Analyzing your Hometown Stream using On-line USGS NWIS Data

Laurel Goodell
Princeton University
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  1. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

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  2. This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see

This page first made public: Jul 11, 2008


Students analyze discharge records of streams or rivers of interest to them using on-line USGS NWIS data.

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This activity is used in two of our introductory level courses: Geologic Hazards taken mostly by non-majors seeking to fulfill their lab science requirement, and Physical Geology taken by prospective majors, engineers and others seeking a more comprehensive (and rigorous) geology course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students have been on a field trip to a local stream during which they examine characteristics of the stream and flood plain, evaluate evidence for high-discharge events, measure stream discharge, see the USGS gauging station for the stream, and examine discharge records for this stream. Students have basic computer skills, including Microsoft Word and Excel.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a mid-course project, given as part of the unit on river processes and/or floods, and lasts longer than lecture treatment of the topic.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Description and interpretation of 1) annual patterns of stream discharge and how they have changed with time, 2) historical annual peak discharge events and 3) flood frequency analysis. Students also integrate personal knowledge and background research into their reports.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Integration of personal knowledge and background research into a technical analysis.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students gain experience with Microsoft Excel, especially graphing.

Description of the activity/assignment

During a previous field trip to a local stream, students examine the stream and flood plain, evaluate evidence for high-discharge events, measure discharge, see the USGS gauging station for the stream and examine historical discharge records. Then, to prepare for hometown stream exercise, students chose a stream of personal interest to them and with at least 30 years of NWIS discharge data, and also gather personal knowledge and background information about their stream. The instructor uses Stony Brook data to model the project by downloading NWIS discharge data and using the data to a) describe the typical annual pattern of discharge, b) graphpeak annual discharge for the years of record, c) making a flood frequency graph and d) integrating background information into an analysis of the stream's discharge. Students then do this for their own streams. The activity involves students in accessing and analyzing real data, integrating background information into a technical analysis. They also gain experience with Microsoft Excel and via other students' work, learn about streams that can be quite different from their own.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Instructors grade the written reports, looking for sophistication of the technical analysis, and effective integration of background information into the technical analysis.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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