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Unlocking Canal Locks

Why do canals incorporate locks? Find the "key" to lock engineering with this art-infused lesson plan.

  • Grade 4
    Grade 5
    Grade 6
  • Multiple Lesson Periods
  • Directions

    1. Canals allowed boats to transport goods through man-made connective waterways. The canal system allowed freight to be moved more quickly and efficiently than in the past. Why was the canal system more effective than previous modes of transportation? Invite students, working in small groups, to research canal systems. Organize text and electronic resources for students to view for this research.
    2. Student groups organize their research into a presentation format in preparation for sharing their learning with classmates. When all presentations are complete, students discuss their new knowledge about canals, ships, watertight chambers, locks, etc.
    3. Using research as a guide, groups construct a representation of lock system out of Model Magic® and recycled materials. Model Magic that is fresh from the pack will stick to itself. Dried pieces can be glued together. Incorporate recycled materials like cardboard or craft sticks to build the chambers. Create boats from modeling compound to bring the model to life. Add additional recycled materials to replicate water and other canal features.
    4. While Model Magic is drying, groups compose a summary paragraph of their learning about canals. Display student lock system representations and writing in a school hallway for peers to view.
  • Standards

    LA: Read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grade level text complexity band independently and proficiently.

    LA: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade level reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.

    LA: Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and refocusing the inquiry when appropriate.

    LA: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

    LA: Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking clearly at an understandable pace.

    MATH: Convert like measurement units within a given measurement system.

    SCI: Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment.

    SS: Describe how we depend upon workers with specialized jobs and the ways in which they contribute to the productions and exchange of goods and services.

    SS: Examine the interaction of human beings and their physical environment, the use of land, building of cities, and ecosystem changes in selected locales and regions.

    SS: Identify and describe examples in which science and technology have changed the lives of people, such as in homemaking, childcare, work, transportation, and communication.

    VA: Intentionally take advantage of the qualities and characteristics of art media, techniques, and processes to enhance communication of experiences and ideas.

    VA: Select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of ideas.

  • Adaptations

    Possible classroom resources include: Amazing Impossible Erie Canal by Cheryl Hamess; The Panama Canal: The Story of how a jungle was conquered and the world made smaller (Wonders of the World Book) by Elizabeth Mann; Canals and Dams: Investigate Feats of Engineering with 25 Projects (Build It Yourself series) by Donna Latham; The Canals (Building America (Benchmark)) by William Bial.

    The Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas. This canal does not incorporate locks. Research why this is so. What is the logistical importance of this canal? Organize research into an electronic format for presentation to classmates.

    Locks have been used for over a thousand years. Where did locks originate? Why did people use them?

    Visit the National Canal Museum, located in Easton, Pennsylvania. Information regarding canal locks can be accessed electronically at

    Students work in small groups to research the history of the building of the Panama Canal.


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  • Creativity.
  • Capacity.
  • Collaboration.
  • Change.
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