The Mathematics of Water Pollution in Lake Michigan

The original objective of our project was to present the mathematics of the pollution of Lake Michigan. We looked for numbers that described the Lake, the pollution, the pollutants, and financial considerations included in the pollution. We managed to find all of these and more. But in the course of doing this research we realized there was something more important about the numbers and our overall project; the numbers which everyone relies on to show how significant the pollution in Lake Michigan are insignificant themselves. The numbers, by themselves, show us nothing and prove nothing . So we looked for another way to demonstrate how important math would be in relationship to water pollution and this is how we finished our project.

We started our presentation with two quotes that we wanted our audience to keep in mind during the presentation. The first one was by former English Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, "To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day." The second one was an English proverb, "we never know the worth of water until the well is dry

Next, we gave the class a list of numbers of how long, deep, wide, and shallow Lake Michigan is in order to give them an adequate overall picture of the body of water we are dealing with. Then we presented the different plans for cleaning up the Lake. Some of these included monetary incentives and research or education for the public and companies. All of the programs were designed for companies to help them learn how to deal with pollution and to educate each other. In one plan companies even had a computer network and conference system for discussing different measures to ward off pollution and ways of dealing with pollution that they had already created. We followed this up with a list of descriptions of different companiesí pollutants and how they had cleaned them up.

Our hope for the beginning of the project, which included the numbers for different pollutants and companies and financial aspects of the Lake's pollution, was to bore the class. We knew that the facts, the sheer mass of numbers, would mean as little to them as it did to us. The second half of the project was not only to interest them, it was also to show them the true impact of the loss of our water supply from pollution. This is where we showed the numbers that had meaning.

We started this section by giving the class a simple quiz of four questions about water.

1) What Percent of the Earth's water is Fresh Water?

2) How many gallons of water does it take to process a meal of a 1/4 lb. hamburger, an order of fries and a soft drink?

3) On average, about what percent of the human body is water?

4) A ten-minute shower uses about how many gallons of water?

Most of the class was unable to answer the questions correctly. We went over the answers (#1 - 3%, most of it is found in the polar ice caps; #2 - 1400 gallons; #3 - 70%; #4 - 50 gallons-a bath takes 25-50 gallons) and the class was surprised by the real numbers. We then gave them each a fact sheet with surprising facts about water to begin to show the real significance of water in our lives. The facts included things like only 3% of the earth is fresh water and we can survive a month without food but barely a week without water.

The next activity was having groups in the class write articles on water pollution, either that it was bad, getting better, or good, and present it to the class. The class was surprisingly good at this because they were interested and creative. The articles ranged from newspaper articles to "little Bobby's" article for his second grade newsletter; there was even a letter from the perspective of a fish - Mr. Guppie, an individual experiencing water pollution in Lake Michigan firsthand.

We had two more small group activities: their prediction for the future of the Lake's pollution and small group ideas for solving the water pollution problem. Both activities went well and were once again creative; one group even wrote a poem.

Our theme for the project, the opening quotes, were then explained. The first quote was the basis for the first half of our project - we can easily and quickly destroy the Lake but undoing the damage is hard. The efforts of companies and the government were examples of this. The second quote focused on the second part of our project - we really don't understand the worth of water until there is a problem. The worth cannot be measured in mere numbers but rather in the lives that are saved because we have water to drink, the lives that are enriched by its recreational aspects (boating, swimming), and the reality of how dangerous it is to destroy our source of water through ignorance and irresponsibility for nature.

By: Tabitha and Annie

Last updated 2/20/1999
Image Copyright (c) 1997 Index Stock