Water Wars: A look at Gallatin Valley Water Controversies

Laurie Cantwell
Montana State University/University of Washington
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This virtual field trip explores the science and policy of a ground water dispute in Gallatin Valley Montana. The virtual field trip uses a role-playing activity to explore the geology, hydrology and policy related to the issue.

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This activity was developed for an undergraduate introductory environmental geology course for non-majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should have some understanding of basic groundwater hydrology (i.e. water table, how water is stored underground, porosity and permeability, description of aquifers) and the basic rock types (i.e. sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic) and their differences.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity was designed to be used before or after a field trip to the study area. Students completed the virtual field trip during lab and also embarked on the same field trip outdoors. However, it can be used as a stand-alone activity.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The virtual field trip was designed to help students gain an understanding of groundwater flow and aquifers, to understand how geology influences the location of groundwater, to develop a basic understanding of how the geologic history of an area influences the hydrology and to understand how geology can play a role in public policy issues.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students develop some question-asking and hypothesis-testing skills, begin to understand how to critically evaluate the validity of data and evidence used in policy decisions as well as develop an understanding the consequences of using questionable scientific data in policy debates. Students should also begin to learn how to visualize the invisible and gain an appreciation for the complexity of policy disputes related to groundwater and geohydrology.

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

This virtual field trip takes students to the site of a local groundwater controversy in Gallatin Valley, Montana. Students virtually travel through seven stops which highlight the groundwater hydrology, local geology, geologic history of the valley and local groundwater policy. During the virtual field trip, students are asked to role-play as geologists hired to evaluate the area. Ultimately, they are asked to formulate an argument for or against the development of a nearby subdivision and to support that argument with evidence they gathered on the virtual field trip. Evidence may include observational field notes, hypotheses and questions regarding the geology and geohydrology of the area as well as limited hydrological data. Students must produce a final report discussing the decision they made as a consulting geologist. Reports should include a well-supported argument using the data and information collected during the virtual field trip. This virtual field trip gives students an opportunity to explore a local dispute regarding groundwater and learn how geology, geohydrology and scientific data are involved in policy issues.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students' final reports can be evaluated using a scoring rubric (linked below). In addition, instructor's notes are linked to the virtual field trip homepage.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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