Lesson Plan

Project ZAP! Blackstone River Cleanup

Lesson Plan Image
Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Science,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
State Standards:
HP 1; HP 1 (3-4)-1; HP 2; HP 2-2; HP 2 (3-4)-3; HP 3; HP 3-1;
Additional Standards:
D2.Eco.3.3-5; D2.Eco.4.3-5; E 1 (3-4) –1; E 2 (K-2) – 2; D2.Geo.1.3-5; D2.Geo.2.3-5; D2.Geo.8.3-5; D2.His.1.3-5; D2.His.16.3-5
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts.

Essential Question

What were the causes and effects of the Zap the Blackstone cleanup project?


1) Students will read two primary source newspaper articles about the Zap the Blackstone campaign and the events that occurred on cleanup day.

2) Students will define key words related to river cleanup, protecting Earth’s resources, and the environment.

3) Students will analyze each primary source to determine the author, intended audience, date published, main idea, and reasons for creating the articles.

4) Students will select a design project.


About These Materials:  

Rhode Island is a state with an extensive history, as it is part of the original thirteen colonies owned by England and played a crucial role in the development of America as a nation. Rhode Island was extremely influential in the United States Industrial Revolution; English immigrant Samuel Slater built a mill that made cotton thread along the Blackstone River Valley area of Rhode Island. With the funding from Moses Brown, this idea began a shift from agriculture to industry throughout parts of New England. Numerous other investors developed mill complexes that dotted Rhode Island’s rivers and utilized water power in new ways. Canals created a new mode of transportation while dams allowed human control of the rivers. This created major changes in how people moved over land and also how people were able to obtain goods and other basic needs. One of those investors was Captain Wilbur Kelly, whose influence in and around the area of Ashton will be the focus of this unit.  


The Rhode Island Historical Society, in partnership with Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, developed academic lessons that can be used on-site at the grounds of the Kelly House and the Ashton Mill complex as well as in the classroom if unavailable to go to the site itself. The project consisted of conducting archival research, reading secondary sources, and local educators creating interactive lessons for students which focus on historical context, ELA strategies, and STEM education. This unit provides a well-rounded learning experience for students at the upper elementary level. It intends to showcase a narrative of Rhode Islanders who used the Blackstone River Valley for commercial purposes. Educators could teach this unit during an exploration of famous Rhode Islanders, the Industrial Revolution, or the study of environment and geography in Rhode Island. 


View this set of videos for an overview of the history of the Wilbur Kelly and Ashton Mills. 

See this timeline of the history of the property from before European contact to the present. 

See this video by the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park about canal construction. 

How to Use These Materials 

The lessons do not need to be completed as a whole or in any particular order. A teacher may decide to teach the lesson on “The Rhode Island System” in the classroom before a class visit to the Kelly House, visit the Kelly House to walk the property and see what they have learned, run the “Testing the Water Quality of the Blackstone River” lesson while at the property, and follow up in the classroom with the “Project Zap” lesson. A teacher may decide to take pieces of one lesson and combine it with another. The lessons are for teachers to use as is fitting for their curriculum. There are endless possibilities. The lessons below give tips for running the lesson at the Kelly House Museum and property and in the classroom. Some of the lessons have additional suggested extension activities to deepen the lesson further. 





Download Project ZAP! Presentation

Download Answer Key - Project ZAP presentation

Download Primary Source Analysis Worksheet

Download Newspaper Article 1

Download Answer Key Primary Source Analysis Worksheet Article 1

Download Newspaper Article 2

Download Answer Key Primary Source Analysis Article 2

Lesson Hook/Preview

This lesson will have students use historical thinking skills by analyzing two primary sources related to the Zap the Blackstone event in 1972. Students will identify the background and buildup to the event, as well as its outcome. Campaign posters will be designed by the students to promote the Project Zap Revival or illustrate the changes in the Blackstone River’s environment before and after the community cleanup. 


  1. Share the Project Zap - Blackstone River Cleanup slides with the students using Google Classroom.  

  1. After viewing the image of the Blackstone River on slide 2, ask the students, “How would you describe the Blackstone River and its surrounding areas? What activities can you do here?” Students will record their answers on slide 3. 

  1. Students will discuss and share their answers with the class. The teacher will share the answers on slide 4 of the answer key. 

  1. Reading from slide 5 of the answer key, the teacher states, “Today, the Blackstone River is a beautiful natural resource that people can enjoy in many different ways. However, that was not always the case. Read on to learn more about the condition of the Blackstone River and its surrounding areas years ago.” 

  1. Using slide 5 of the answer key, describe the meaning of primary sources. “Primary sources help us learn about the past. They are documents and objects that were created during the time of the historical event. A newspaper from the past created by a writer who was there at that time is an example of a primary source.”   

  1. Distribute copies of newspaper article #1, “Goal: Renew the Blackstone” and the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet to the class. Prepare the students for reading the article by describing the column layout of the text. Explain to the students that due to the columns, some words in the article will be hyphenated.   

  1. Have students read the article and circle the words that they don't know. List them in the table and record their definitions. 

  1. Have students place a box around the words that are separated in the article and rewrite them without the hyphen. 

  1. Guide students through the second reading of the newspaper article. 

  1.  Have students work in pairs to complete the Primary Source Analysis worksheet to learn more about the Blackstone River’s history.” Review answers with the class. 

  1. Using slide 9 of the answer key, the teacher asks, “Based on the reading from “Goal: Renew the Blackstone,” what caused the pollution of the Blackstone River?” Review answers on slide 10 of the answer key. 

  1. Distribute article #2, “Earnest Volunteers Agree Job Was Long Overdue 1st Step” and a new copy of the Primary Analysis Worksheet. 

  1. Have students read the article and circle the words that they don't know. List them in the table and record their definitions. 

  1. Have students place a box around the words that are separated in the article and rewrite them without the hyphen. 

  1. Guide students through the second reading of the newspaper article. 

  1.  Have students work in pairs to complete the primary source analysis worksheet to learn more about Zap Day. Review answers with the class. 

  1. Introduce the concept of cause and effect using slide 13 of the answer key. Causes tell us the reasons why something happened. Effects tell us what happened. Have students complete the Cause and Effect slide based on information gathered from the two newspaper articles and the video. Slide each effect on the right to match its correct cause on the left. Review answers using slide 14 of the answer key. 

  1. Have students watch Zap the Blackstone (on student slide 12) to see the river and its surrounding areas before and after Project Zap. (You may also choose to have students view Operation Zap Blackstone River Clean-up 1972. This video is 19:14 minutes in length and contains the full story of the actions taken by the community to develop and carry out Project Zap.) 

  1. Have students select a design project. They may illustrate a poster for the Project Zap Revival event advertising the 50th anniversary of Project Zap, which will take place in summer/fall of 2022. Or, they may illustrate a poster comparing the Blackstone River before and after the 1972 Zap cleanup occurred. 


Campaign: an organized plan of action to achieve a goal 
Debris: the remains of something broken or destroyed 

Pollution: the process of making air, water, or land unsuitable or harmful to use 

Receptacle: an object or space used to contain something 

Refuse: the worthless or useless part of something 

Sewage: refuse liquid or waste matter usually carried off by sewers 

Assessment Materials

The Blackstone River connects communities from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  Over time, the pollution suffered by this river led to it becoming unsafe for use.  The Zap the Blackstone project aimed to restore the river and its nearby territories.  Learning about Project Zap helps students understand how communities work together to improve their environment and protect their natural resources.

  1. How do you help keep your neighborhood clean? 

  1. What community service projects have you participated in over the past few years? 

  1. How can communities protect their local rivers and other natural resources that surround them? 

Enrichment Activities

Extension: Display student posters at school or another location and have them teach others about the importance of keeping the river clean

Contact Information

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Last updated: January 4, 2024