Classroom Connections | Locks and Canals

How did Hōkūleʻa rise 600 feet in 6 days?  The secret is in the locks… 

Hōkūleʻa and her crew recently made their way up the Erie Canal, a system of 35 locks that connects Lake Erie to the Hudson River. Canals and locks played a primary role in the expansion of the United States. Proposed in 1808, the Erie Canal created a path for settlers to move west of the Appalachian Mountains and opened up trade and commerce. When it was completed in 1825, it was the engineering marvel of the day. The canal’s 18 aqueducts and 83 locks allowed barges to travel over ravines and across rivers, rising 568 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie (Source:


img_7017  To accommodate the growing demands of a growing nation, the Erie Canal System was enlarged and then expanded since first being built. Between 1836 and 1862, the canal was widened from 40 feet to 70, and dug three feet deeper from 4 to 7 feet. This allowed the number of locks to be reduced from 83 to 72. In 1903, the canal was expanded to the “Barge Canal” connecting the Erie Canal and three additional branches: the Champlain Canal, the Oswego Canal, and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal.

image-2 In upstate New York, school groups can take the “Lock Thru” Cruise, a field trip that engages students in learning about the history of the Erie Canal and the process of using locks to move boats from the Great Lakes to the sea. Students in Virginia and Maryland can visit Great Falls National Park and explore the history, life and engineering of locks and a canal, while discovering the impact on the natural environment. The National Park Service partnered with a local Maryland Public School to develop a projIMG_5436ect and place based unit plan that includes a field trip to the Park, a mapping project, and a variety of other pre- and post activities. NPS has also published curriculum related to the locks and canals of the upper Mississippi River, that teachers in Minnesota can use to engage students both inside and outside of the classroom.

IMG_5415Locks have been used all over the world and can provide a way to explore this history or geography of places, as well as compare and contrast different places. The Canal and River Trust, a non-profit organization based in the U.K. has a breadth of resources that cover topics in Science, History and Geography, and can be used both in and outside of the classroom. Crayola, the same company that makes our favorite coloring utensils, has an art-based lesson for young children that explains locks, as well as the engineering principles behind them.IMG_5431

Locks and canals are also a great way to explore concepts like gravity, volume, buoyancy and energy. Students create model locks and explore how they work using standards based classroom lessons. This unit from Teach Engineering explores dams and takes a quick look at relationship between locks and dams, as well as their impact on the natural environment. The Energy of Moving Water Project, developed by the NEED Project helps students explore water and dams as an alternative source of energy, as well as the role locks and dams play in the transfer of that energy.

Ready to try out any of these lessons or resources? Email us at to share with us what you do with your haumana (students) – we would love to see pictures and student work that we can share on social media and our website!

Doing another kind of project to mālama your community? Share Your Mālama Honua Story with us! Also, don’t forget to check out the Mālama Honua Challenge and share your ideas about work that can be done in the future!

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