A River Runs Through It: an exploration in land use and water resource management

Robin Humphreys (humphreysr@cofc.edu), Cynthia R. Hall (hallcr@cofc.edu); Cassandra Runyon (runyonc@cofc.edu) College of Charleston. Based on material from Elizabeth Joyner and Katie Giacalone, Clemson University Carolina Clear Program, 2010.
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This is an in-class activity where students learn about the interconnectedness of land use, water quality, and water resource management. Students are assigned a river front parcel of land to develop, unaware that each parcel is connected to someone else's parcel. Each team presents their development choices to the class and learns that all of the river sections are contiguous, leading to discussions about the effects of development and downstream water quality issues.

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Introductory Environmental or Physical Geology courses for primarily non-science majors

Earth or Environmental Science courses: Grades 9-12

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered


How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is taught at the very beginning of the water resources unit in my Environmental Geology course for primarily non-science majors. I assume little to no background knowlege of land use, water quality or water resource management.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The primary objective for this activity is to bring awareness to a non-science audience of the interconnectedness of land use and its effect on water quality downstream.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students examine and analyze aerial imagery to determine the locations most suitable for development along a water way.

Other skills goals for this activity

Powerpoint; Speaking and presentation skills: Students create a powerpoint presentation of their river front development. They must explain why they placed their infrastructure in a particular location, strengthening their speaking and presentation skills.

Description and Teaching Materials

Student teams are assigned a parcel of land along a river, unaware that each team's land is connected to someone else's land. They are told that they must develop the land (using federal bailout money for sustainable development in under-developed regions) in order to raise the money to pay the taxes on the land. I give them a list of the types of development they must include: hospitals, schools, infrastructure, water treament and sewage treatment plants, waste disposal sites, etc. They must prepare a powerpoint presentation illustrating how they developed the land. The students also prepare a hard copy of their aerial image with all locations illustrated. I give the teams approximately 30-40 minutes to prepare their image and presentation. Once they have completed their presentations, I call on each team to discuss their development, explaining the reasons behind their choices. As they are presenting, I tape the hard copy of their land on the wall, connecting the sections one by one. About half-way through the presentations, the students become aware that the river sections are ALL connected. Once all of the teams have presented, we then have a discussion of the effects of each team's development choices. This leads to a class discussion of land use, water quality, and resource management. I have the teams complete a worksheet that has them explain their development choices to turn in for credit.

Aerial imagery of the Amazon River (powerpoint). Post the powerpoint images separately online for students to access in class. Additionally, you will need to print out hard copies for teams to develop. Powerpoint file: Google Earth Imagery for land use activity (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 13.3MB May22 12) or slideshare powerpoint file

Google Earth Imagery for land use activity
Click to view
Student Instruction sheet: Student instruction sheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB May22 12) Student worksheet: Student worksheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB May22 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

I assign each team one of the Powerpoint Google Earth imagery of the Amazon River. Each image is labeled consecutively, allowing for ease in connecting the hard copies. I have the students work in teams of 2-3. The river secions can be doubled as necessary to accomodate for a larger class.


I do not have a formal assessment for this activity. I have the teams turn in their worksheets for participation credit. A formal assessment document can be found in the Clemson Carolina Clear document listed in the resources section below.

References and Resources

This activity was based on the original 'A River Runs Through It' by Elizabeth Joyner and Katie Giacalone, Clemson University Carolina Clear Program, 2010. A River Runs Through It activity (Acrobat (PDF) 1.1MB May22 12) Used with permission.