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Watersheds and Rivers

Amy Ellwein and Benjamin Swanson
Natural Sciences Program, Dept. of Earth and Planetary Sciences, The University of New Mexico


This course uses simple yet authentic methods to describe properties of a local river system in order to better understand how all rivers function. The process of science is explicitly discussed and examined throughout the course using the Activity Model for Inquiry (AMI; Harwood, 2004). Within this context, we focus on improving field skills, contextualizing and interpreting field data, and discussing how teachers might use this approach or these methods with their students.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Integrated lecture and lab

Course Context:

In this upper-division, full-day, week-long field science course for K-12 in-service and pre-service teachers, we integrate field and laboratory investigations on watersheds and river processes with daily reflective writing. Fieldwork and lab activities provide participants with hands-on understanding of how to describe and measure certain watershed and river parameters, such as geology, vegetation, bed material, and discharge, and the role each parameter plays in these natural systems. Teachers' responses to our reflective writing prompts at the end of each day provide instructors with very useful feedback that can be used to make mid-course corrections or address common misconceptions. Feedback from instructors improves teachers' self-confidence in conducting field-based scientific investigations, and the explicit use of the AMI encourages teachers to use this more functional model of the scientific method. This approach could be used when teaching any science content.
  • Educational level of participants: variable. Summer 2009 we had participants with experience that ranged from zero geology courses in college to a B.S. in the geosciences
  • Institution type: research I university
  • Course type: field-based geoscience/professional development course with an emphasis on the nature of science for pre- and in-service teachers
  • Class size: capped at 20
  • Time for activity: between 30 minutes and 90 minutes for participants to write after class, about an hour for two instructors to provide feedback on 14 field notebooks
  • Special equipment: field notebooks that contain reflective writing prompts, the AMI figure, and other useful field information
  • Other settings: SEIS has used reflective writing in field courses for teachers since 2005 and will use reflective writing in a year-long professional development project with in-service teachers during the 2009-2010 school year.

Course Features:

Teaching the Process of Science

Students learn about the process of science by applying geology they've learned in the classroom and field to a somewhat open-ended field study and reflecting on their observations and results. They use authentic tools to collect hydrologic and geomorphic data, which are used to calculate discharge and stream power. Quantitative data, maps, and their field observations are used to answer questions in a final paper about a local watershed.


The best assessment of learning for this activity is the final paper in which participants summarize what they learned about geoscience, watersheds and rivers, and the nature of science and how they plan to use the new content and skills with their students.

Please see the portfolio requirements for more information: Portfolio for Watersheds and Rivers (Microsoft Word 30kB Jun30 09)


Watersheds and River Syllabus (Microsoft Word 506kB Jun26 09)

Teaching Materials:

The first day of class is spent in the classroom familiarizing teachers with basic concepts in fluvial geomorphology and rock identification. The second day is spent in the field becoming familiar with the local geology in the Jemez Mountains, rock ID in the field, taking field notes, and making important observations about rivers, such as channel pattern, and size, shape, and sorting of bedload. On the third day, teachers practice how to measure flow velocity, cross-sectional area, and bed clast size on the Jemez River according to this "lab":

Watersheds and Rivers Field Assignment (Acrobat (PDF) 1.2MB Jun26 09)

On the fourth day, teachers measure these parameters on two tributaries and below their confluence. The fifth day, using their field data, teachers calculate discharge on each reach and compare these calculations to a nearby USGS discharge gaging station. To learn more about how and when rivers do work, they also calculate bed shear stress associated with flows on the fourth day, as well as discharge and bed shear stress for the predicted "bankfull" water level, and compare these calculations to the shear stress required to move the bed sediment at each reach.

References and Notes:

For more information on the Activity Model for Inquiry, please see Harwood's article we share with our teachers from the Journal of College Science Teaching or a shorter version targeted towards a K-12 teacher audience from The Science Teacher.

The written laboratory for this course was modified from upper-division geomorphology labs designed by Dr. Grant Meyer (Dept. of Earth and Planetary Sciences, UNM) and Dr. Frank Pazzaglia (Dept. of Environmental Sciences, Lehigh Univ.).