Watershed Analysis

Linda Reinen, Pomona College (lreinen@pomona.edu)
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This material was originally created for Starting Point:Introductory Geology
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Students conduct a regional watershed analysis of an area of their choosing. Using on-line data and their personal knowledge of the area, they determine the annual hydrologic budget and teach the class about "their" watershed.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals


(at the end of this project, each student should be able to):
  • Identify and describe the physical characteristics of a watershed.
  • Use data collected from the internet and elsewhere to quantify the major elements of the annual hydrologic cycle for a particular watershed.
  • Compare the results with estimates predicted prior to the analysis.
  • Demonstrate her/his understanding of the hydrologic cycle through written and oral communication.
  • Gain insight into regional variations of the hydrologic cycle by comparing and contrasting the results of watershed analysis from all students in the class.


  • Graphing and interpreting preciptitation and discharge data.
  • Unit conversion.

Context for Use

This example is for use in an introductory geoscience class, while students are learning about the hydrologic cycle and water resources. Two class meetings are required - one period for discussion/prediction/data collection; one for presentations and group discussions. The first meeting should be a lab period or some other meeting when students can devote time to finding and collecting on-line data.

Equipment/Computing Needs

Each student or student team should have access to a computer with internet access and the program Excel.

Description and Teaching Materials

This .pdf file (Acrobat (PDF) 84kB Aug9 05) contains the handout and worksheets for the watershed analysis lab. This document refers to two other handouts which detail how to access and work with online precipitation (Acrobat (PDF) 28kB Aug9 05) and discharge (Acrobat (PDF) 20kB Aug9 05) data. The assignment was first developed by Bob Newton of Smith College; it was later adapted to an introductory-level setting by Linda Reinen (Pomona College).

Teaching Notes and Tips

I often have the students work in teams to do this assignment. While one student may have more familiarity with the study area than her/his teammates and thus feel a stronger sense of ownership of the project, the team members help each other work through some of the more difficult steps. Teams are especially helpful if there are many students in the class or a number of students are uncomfortable using computers.

Read the teaching notes for a brief description of common difficulties (with solutions) encountered by students during this project.


Students turn in worksheets with the results of their analyses.

Student teams give oral presentations, teaching the rest of the class about their watershed.

Post-presentation class discussion.

You can also devise exam questions based on the project results. E.g., a brief discussion of regional variations in the hydrologic cycle.

References and Resources

This assignment was originally developed by Bob Newton (Smith College); Linda Reinen (Pomona College) modified it for use in introductory-level classes.

Some on-line data resources include: