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The Grand Canyon

Teaching Materials by Betsy Hedberg-Discovery School - Starting Point page by R.E. Teed (SERC).
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This material was originally created for Starting Point:Introductory Geology
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


This lesson plan deals with the consequences of damming in the Grand Canyon area. Students act as scientists investigating the damming of the Colorado River by the Glen Canyon dam and experimental flooding that took place in 1996. They then write a proposal as to whether or not more experimental flooding should be done on the area considering the ecological effects. This topic has great potential for an Earth Systems Science class, as the consequences of damming affect climate, ecosystems, sedimentation/erosion, and water quality.

Learning Goals

This lesson plan is intended to teach:
  • The effects of damming a river, not just to water and sediment, but also to local climates and ecosystems.
  • The effects of opening a dam.
  • How researchers write proposals.

Context for Use

This project will last several class sessions and students will need time to research and write the proposal.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Grand Canyon (more info) contains a number of excellent links for student research. It also includes procedures for the instructor and a rough rubric for the proposal, along with discussion questions, evaluation ideas, extensions, suggested readings, and vocabulary. The instructor may wish to adapt a number of these resources depending on the level of the students. The students will need Internet and probably library access for their research.

Teaching Notes and Tips

As written, the lesson plan is intended for middle school students. Parts of it will need to be adapted for university students, mostly the expectations about the proposal. Exact adaptations will depend on whether the students are non-majors, introductory or upper-level students. The teacher will want to stress the causal relationships that link water, sediment, climate and ecosystems.


The graded assignment for this project is the written proposal. There is a rubric included for the proposal, which should be made more detailed for university students.

References and Resources

There's nothing like fresh data from the USGS:

To make things interesting for students, remind them that the challenge for flood/dam management is that the amount of water to be dealt with can vary from year to year, a real problem for the southwestern US. So, here is a paper on The Role of Climate Variability and Forecasts in Adaptive Management of the Colorado River: Balancing the Resource Objectives of the Lower and Upper Basin at Glen Canyon Dam