Riparian Plant Lab

This page authored by Julie Stoughton, University of Nevada Reno, based on an original activity by Julie Stoughton and Andy Rost.
University of Nevada-Reno, Natural Resources and Environmental Science
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In this field exercise for an introductory environmental science course, students investigate plant cover and type in a riparian area using transects. Students work in small groups along their individual transects to record plant cover type every 0.5 meter and then compile data for all student groups. The final project is a lab report that includes a summary data table, a graph of cover types along their transect and an analysis of riparian health.

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Learning Goals

Students learn to
  • Define "riparian zone"
  • Identify common riparian trees and shrubs
  • Review anthropogenic impacts on riparian zones
  • Collect vegetation data using line transects
  • Compile and interpret data using graphs and tables
  • Write a basic scientific lab report

Methods of Geoscience

Although this activity is focused on the ecological role of riparian plants, the concepts link to general geoscience methods such as field notes, field data collection, field observation skills, spatial relationships, and field data interpretation.

Context for Use

This field exercise is designed for lower level non-science major college students, but could be adapted for a high school course or a science majors course. The field exercise requires minimal equipment – meter tapes, clipboards and basic riparian plant descriptions for your area. Students learn basic concepts about riparian areas and collecting data with transects from a prelab reading (see attached). This is the second of four watershed based labs, two hours each, mid-semester in an introductory environmental science course.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students read the riparian plant prelab before they arrive at lab to learn basic concepts about riparian areas. The lab instructor gives a quick quiz to assess basic understanding of the concepts, then leads a discussion about the role of riparian areas in a watershed.
As the students and instructor walk to the riparian area they learn to identify common riparian trees and shrubs. The instructor can point out non-native plants as well, and help students make observations about the health of the riparian area.
Once in the riparian area, students divide into small groups and set up a transect perpendicular to the stream or river using a meter tape. At 0.5 m intervals students record the plant cover at that point – bare ground, litter, grass, shrubs, trees – on their data sheet. Once students reach a point beyond the riparian area they stop collecting data and reconvene with the lab instructor.
Next each group reports their totals for each plant cover class so as to compile total percentages for each cover type in the riparian area. The lab instructor gives an overview of how to graph and interpret the riparian plant data, and how to write the lab report.
Students write their lab report and turn it in at the third watershed lab.
Two files are attached for this lab. The first file is a prelab reading about riparian plants that describes the logistics, goals and objectives, and concepts of the lab. The second file is the riparian plant lab assignment, with a data table, summary data table, and a grade sheet for the lab report assignment.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Instructors must find a suitable riparian area for this lab where students can see common riparian plants, and extend a meter tape perpendicular from a stream or river, preferably to a point beyond the riparian vegetation so students can compare and contrast the riparian and non-riparian vegetation. Some riparian areas may be too steep for student safety or may have poisonous plants.


When students arrive for this lab they take a five question quiz about the prelab reading to assess their basic understanding of the concepts. Following the lab students write a lab report and are assessed according to the grade sheet criteria in the lab assignment file.

References and Resources

Please refer to the references listed in the prelab reading about riparian plants. To adapt this lab for your local watershed include riparian plant descriptions for your local area.