Kate Van Haren, Victoria Rydberg-Nania
Elementary Education, Environmental Literacy and Sustainability, Global Education, Geography, World Cultures
Material Type:
Upper Primary, Middle School
Public Domain Dedication
Media Formats:
Audio, Graphics/Photos, Video

United Nations Sustainability Goals Lesson Plan

United Nations Sustainability Goals Lesson Plan


Explore what the United Nations sustainability goals are and their purpose for improving the human and environmental global community. After learning about the goals in general,s students will dig deeper into understanding how achieving Goal #6 Access to Clean Water and Sanitation looks different in every country. After learning about their other countries, students will explore how Wisconsin's own drinking water must be monitored to make sure it's safe. Students will then be asked to explore ways they can alert people to the need to test and make sure their own drinking water is safe. 

The United Nations Sustainability Goals-An International and Local Look


This integrated unit is designed for upper elementary school students. Although this lesson was originally completed as part of a fourth-grade reading class, it can easily be adapted to use in a variety of classroom subjects and settings. The goal of this activity is to introduce students to the United Nations Sustainability Goals. Throughout this unit, students will learn why these specific goals were established and what different countries are trying to do to achieve them. Obviously, the issues that dictated these goals are complex and require multiple perspectives and ideas in order to solve them. The purpose of looking at a specific goal at an international level and then focusing on solving the problem at a local level is for students to increase their global awareness, but also encourage them to make a meaningful, achievable change in their own communities.

This teacher’s notes provide teachers with suggestions and ideas on how to adapt this activity to best meet the needs of their students. The activities are easily adaptable and can be changed or omitted as needed. This activity is meant as a template so teachers can pick and choose the activities in this unit or create their own project focusing on the other SDGs.

Important Notes:

-This unit and the completion of all activities took a class of fourth-graders 8 days to complete. The citizenship action plan and the project took a few hours a week over several weeks.

Accommodations were made throughout the activity.  Students who were below grade level completed one or two of the country studies instead of all three. Websites and articles for students of different abilities were also adapted for the class.

Each student in this classroom had access to a personal electronic device. 

Student work was assessed on participation in class discussions, projects, small group work, and effort put into answering questions. Teachers are encouraged to develop and use assessment tools that meet the needs of their district and classroom. It is encouraged that students are assessed/graded on participation and effort as many of the questions are complex.  Most questions have many possible answers and can be approached from many different perspectives.

Standards Addressed:

Wisconsin Environmental Literacy Standards:

ELS.C1.B.i Examine how meeting one’s needs for food, water, and shelter can impact natural and cultural systems

ELS.EX2.A.iI identify a familiar system, differentiate and relate ideas, identify nested systems, consider perspectives and alternative boundaries, and name parts of relationships

ELS.EX2.C.i Investigate how access to renewable and nonrenewable natural resources necessary for survival influences human interactions between and within geographic regions

ELS.EX3.A.i Compare and contrast the perspectives of people from various cultures who have had an impact on the environment and sustainability

ELS.EX5.A.i Explain how one’s cultural identity and views can influence decision-making and sustainability in natural and cultural systems.

ELS.EX5.C.i Identify historical or contemporary cultural events that have shaped perspectives about a sustainability issue.

ELS.EN7.A.i Investigate sustainability issues that need attention in a school or community, and brainstorm potential solutions, considering perspectives of multiple stakeholders.


Wisconsin Social Studies Standards:

SS.Inq1.b.i Develop a list of questions that support the research through discussion and investigation to guide inquiry.

SS.Inq3.a.i Create a thesis statement based on evidence found in sources to make a claim

SS.BH1.a.4 Describe how a person's understanding, perceptions, and behaviors are affected by relationships a

SS.Geog5.b.5 Examine how human actions modify the physical environment when using natural resources (renewable and nonrenewable).            

SS.Geog5.b.5 Examine how human actions modify the physical environment when using natural resources (renewable and nonrenewable).




A document-based guide for exploring the need for change and how the SDGs are being implemented around the world for upper elementary school students








What is the United Nations and the United Nations Sustainability Goals?

Most students in upper elementary have either never heard of the United Nations or only have a basic understanding of the purpose of the organization. It is recommended that teachers take time to discuss the history and purpose of the United Nations and its many goals and projects.  The link takes students to a website with a brief kid-friendly description.  There are a variety of books and online resources available explaining why and how the United Nations operates if the teacher wishes to spend more time on this section.

After explaining the history and organization of the United Nations, the class should spend some time discussing the reasoning and purpose behind the sustainability goals. The comic book explains each of the goals in pictures and kid-friendly language. The activity for this section asks students to design their own comic describing one of the sustainability goals. The teacher could display these comics around the room or somewhere in the school to raise awareness and about the goals. The drawings could also be combined into a comic book that could be added to the classroom or school library. If you are using this guide to create your own workbook about a different sustainability goal, it highly recommended that you do not skip this section. If using this activity in an online format, the teacher can decide the best way for students to submit their drawings. Suggestions include either using a computer-based drawing program or having students take a picture and submit their drawing.

The United Nations is an international organization that helps maintain peace among different countries in the world and attempts to guarantee the safety and wellbeing of all people.

Image of the United Nations

For more information about the United Nations, visit the following website:      


In 2015, the UN established the Sustainability Development Goals to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the planet and all people.  By 2030, The United Nations hopes people around the world, including you, will help achieve the following goals.                                                                                                      


UN Goals



To learn more about the Sustainability Goals, read this comic book: (Click on the PDF file below)     

Activity: Choose one of the sustainability goals. Design your own comic that explains how the goal applies to your own community. Make sure you write the number and which sustainability goal you are teaching your readers about.

Comic Book Cover

What Access to Clean Water Means to the World, What Access to Clean Water Means to ME!


This is the section where students will learn about the reasons why the UN established a specific goal. There are a variety of ways the teacher could create an introduction in the classroom. For this exploration of Goal #6, the introduction was written to connect students to prior learning in other topics.  


Think about a time when you were thirsty and how hard it was to think or participate in your normal activities. How does swimming or spending time next to a lake, river, or other body of water make you feel? It is not hard for us to see how water is necessary for human survival and our mental health.


On the other hand, water, in its many forms, can be very destructive. Floods, snowstorms, hail, and other forms of precipitation have caused damage to homes, communities, and led to the loss of life. Throughout history, humans around the world have recognized the incredible life-giving and life-altering power of water. The Afghani people, who often deal with a lack of water and drought, have a famous proverb that states, “A little water can be a sea to an ant.” Benjamin Franklin, an American who believed in the benefits of swimming and healthy lifestyles when most people thought bathing caused illness, said, “When the well is dry, we will know the worth of water.”


Today, the role of water plays different roles in different cultures around the world. Advances in technology have changed people’s relationships and interactions with this essential resource. Technology also allows us to more easily explore how different people around the world rely on and use water.  In this activity, you will use a variety of different sources to learn about how many different people around the world interact with water. You will also learn why we all need to work together to ensure that everyone has access to clean, drinkable water.

Activity: Water means different things and serves many different purposes for people around the world. In the box below, think of all the different ways you could finish the sentence:

Water Is...



Water Is....Video Activity

For goal #6, students begin by exploring and describing the important role water plays in their own life. Students then watch a video of kids around the word describing how important water is in their lives. This video offers a perfect opportunity for students to compare water use and ideas about water in their own community to communities around the world. The students who participated in this unit made their own Water is…. cards like in the video and a collage of their pictures were displayed in the school. In an online setting, teachers may wish to explore using video recording programs like Flipgrid. Students can make short videos of themselves describing what water means to them. 

Finally, students watch a video of a United Nations expert citing evidence and statistics about the current state of clean water and sanitation across the world. This video is important for students' understanding of the need for the goal.         

 Important note: This is the first section where students are asked to answer a specific question. Depending on how teachers are assessing student work, it may be helpful for teachers to design an answer sheet template for students. There will be several questions for students to answer throughout the rest of this project.

Teachers who are designing their own units can decide how detailed the introduction and how many activities to include.  The United Nations website has short videos explaining the need for each SDG on their website. These videos are short and provide students with a quick explanation about the purpose of each SDG.



The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) asked people around the world the same question. Watch the video that was created with their answers. After watching the video, add any additional words or phrases that you could add to your previous notes.


Activity: Create your own #Water is…poster. Use your notes from the previous page and information you learned in this video to help you think of ideas.

Now watch the following video clip about the reasons why Goal #6 is so important for global communities.

Goal #6

In this video, you learned why clean water and sanitation are so important to communities around the world.                                                                 

Activity: Create a list of at least three facts or statistics that were the most interesting to you.


Case Study #1: Ethiopia

Case Studies:

In this section, students explore how access to clean water and sanitation is difficult for people in different countries around the world.  The case studies cover three slides of the student presentation. The final case study proves a more local example of issues with clean water and sanitation. Students study examples of contamination of drinking water across the state of Wisconsin. Students also explore how different communities and organizations are trying to address issues related to clean water and sanitation.   The sources used in this lesson include a variety of videos, images, articles, and books.  These specific countries and the sources were chosen because they provide students with examples that access to clean water and sanitation looks different in different areas around the world. They are also countries the author has visited so she was able to explain the cultures in a little more detail. The resources were selected to meet a variety of student learning needs and goals. Students with lower reading levels were asked to complete two country studies and given smaller sections of articles to read. Some questions were also adapted so they were easier to answer.  Students who needed extra enrichment completed their own research project. They researched how different countries are working to guarantee clean water for all its citizens.

When teachers are designing their own SDG study, it is important to remember that the main focus of these case studies is for students to study specific examples of how a problem affects a community and what the community is doing to address the problem. Teachers can choose which countries to use for their case studies. The number of case studies is also up to the teacher. When deciding which sources to use, the teachers should look at the goals of the class and standards that need to be met.  For example, one of the main goals of this specific project is students how to analyze a variety of different media and print sources.

 A suggestion is to choose countries that offer different perspectives on the problem the SDG hopes to solve.  For example, this lesson looks at water shortages in rural Ethiopia and urban access issues in Peru.

 It is highly recommended that the teacher creates a study of what the problem being studied looks like at the local or state level of the students.  Too often, students view global issues as occurring in far off places and fail to realize that many of these issues are also occuring in thier own communites, although they likely look different.  Identifying problems at a local level can also help student identify issues they would like to solve during the citizenship section of this activity.


Watch the following video and then answer the questions about how the lack of clean drinking water affects Ethiopian people, especially girls.


Answer the Following Questions:

1. Describe the problems that a lack of clean drinking water creates for Ethiopian girls.

2. How would you describe this video to someone who doesn’t know how hard it is to get clean water in Ethiopia? 


As you read more about the worldwide water crisis, you will learn that there are many causes. Many different solutions are required to make sure everyone has access to clean water. One small scale solution is for villages to build wells closer to their villages.  Click on the link below to read more information about the type of wells that are being built in Ethiopia.                 


Shallow Well Rig

Answer the Following Question:

3. Explain the benefits and drawbacks of the different types of wells that are being built in Ethiopia.

Case Study #2 Peru



Most people in the United States have access to running water in their homes or buildings they use regularly. This is not the case for everyone in the world. Some people only have wells or have to travel long distances to obtain water.

Answer the Following Questions:

1. How would not having running water affect your daily activities?  What things would take longer? What might you not be able to because you have to worry about getting water?


Study the picture below and read its caption. Read the important quotes from the article about water shortages in Lima, Peru. If you would like to read the full article, click on the link.                                                                                  


In Grecia’s neighborhood, a tanker truck delivers water to residents who don’t have access to water in their homes. While valuable, services like this often cost 10 to 15 times more per liter than direct access to water.

Quotes from Article……

When we talk about the water crisis, it’s often in the context of polluted rivers or remote villages that force women to walk for hours each day just to find clean water. Those are major issues, but the full picture of the water crisis is a lot slipperier. In the suburbs of developing countries like Peru, the problem isn't as simple as digging wells or installing water filters. Here the water crisis has more to do with money and infrastructure—the actual pipes that bring clean water from the city’s water source into showers and sinks throughout the area—and money”


"The solution isn’t about digging wells or trucking in more clean water. To truly fix the problem and remove that chronic daily grind from the shoulders of women, argues, financial empowerment is the key. In 2013 the nonprofit launched the WaterCredit program, which works with banks in places like Lima to help women and their families get microloans—the average size of which are just $1,200—to make home improvements. In areas that do have access to water pipes, it’s as simple as getting the few hundred dollars it takes to tap into the mainline and install a faucet or toilet in their home. In more rural areas, a loan can help women pay for a water tank that will provide running water for luxuries like showers and toilets.”

Answer the Following Question:

2.. How are the experiences of women in Ethiopia and Peru the same? How are they different?



The article mentions some organizations like are providing people around the world with water credits. Read about what the water credit program does for people who need fresh water.  Use the link below to visit their website. Make sure to watch the video and read the first two paragraphs.  



Answer the Following Question:

3.  What is a water credit? Why does think it is a good idea to give people the freedom to update their homes so they can have indoor running  and clean water ? Is there a better way to make sure they get running water than just giving them money?

Case Study #3 Mekong River (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam)


Answer the Following Question:

1.  Healthy ecosystems and cleanliness of all bodies of water are important. However, keeping large bodies of water like the Mekong is especially critical to many living organisms. Why is this?


The Mekong River is one of the most important rivers in the world. Many people use water for more than just drinking. People rely on the water, the fish, and its other resources for their livelihood. One of the uses of water is it for hydropower or water electricity. The Mekong could provide millions of people with electricity, but it’s hydroelectric dams drastically change the way people who live along the Mekong live. Watch the video below to learn more about how hydropower affects the many different communities living along the river.

Mekong River

Answer the Following Question:

2. What is the purpose of hydropower? How could it help people who live along the Mekong River? What are the effects of building hydroelectric power on the environment and the people who rely on the Mekong?


It seems easy to say stop building dams on the Mekong River, but is it fair to prevent all those people from having cheaper electricity? Solving water crises is never easy. However, people are presenting some interesting alternatives. Read the article to find out one possible solution.



Answer the Following Question:

3. What is the possible solution being proposed in the article? Do you think this is possible? How would you convince people living along the Mekong in Cambodia to invest in this plan? What about the people who want to build a dam?


Local Case Study: Wisconsin Drinking Water

When people read about environmental and social problems like access to clean drinking water, we often think about other places in the world. People often forget to look in their own communities. Recent studies in Wisconsin have found that many people across the state are in danger from toxins in the waters from their own wells. Study the chart below. For the full article. Click on the link below.




Answer the Following Question:

1. Write down at least three observations about the chart above. What are some of the toxins found in our water? What are some of the causes?



The problems with Wisconsin drinking water are complex and will require many solutions to solve. Scroll through the article, Safe, Clean, Drinking Water Eludes Many Wisconsinites. Find and read the sections titled:

  • Natural Threats Made Worse by Man
  • Rules Improve Drinking Water
  • Some Regulation Lax, Full of Loopholes

Click on the following link for the article:


Answer the Following Question:

2. Write a 2-3 sentence summary for each of the sections of you read.


Study the  picture below and read the caption

Milwaukee officials posted this warning about high strontium levels this spring on the popular public well where residents fill up drinking water jugs in the city’s Bay View neighborhood. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency is considering the regulation of this naturally occurring metal, which is found in some of the highest concentrations nationwide in southeast Wisconsin. Consumption of strontium can lead to bone and dental problems in children.

Now read and study the following sections of a Wisconsin Department pamphlet about how to determine and what to do if there is lead in your groundwater. (Full Pamphlet is included as a file below) 




Answer the Following Question:

3. Someone is worried that the well where they get drinking water might be contaminated with toxins. What should you tell them to do? What is the short-term solution to their problem? What should be done to protect the groundwater used in wells in the future?


Progress Towards Success

 Progress Towards Success

The SDGs are lofty goals and will be difficult to achieve by 2030. It is important for students to understand that none of these goals are easily achievable. In order to achieve success, local and global communities need to drastically change their lifestyles and the way they think. It is not easy to change hundreds of years of tradition and custom, even though the changes may improve the world over the long term.  Building new infrastructure and adapting sustainable lifestyles often takes a lot of money and a lot of time. People who are working hard to survive do not often have time or money.

Despite these hardships, the world is making progress towards improving these goals. It is important for students to see the progress, but realize that there is still much work to be done. The United Nations releases a report about progress towards each goal each year.  Although the entire report may be difficult for students to read, the teacher can pull out important facts and statistics so students can develop a general understanding of the progress made and the work that still needs to be done. Teachers should focus on positive progress, but also highlight that there still a lot of work to do.

Read the following statements taken from the 2019 Progress Report. Next to each statement, write a P for progress or an N for needs work. Make sure to explain your reasoning.

Link to the full report:



-Globally, the proportion of the population using safely managed drinking water services increased from 61 to 71 percent between 2000 and 2015 and remained unchanged in 2017. An additional 19 percent of the global population used basic drinking water services. This means that 785 million people still lacked even a basic drinking water service.                             Progress or still needs work? ______  Why?


-In 2017, some 60 percent of people worldwide and only 38 percent of people in the least developed countries had a basic handwashing facility with soap and water at home, leaving an estimated 3 billion people without basic handwashing facilities at home.                                                          Progress or still needs work? ______  Why?      


The global population using safely managed sanitation services increased from 28 percent in 2000 to 43 percent in 2015 and to 45 percent in 2017, with the greatest increases occurring in Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, and East and South-East Asia. Between 2000 and 2017, the proportion lacking even a basic sanitation service decreased from 44 to 27 percent. Progress or still needs work?_______  Why?        


-Data suggests that achieving universal access to even basic sanitation services by 2030 would require doubling the current annual rate of progress. More efficient use and management of water are critical to addressing the growing demand for water, threats to water security, and the increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods resulting from climate change.             Progress or still needs work?_______  Why?        



My Action Plan/Citizenship Project

V.  My Action Plan/Citizenship Project     

Teachers are highly encouraged to create some sort of civic engagement opportunity for students based on what they learned during this project.  The ability to apply newly acquired knowledge in a real-world situation is an important step in both environmental literacy and social studies standards.

The worksheet has intentionally been left very broad and basic so the teacher can design the project to the best needs of the class.  For this project, the class engaged in several different activities. We visited another class and raised awareness about the SDG goals with student-designed comic books. The class also spent the year learning about the determinantal effects that plastic and pollutants had on water quality.  The class made posters and educated the rest of the school about what Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle means. We also wrote letters to our local congresspeople asking them to support legislation and continue to support laws that promoted keeping our local waterways clean. Finally, we talked about projects that our school already engaged in to promote Goal #6. These include a school-wide marker recycling program to reduce the amounts of plastic that end up in waterways and the purchase of a drinking fountain that records the number of plastic water bottles that are saved. All these projects are ideas that students could use to promote SDG Goal #6 in their communities.


Watch the video to see what people around the world are doing to achieve the SDG’s in their own communities.                   



Although there are many problems related to clean water and sanitation to solve that require a lot of money and a lot of work to solve, think about something that you can do in your own community. Is there something that you can your friends can do together to raise awareness about water issues in your community and the world or is there something you can to protect the clean water where you live? Brainstorm ideas to develop an action plan! Remember, to start small with something that is achievable and then work towards a bigger goal on your next project. The world needs knowledgeable, caring, and engaged citizens like you if the United Nations is going to achieve the SDG goals!  



ChildFund Australia. (2014). How can I live if there’s no clean water [YouTube Video]. Retrieved from

‌Comics Uniting Nations. (2016). Retrieved February 2, 2020, from website:

‌DESA, U. (2019). Four years into the 2030 Agenda, the world is getting ready to assess efforts to achieve the SDGs [YouTube Video]. Retrieved from


Digging Water Wells in Africa - How it Works | The Water Project. (2019). Retrieved February 2, 2020, from The Water Project website:


Drinking water and lead - Wisconsin DNR. (2019). Retrieved February 3, 2020, from website:


EurekaFilmProduction. (2009). Saving the Mekong [YouTube Video]. Retrieved from


Goal 6: Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. (2019). Retrieved February 3, 2020, from website:


‌Long P. Pham, P.E. (2019, December 3). How solar could save the Mekong.  Retrieved February 2, 2020, from pv magazine International website:

‌MacKenzie, M. (2019, June 3). The Peru Water Crisis Steals Time, Money, and Safety from Women. Retrieved February 2, 2020, from Glamour website:

Seely, R. (2015, November 8). Safe, clean drinking water eludes many Wisconsinites. Retrieved February 2, 2020, from website:


Student Resources - United Nations Sustainable Development (2018). Retrieved February 2, 2020, from United Nations Sustainable Development website:


Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. (2019). Retrieved February 2, 2020, from website:


The World Factbook - Central Intelligence Agency. (2020). Retrieved February 2, 2020, from website: