    NOTE: Students may need support in figuring out the base unit for the model. It must be reasonable, there is no way students can use a number like 100 gallons to model up to 500 million.


Students can be assessed in multiple ways:

  • Create a rubric outlining all of the requirements for activity, give points to students based on rubric requirements met. For info/templates for creating rubrics visit:http://rubistar.4teachers.org/index.php
  • Have students defend how their model represents the amounts on the data sheet. This can be done in the form of a philosophical chairs activity, socratic seminar or board meeting format.
  • Have students participate in a gallery walk where other students get to analyze classmate’s models. Provide a critique sheet for students to do a peer review.
  • Create a digital showcase using Google Classrooms or Weebly. Students can upload pictures and explanations of their models. This is also a great way to have community members, scientists and professionals participate in the assessment process. Instead of them coming into your building, they can access the showcase online, make comments, and leave questions and/or suggestions for the students. Students will also have the ability to comment on peer work.

Background information

Oil and gas exploration has evolved since the industrial revolution when demand boomed. Since then, many methods of oil and gas extraction have been developed and used through the world. Most recently, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has become quite common in the US. Combined with horizontal drilling, this method of using water, sand and other chemicals to fracture the rocks is used in order to release the oil and gas trapped within formations thousands of feet below the surface that were previously inaccessible. The process of fracking is hotly debated across the country for a variety of reasons. The effect of hydraulic fracturing on water quality and the quantity of water usage in the technique is one of the focal points of the debate. The amount of water used for fracking, and what the fracking fluids contain is not regulated at a federal level. In some cases, individual states have different legislative guidelines for reporting quantities of water used. Colorado does not require oil and gas companies to disclose where they are getting the water used at their sites, however they do disclose how much water they use via the FracFocus website. The amounts used for fracking can vary from well to well as students will discover in this activity, but typically average about three to five million gallons per well in Colorado. Some argue that using millions of gallons of water per well is far too big a stress to put on already stressed water systems. On the other hand, according to the USGS, Colorado farmers/ranchers withdraw 500,000,000 gallons of water per hour for agricultural use.

For more information on the fracking process visit the following sites:

For more information about water use in fracking:

The Water Resources Risk Reading is a revised version of the article modified for middle school students.

Give students a map of Colorado that had latitude and longitude and have students map water sources near their school and map the well locations using the lat/long info from the FracFocus data sheets.
Ask students to look at water use per well in other states, and compare Colorado’s numbers to those.

Students could use CAD to develop a game/model for volume comparison.
Students could work in groups to research why some well use 30,000 gallons and some use 12 million gallons. What possible reasons are there for such a large difference in total water consumption?

Students could look at the US map of oil/gas hydraulic fracturing wells and also look at a map of drought conditions for the US. Using that information, collect total water use for a few sites at different locations and debate as to whether companies should use water for fracking in area that are experiencing water stress. Use the Water Resources Risk Reading for discussion.

Where does the water go? Have students investigate what happens to the water after it is used to frack a well. While some sites recycle portions of the water to use in other fracking operations, the majority of the water has to be disposed of as it contains toxic materials bot that were added and that it picked up from the rock below.