Lessons on River Ecosystems

Daniel Zalles
SRI International
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These lessons immerse students in thinking about the big idea of an environmental system as a network of interrelationships and evaluating the goodness of policy options for the environment in the future.

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These two lessons have been piloted at a high school on an Indian reservation via an interdisciplinary course about the local natural environment and its relationship to the tribes' economy and culture. The course is being offered to the entire student body. It is part of the project Data Sets and Inquiry in Geoscience Environmental Restoration Studies (NSF GEO-0808076). The two lessons are the result of a collaboration between the project staff from University Washington and SRI International, plus teachers in science, social studies and language arts at the school, the tribes' Natural Resources Department, the local 4H club, and Washington State University.

The purpose of the lessons is to immerse students in thinking about what characterizes the natural environment around them. The lessons are meant to be a culmination of a series of field trips and presentations about different aspects of their environment including the glacial history, the river landscapes, the biodiversity of the area, the economy and culture of the Indian people before European settlement, how European settlement changed the culture and economy and natural environment, and what are the impacts and options for the betterment of the environment in the future that would serve the interests of the Indian community. Hence, the curriculum within which these lessons is distinctive in how it bridges language arts, science, social studies, involves the collaborative efforts of teachers and scientific experts, and how it integrates Western science with Indian science, stories, and culture. It is also distinctive in its place-based focus, reinforced through a series of field trips to river and estuary locations, where students observe the focal natural environmental phenomena including the biodiversity and the river geomorphology. The place-based focus is reinforced through use of GIS maps showing the history of changes to the local river landscapes from the University of Washington's Puget Sound River History Project.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

The goals of the lessons are to get students to think about the big ideas of what constitutes a system by applying their prior knowledge about other systems, then applying their knowledge from prior lessons in this course to identifying what are the characteristics and inter-dependencies of their environmental system.

How the activity is situated in the course

These two lessons are being piloted this year at the end of the course, but next year we may split them up so that Activity 1 of Lesson 1 are used at the beginning of the course. That activity prompts application of prior student knowledge about other types of systems to the idea of the natural environment as a system.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Concepts include understanding the broad characteristics of a local environmental system, impacts of certain elements of the system or interference to the system on other system elements, and how understanding of the system helps inform policy-making about future system sustenance.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Thinking skills used in the course include observing environmental elements on field trips, identifying system cause-and-effect relationships, interpreting maps, applying prior knowledge about system characteristics to identifying what contributions different features in the system, and evaluating impacts of the existence of the characteristics of the system

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

The lesson activity titles are:
  • What are systems? (Purpose: to have students understand what a "system" is, in the broadest sense)
  • How is the natural environment of the tribal community a system? (Purpose: to tie what students learned during the year about the tribal community and its natural environment to the concept of what a "system" is)
  • How did settlers of European descent change the tribe's ecosystem? (Purpose: to explore the connections between what European settlers did to the tribe's ecosystem and what the effects have been on the ecosystem)
  • What can be done? What should be done? (Purpose: to explore and evaluate policy options for future environmental sustenance)

Determining whether students have met the goals

Through scoring the students responses to the written tasks with rubrics.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

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