Back to Blog

Bucket Brigades, Bell Bottoms and Bitstrips: Firefighting in Colonial Philadelphia

blog 1

Urban Watershed Blog Post #2

Bucket Brigades, Bell Bottoms and Bitstrips: Firefighting in Colonial Philadelphia 

Imagine it’s 1776, you live in a row home 10 blocks from the Schuylkill River and your house is on fire.  How do you put it out?  That’s the essential question of a creative lesson in history, math and science that someday may be taught in every Philadelphia middle school.  “You’d depend on civically-minded neighbors with their own buckets, axes and hats,” explains Chester A. Arthur science teacher Mike Franklin, who developed the lesson.

Mike is one of 14 smart and dedicated teachers participating in the Fairmount Water Works Middle School Teacher Fellowship Program, funded by the William Penn Foundation.  The goal is to develop a sixth, seventh and eighth-grade curriculum for the Philadelphia School District incorporating urban watershed education with core science and English standards.  The Fellows are currently piloting their lessons in the classroom and sharing them with their colleagues for feedback and ideas.

“We replicated the bucket line with an outdoor relay race which demonstrated the importance of community and set the stage for math.  For example, they measured the amount of water in their buckets before/after the race and calculated the volume they lost,” explains Franklin.  “For some of these kids, it’s the most focused I’ve ever seen them.” 

“You’re Wearing Water Right Now”

Water is used to create everything we eat, we wear, we use.  That’s why it’s so important to conserve it.  So says Robert DiNicola of Maritime Academy Charter whose personal water footprint lesson was a hit with students.

Using the calculator at, DiNicola showed students how much water goes into a hamburger, or a pair of sneakers.  “That’s virtual water,” he explains.  “Kids have no idea of the hidden water that’s used every day in the manufacture of goods.  That led us into ideas on how to cut back on their own personal use.”

Instant Comics – No Drawing Required

Science teacher Karen Brinkley of Cook Wissahickon, used a free trial of Bitstrips to engage her students in answering the question, “What is a watershed and why is it important?”

“Some of the kids initially answered, ‘it’s a shed with water.’  Then they watched a video on watersheds and created comics demonstrating their knowledge.  They had so much fun, they didn’t realize how much they were learning—not only the what, but why it’s important to keep our watersheds clean,” says Brinkley.

The best part?  Some of the kids showed their comic strips to their parents and urged them not to litter, because everything that goes on our streets winds up in our watershed.