A group of prekindergartners at Ashley Hall School crowd around a large rectangular bin of dirty water in their classroom. Perhaps not standard center time fare, but these kids are learning some important lessons about the value of clean water.

They pour cups of water through coffee filters to strain out the gunk and see who can come up with the cleanest water.

The sifting follows a science experiment to discover the most efficient way to carry water from the classroom sink to the bin: in small cups or large pitchers? They quickly learn how hard it is to carry any water without sloshing and how heavy the pitchers become after just a few steps.

Nearby sits a photo book of Honduran children getting dirty water to drink.

“They’re understanding what a process it is to get clean water at home,” teacher Betsy Quirin says.

The lessons come from a new Water Missions International project spreading like floodwater into local schools eager to teach youths about the global water crisis, the science behind safe drinking water and the value of helping others who lack it.

It is building character and community with an academic twist.

“Some people can’t buy water,” notes Kate Eichelberger, who is almost 5. “They have to clean themselves in dirty water.”

She wrinkles her nose.

Her 5-year-old friend, Annie Morrison, matches the wrinkle: “Dirty water would be gross.”

They nod in certain agreement and hurry to a circular rug for a lesson on the Earth’s water cycle.

The message

When Jane Talbot’s son went to Zambia with the Peace Corps, the retired educator knew it would be a life-changing experience for him.

Who knew it would change her, too?

“You can’t teach people if they don’t have water and food,” her son, Frank, complained, distressed at meeting people without access to such a basic necessity.

About a year later, Talbot and her granddaughter, Abby, did Water Missions’s annual Walk for Water. Talbot had heard of Water Missions but didn’t really know much about the Christian nonprofit.

During the 3.5-mile walk, people carry buckets filled with water to symbolize the trek that women and children make each day to collect water in developing countries.

The buckets weighed so much, and lugging them proved incredibly taxing.

It changed the little girl’s thinking about how much water she used and affected her thinking about how people in developing nations live.

The teacher in Talbot saw opportunity.

“We have a whole audience out there,” Talbot realized. “It was through her eyes that this really led off.”

A seed settled into her mind, germinating and rooting until she retired as vice principal of Addlestone Hebrew Academy’s early childhood program. With more free time, she volunteered in Water Missions’ production area.

The seed grew a stem and leaves that reached into her daily musing: Could she take Water Missions’ message out to kids?

She went to a friend from Addlestone, fellow teacher Barbara Allega, who also had done the Walk for Water.

Together, they launched the Educators’ Think Tank, which now includes 15 current and former educators who in turn created Lessons in a Bucket.

It is a series of classroom lesson plans aimed at students in kindergarten through the sixth grade.

The plans are simple and flexible so teachers can incorporate them into any subject area, from math to language and social studies, however they work best in their classrooms.

The plans teach conservation, the science behind the water cycle, the process of delivering safe water to communities and dozens of other topics.

“We’re trying to make it easy for teachers,” Talbot said. “They can pick and choose what fits into their classrooms.”

Although Water Missions is a Christian nonprofit, the lessons are not religious.

“The goal is to have a secular curriculum to go into public schools, parochial schools and other settings,” Talbot said.

A pilot project began last year with 10 local classrooms. This year, Water Missions is officially launching the program.

Already, it has delivered 28 buckets to 28 schools. Last week alone, 20 schools called to request the books and buckets.

That means Talbot and Allega met their six-month goal of reaching 50 schools before January even ended.

Plus, churches have requested using the plans for Vacation Bible School curriculums this summer.

Two teachers in Columbia are interested. So is a Boy Scout troop.

And a United Way grant will help fund taking the program online so that teachers anywhere can access the lessons.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” Talbot said.

It doesn’t hurt that it’s free to teachers and others.

Water Missions funds the project. The nonprofit also is pursuing grants and invites donors to help out.

Teachers can request a Lessons in a Bucket booklet, bucket and other materials.

The spiral-bound booklet includes vocabulary, web reference, word searches and plans for teaching concepts including “Water is Life,” “The Water Cycle,” “How Wet is Our Planet?,” “Water Haul,” “Poetry With Water” and “Can Dirty Water be Made Clean?”

Students even can conduct their own Family Use Water Survey (look out, parents) and try hauling water themselves.

A College of Charleston teacher and graduate student have aligned the plans with state curriculum standards.

And Trident Technical College instructors are using the lesson plans to teach future teachers so they, too, can implement the ideas.

“It’s important that they know how to connect with the community and not just teach out of a textbook,” Talbot said.

Making it real

The teaching booklet includes photographs from Haiti, Kenya, Uganda and other places where Water Missions’ Living Water Treatment Systems have provided safe water for communities.

One picture shows children filling cups and buckets with brown dirty water from a well. The caption reads, “5,000 children die every day from diarrheal disease. That’s one every 20 seconds.”

Another shows a woman carrying a full water jug in each arm and a third on her head. Yet another shows a man drinking from a dirty pond with a herd of cattle on the shore.

After all, it’s hard for kids (and adults) to imagine what it’s like to not have a faucet or what it means to say that more than 1.5 million kids worldwide die every year of diarrheal disease.

Dana Van Hook, who went to Honduras with Water Missions, is Ashley Hall’s director of early education.

She shows her young students photographs of herself with Honduran youths holding dirty and then clean water.

“It is a way to make that connection,”said Van Hook, who serves with the group creating Lessons in a Bucket.

Eventually, they want to take the units to high schools and advance the lesson plans to help teach solar power and engineering.

Why? People of all ages can help solve the water crisis. That’s the message that Lessons in a Bucket educators hope to spread.

“We can all make a difference,” Talbot said. “You don’t have to go to Africa. There are things we can do here in the United States.”

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or subscribe to her at www.facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.