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Three Gorges: The Biggest Dam In The WorldThree-Gorges-The-Biggest-Dam-In-The-World

  • Subject: Technology
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: Three class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. The enormous Three Gorges Dam is now being constructed in China on the upper Yangtze River.
2. The dam will benefit many people, but it may also cause serious problems.
3. Dams are built according to complex principles of engineering.


For their research students will need materials on dams and dam engineering, as well as a computer with Internet access. Each team will require the following materials for dam construction:
Empty fish tank
Materials that team members choose for building dam


1. Ask your students if they have ever seen a dam. Ask them to mention some of the purposes that dams serve. Encourage students to talk about dams they have seen, from beaver dams to giant dams built for the purpose of controlling flooding or generating hydroelectric power.
2. Tell the class that a huge dam construction project is now under way in China in the Three Gorges area on the upper Yangtze River. Locate the area for students, and, if possible, let them see pictures that will give them an idea of what the area looks like (see Links). If students are not familiar with the word gorge , have a volunteer look it up in a dictionary and explain the meaning to the class.
3. Give students the following background information about Three Gorges Dam:
  1. Forty thousand builders will work for 16 years to complete Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.
  2. The dam will benefit some two million Chinese by controlling flooding on the lower Yangtze River, generating hydroelectric power, and reducing pollution caused by the burning of coal.
  3. The dam may also cause problems, such as causing flooding upstream, possibly causing an earthquake, displacing people, eliminating tourist trade to the area, and destroying important archaeological artifacts.
Encourage interested students to do optional further research to expand on the above information and report back to the class.
4. Go on to explain that dams are designed by engineers according to complex principles of engineering. Then tell students that they are going to build their own dams.
5. Have students use materials you have provided, materials from a library, and the Internet to research the basic engineering principles of dam construction (see Links).
6. Divide the class into dam-building teams, challenging each group to build a dam in an empty fish tank. The dam must keep water poured into one side of the tank to a height you determine from flowing to the other side of the completed dam.
7. You can limit students to using common materials they have at home or can easily find, such as twigs and leaves, food items, or paper, tape, and glue.
8. Before teams begin building, have them meet to plan and design their dams, using the principles they learned from their research.
9. After each team erects its dam, have students test their dams before the class by pouring water into one side of the tank until it reaches the predetermined height. The dam that holds the most water back for the longest time is the winner.
10. Have the members of each team work cooperatively to write up an explanation of the engineering principles they used in designing and building their dam. A volunteer from each team should read the explanation to the class when his or her team's dam is tested.

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Have students research and report on well-known dams, including in their reports the following:
  1. Location of dam
  2. Benefits of dam
  3. Problems, if any, caused by dam
  4. Engineering principles used to build dam

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Discussion Questions

1. Studies have shown that moving from one home to another can be one of the most stressful endeavors in a person's life. As a result of the Three Gorges Dam project in China, 2 million people are actually going to go through this difficult experience - whether they want to or not. Discuss the many difficult experiences that those 2 million people will have to deal with, and debate whether it's "fair" or "right" for the Chinese government to force this burden on so many people.
2. Explain how the Three Gorges Dam may create an economic boom in China that would offset the tremendous costs of the project.
3. Large construction projects can often destroy important, irreplaceable archeological evidence - burial grounds, antiquities, ancient building sites, and more. Why are these losses so tragic? Discuss the importance of knowing a culture's past.
4. The engineering triumph of the Three Gorges Dam is touted as a sign of "progress," though the project has many negative side effects that may not seem like progress to many Chinese citizens, like the forced relocation of 2 million people and the loss of 3,000-year-old antiquities. How is "progress" defined? How should it be defined?
5. Explain the costs and benefits of replacing coal-produced electricity with alternative forms of energy (e.g., hydroelectric power, solar power, and wind power).
6. Despite what we know about nature, humans build homes directly on fault lines, right in the middle of floodplains, and adjacent to beaches in heavy hurricane areas. Why does this occur?

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You can evaluate teams on their dams and explanations using the following three-point rubric:
Three points: team works well cooperatively; dam carefully constructed according to principles researched; explanation clear and accurate
Two points: team works cooperatively; dam constructed according to principles researched; explanation lacks clarity and/or contains inaccuracies
One point: team has trouble working cooperatively; dam carelessly constructed; dam fails to show evidence of research; explanation lacks clarity and contains inaccuracies
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining criteria for successful cooperative teamwork.

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Natural Philosophy
Large dam construction projects can be seen as humankind's attempt to control nature by changing the course and speed of a river. Is controlling nature a worthwhile goal for humankind? Should we try to live in harmony with nature instead? Throughout history, philosophers such as John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and Gifford Pinchot have argued about these and other ideas relating to human interaction with the natural world. Have your students research the four writers above (and/or any others you care to add) to learn about their philosophies. Hold a class discussion about the ways in which the philosophies differ. Then have students write their own philosophical statements about how humans should interact with nature. Ask them to consider as many environmental issues as possible (e.g., preserving land, conserving/consuming resources, preventing the extinction of species, developing natural parks, diverting rivers and building dams, draining wetlands). Encourage students to be as persuasive as possible by using examples, rhetoric, statistics, and logic, wherever possible.

Preserving Chinese Culture
One of the major drawbacks to the Chinese government's plan for Three Gorges Dam is that it will result in the loss of countless Chinese antiquities, among them irreplaceable works of art and architecture. Have your students investigate some aspect of China's ancient artistic and architectural past, from the statues in the Forbidden City, to paintings, to elaborate temples. Ask each student to create a "museum on paper," based on research, containing five works of Chinese art or architecture that she or he would strive to preserve during the construction of Three Gorges Dam. For each piece of art, the student should prepare an illustration and a written description, as well as a sentence or two explaining why each work is worth preserving.

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Suggested Readings

The River Dragon Has Come!
Dai Qing. M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1998.
If built according to plan, Three Gorges will become the world's largest dam, submerging 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,352 villages and requiring the resettlement of 1.9 million people. The dam will also bury hundreds of archeological sites, put several highly endangered species in jeopardy, and forever deface the magnificent beauty of the Three Gorges Region. Dai Qing, a woman investigative journalist and author with a wide following in China and abroad, has assembled this collection of essays assessing the impact of Three Gorges.

The Yangzi River
Judy Bonavia. Passport Books, 1997.
From the wild windswept snowfields of its source in Tibet to the rich farmlands of its delta on the Yellow Sea, the mighty Yangzi has always had symbolic and practical significance for the Chinese. Illustrated by exceptional color photography and informative maps and plans, this detailed guide to the what the Chinese call "The Long River" is an essential companion for anyone with an interest in China.

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Hydro-Electric Power
This site is maintained by the Missouri Botanical Garden and has a good explanation of the functions of dams.

Bureau of Reclamation
Photos, diagrams, and statistics of several American dams.

Cracking Dams
An innovative introduction to civil engineering and the construction of dams.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    antiquities
Definition: Relics or monuments of ancient times.
Context: The Chinese take great pride in the antiquities they have discovered at archeological sites.

speaker    cataclysm
Definition: A surging flood of water; a momentous and violent event marked by overwhelming upheaval and demolition.
Context: The 1998 flood was so cataclysmic that the cost of fighting it and repairing the damage threatened to destabilize the economy of China.

speaker    cofferdam
Definition: A temporary watertight enclosure.
Context: The Yangtze River's natural course will eventually be blocked by rubble dumped to form a cofferdam.

speaker    devastated
Definition: Lain waste to; ravaged.
Context: In August 1998, China was devastated by the worst flooding in the country in 44 years.

speaker    gorge
Definition: A narrow passage between mountains; a ravine with steep, rocky walls.
Context: The Three Gorges Dam project will control the river where it narrows through a series of canyons called the Three Gorges.

speaker    lock
Definition: A moveable barrier across a river or stream.
Context: The Yangtze River's traffic will use one of the world's largest systems of locks to pass the dam.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8, 9-12
Subject area: geography
Knows the locations of places, geographic features, and patterns of the environment.
Benchmark 6-8:
Knows the locations of physical and human features on maps and globes (e.g., culture hearths, such as Mesopotamia, Huang Ho, the Yucatan Peninsula, the Nile Valley; major ocean currents; wind patterns; landforms; climate regions).

Benchmark 9-12:
Knows the approximate locations of major political and economic cultures.

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: geography
Understands how human actions modify the physical environment.
Understands the environmental consequences of both the unintended and intended outcomes of major technological changes in human history (e.g., the effects of automobiles using fossil fuels, nuclear power plants creating the problem of nuclear-waste storage, the use of steel-tipped plows or the expansion of the amount of land brought into agriculture).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: geography
Understands global development and environmental issues.
Understands contemporary issues in terms of Earth's physical and human systems (e.g., the processes of land degradation and desertification, the consequences of population growth or decline in a developed economy, the consequences of a world temperature increase).

Grade level: 6-8, 9-12
Subject area: technology
Understands the relationships among science, technology, society, and the individual.
Benchmark 6-8:
Knows ways in which technology and society influence one another (e.g., new products and processes for society are developed through technology; technological changes are often accompanied by social, political, and economic changes; technology is influenced by social needs, attitudes, values, and limitations, and cultural backgrounds and beliefs).

Benchmark 9-12:
Knows ways in which social and economic forces influence which technologies will be developed and used (e.g., personal values, consumer acceptance, patent laws, availability of risk capital, the federal budget, local and national regulations, media attention, economic competition, tax incentives).

Benchmark 9-12:
Knows that alternatives, risks, costs, and benefits must be considered when deciding on proposals to introduce new technologies or to curtail existing ones (e.g., Are there alternative ways to achieve the same ends? Who benefits and who suffers? What are the financial and social costs and who bears them? How serious are the risks and who is in jeopardy? What resources will be needed and where will they come from?).

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Jeffrey Leaf, vice president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; and engineering teacher, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax County, Virginia.

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