State of Your Own Backyard

Ardi Kveven, Ocean Research College Academy at Everett Community College


In this activity, students evaluate water quality data as indicators of the health of an ecosystem. Temperature, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, phosphates and pH are all easily measured or available online at Washington State Department of Ecology. The relationship between the water quality indicators and the health of a body of water can be determined by students in an introductory college science course. Students manage, graph and analyze data from an online database. The instructor can adapt this activity as a Web based data analysis exercise or explore a more open-ended, student-driven experience where the student can design and conduct their own monitoring project to determine the state of their own backyard.

Learning Goals

Learning Outcomes

  1. Identify water quality parameters as indicators for the health of a body of water;
  2. Recognize connections between humans and the Puget Sound Basin;
  3. Manage, graph and interpret data from existing data sets or student generated;
  4. Establish and implement a data collection protocol; and/or,
  5. Analyze and interpret data to draw conclusions; and,
  6. Appraise the health of ecosystem they observed either virtually or first hand.
The essential features of science inquiry are applicable to learning about the bioregion. Active inquiry and place-based learning are the foundation and fulfill the key principles laid out in this curricular initiative. From direct experiences with data gathered in the local marine or stream environment, students will recognize the complexity of environmental quality and the importance of maintaining it.

Context for Use

This activity is designed to facilitate student interest in their ecosystem, focusing on where they live. Research supports deeper student understanding, retention, and subsequent action when coursework is applied to genuine, rather than classroom-contrived situations (Meyers and Jones 1993).

The bioregion watershed hosts most of the population of western Washington, yet local residents lack a full understanding of the impact of humans on their environment. Most water quality monitoring involves the same metrics to determine the health of an ecosystem (temperature, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, phosphates, pH and organism presence/absence). These metrics can be measured by students in a nearby pond, lake, stream or estuary. A local publication available through the Puget Sound Partnership documents the trends in health of Puget Sound. A report entitled, State of the Sound uses similar metrics to make trend assessments. Or, students can use online data bases and find local streams or estuaries near their campus or place of residence.

Depending on the depth of study, this project could take an entire week at the end of an environmental science, oceanography or any introductory biology course. It is also adaptable to a two day Web data analysis activity.

This project is adapted from ongoing student driven research at the Ocean Research College Academy (ORCA). Students at ORCA developed a grassroots monitoring project loosely based on the actual monitoring conducted by the Puget Sound Partnership (formerly Puget Sound Action Team) which publishes a document biannually entitled State of the Sound Report. The student ownership of their organic work in Possession Sound is one of the greatest outcomes from the project. Students serve as the principal investigators, collecting water quality indicators monthly and producing a final document at the end of one year of research. The development of the skills to organize and interpret data can be done whether students collect the data themselves, or use an existing data set.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Learning Activities

Part 1: Assign Reading of "The State of the Sound Report" as Homework.
Publication available online or as hardcopies for students by request (Puget Sound Partnership, 2007). Depending on the amount of time instructor wants to allocate to this project, students can read either the executive summary or the entire report.
  • Facilitate a discussion on the health of Puget Sound. Encourage students to use evidence from the report to support their claims.
  • Use the map from "The State of the Sound Report" to pinpoint where they live.
  • In small groups, facilitate a think/pair/share on what impacts they have on the health of Puget Sound.
In a computer lab or as homework, direct students to the Washington State Department of Ecology website to find monitored sites near the college or students' place of residence.
Marine waters:
Data Sets:

From this exercise, facilitate a discussion with the following prompts:
  1. What water quality metrics are measured nearby and how often?
  2. Which parameter do they predict will be the most variable overtime?
  3. Which parameter is the most indicative of the health of the body of water?
For number 3, facilitate students coming to a consensus on which metric is indicative of the health of an ecosystem. Depending on student background, most would agree that dissolved oxygen is the best predictor of health. (See Ann Murkowski's activity in her curriculum "Gasping for Breath in Hood Canal", 2008 that has been included on this website) After this discussion, provide handout on analysis made by the Department of Ecology.
Part 2: Student Analysis of Data Set

Depending on where students live they can select the monitoring site and the time frame closest to present.

Use student handout for specific website directions. Students can export data from the Washington State Department of Ecology website.

For an example, look at the attachment below entitled "Possession Sound Data"
Have students write a results and discussion paragraph on the data. We have found undergraduates need practice distinguishing results and discussion. Refer to the Journal of Young Investigators for resources (

Part 3: Student Collection of Data (optional)
If students have determined a lake, stream or estuary of interest that is not on the Dept. of Ecology website, check for local agencies that might monitor the body of water (Adopt A Stream, county agencies, Metro etc). Discuss the challenges of field work (where and how to sample), and if possible, schedule a day outside to familiarize students with equipment and protocols. Then check out dissolved oxygen monitoring equipment to students. Most colleges have dissolved oxygen meters as well as titration test kits (Hach, LaMotte, Chemetric). Inexpensive sampling bottle to collect water are available at Forestry Supply.

Possession Sound Data (Microsoft Word 63kB Oct27 11)
State of the Sound Data Analysis (Microsoft Word 27kB Oct27 11)
Marine Water Quality Throughout Puget Sound Table (Microsoft Word 139kB Oct27 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Depending on the time allocated to this teaching module, the student collection of data/extension could be done in a January term setting or as an independent study for credit. Few freshman and sophomores have opportunities to do research, and the preparation would serve them well as an upper division science major.

The data analysis component that can be tailored to their area will require some instructor management. Perhaps doing one as a group and then individual data selection would streamline the management. Students could do peer reviews of other students' writing.


Students will show evidence of their learning by producing the following tangible products:
  1. A reflective one page description of what they learned.
  2. Graphical data representation.
  3. Results and discussion paragraph of data.
  4. A statement of health or scorecard for their ecosystem.
Sample scientific writing rubric available at

References and Resources

See Student Handouts in the Description and Teaching Materials section for details.


Student Handout
Marine Water Quality Throughout Puget Sound State of the Sound Report:

Department of Ecology Website:
Marine waters:
Data Sets:

Meyers, C., and Jones, T. (1993) Promoting active learning, strategies for the college classroom, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 192p.

Evergreen State College