Stream Study: Assessing the relative health of streams by macro-invertebrate collection and Identification

Pete Eaton, Golden Hill ALC, Rochester, MN, based on material developed by the Save Our Streams Program of the Izaak Walton League of America
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In this earth science stream study field investigation, students will sample macro-invertebrate populations of three separate streams. Students will sample macro-invertebrates using kick-seines/nets following an outlined sampling procedure. Students will classify organisms from their sample and add their data to the combined class data. Students will work with their teacher to develop a combined class lab report. Students will then develop a new, testable question related to variations in stream health and propose a procedure to gather data on that question.

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Learning Goals

This activity is designed for students to:

  • Experience success in a science class
  • Develop "hands-on" science skills that lead to an interest in developing higher-order thinking skills
  • Participate in a scientific investigation and develop an understanding of the scientific process.


Students will initially learn to identify and classify macro-invertebrates and develop skills in observation. Students will develop skills in field techniques and equipment operation as they collect data on stream health. Through data collection and analysis, students will develop an interpretation of each of the three streams' health. Students will work with their teacher to develop a combined, written class lab report. Students will be asked to think critically about the data collected and develop a hypothesis to explain differences in sampled stream health. Students will then develop a new, testable question related to variations in stream health and propose a procedure to gather data on that question.

Key Concepts

  1. The hydrologic cycle is an interconnected endless movement of water in the earth system.
  2. Biotic factors can be used to assess the relative health of a stream system.
  3. Scientific inquiry is used to investigate the natural world in a systematic way.



Context for Use

This activity is designed to introduce middle school ALC students to the process of an inquiry based field investigation. The students have been generally unsuccessful in the mainstream classroom and have a negative view of education and lack the esteem that comes from experiencing success.

In this investigation I will be working with 30 students, 2 teachers, and a paraprofessional. The students will be split into 3 groups of 10. Each group will sample three separate locations over the course of the first 8 weeks of school. The time needed for these three separate events will be two separate days for the first two sites and two days for the final site (Camping Trip).

As part of their skill development, students will be introduced to the concepts by having a guest field guide from the Zumbro Watershed Partnership where they will learn the basic skills of macro-invertebrate collection and identification.

Kick-nets, trays, hand lenses, wading boots, clipboards, rubber gloves, and invertebrate identification keys will all be available on site. Students will gather data on pre-printed tally sheets.

This activity will take place during the 1st quarter of the school year (September-October) and will then be revisited in the spring (May). The investigation will run in conjunction with and support units on Scientific Inquiry, Mapping, Erosion and Deposition, Water Cycle, and Freshwater Resources.

I believe the activity could be easily adapted for use in other settings as long as there is access to a stream. The investigation need not be as involved as our study, but at an ALC we have a bit more freedom due to lower numbers and looser schedules.

Subject: Geoscience, Environmental Science:Water Quality and Quantity
Resource Type: Activities:Field Activity
Special Interest: Field-Based Teaching and Learning
Grade Level: Middle (6-8)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Teaching in the Field, Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:K12, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Environmental Science, Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Water

Description and Teaching Materials

Mechanics & Materials

This stream study investigation will be four-fold: initial stream study w/ guest teacher (Zumbro River), school site stream study (Willow Creek), off-site stream study (Whitewater River), and development of a testable question through data analysis and map study to be performed in the spring.

Lesson Introduction

Before embarking on any stream study instruction, students will spend time learning about the process/skill of observation. As an essential skill we will develop observational skills over the course of the first three weeks of school (and throughout the year!)

The introduction to this project will be simply to experience a stream study with the help of a guest teacher from the Zumbro Watershed Partnership. Our first stream site will be the student's initial introduction to macro-invertebrate identification and dichotomous key use as well as using kick seines/nets and other equipment. After their initial experience, students will come back to the classroom to learn more about macro-invertebrate collection and identification. Students will also then be introduced to the rest of the project including an explanation of further stream studies as well as our scientific investigation into water quality through data and map analysis.

Only after an initial experience and a slightly more in depth study of macro-invertebrate identification will we embark on our second stream study. The goal is to develop an interest in the subject by the student so they will be motivated to go out and try their new skills.


Students will be using identification keys and practice samples from the University of Virginia website to learn to use and practice identifying macro-invertebrates. Macro-invertebrates collected from our first stream study will be available to observe under a dissecting microscope for further identification practice.

On site, students will be using equipment to gather data including: Kick seines/nets, thermometers, meter sticks, hand-lenses, forceps, and sorting trays.

What Students Will Do

Students will participate in groups of 2-3 to experience macro-invertebrate collection and identification, and observation of stream characteristics such as flow rate, clarity, depth width and temperature. After each successive stream study each group will tally their data and share it with the rest of the class. We will develop, as a class, data tables and graphs to compare data as we collect it. Upon completion of our three stream studies we will analyze and discuss the data collected. Our discussion will be guided to comparison of stream quality and location of our stream samples. Through this guided discussion students will look at and analyze topographic maps and land use maps. Students will consider the watershed within which each stream is located and question why each stream exhibited different water quality indicators. As a class we will develop a testable question and form a hypothesis and a procedure with which we can test on a spring field investigation to each of the three previously sampled sites. Student groups will be in charge of different aspects of the investigation that will be performed in the spring and will present their preparations to the rest of the class before the spring investigation. Any improvements and suggestions will be incorporated into the plan before the spring investigation commences

Closure Strategies

Closure strategies will be used at the completion of each of the four major activities. Discussion and questions surrounding data collection, tool usage, macro-invertebrate indicators, and any other stream or water quality issues should be addressed. It is very likely that we will have discussions surrounding working in groups, responsibility to the group and getting along with others which would be appropriate at this time as well.

In our closure sessions after each activity we will also discuss and reflect upon our learning. Each student will be expected to report in classroom discussion on what went well, where, when and why they may have been confused, and strategies both teacher and student could use in the future to aid in their learning.

Upon completing our spring field investigation and preparation of our data, we will invite members of the Zumbro Watershed Partnership, parents, teachers, administrators, and other interested parties to a presentation and display of our findings.


Stream Study Website, Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia

Izaak Walton League- Save Our Streams:

Zumbro Watershed Partnership

Teaching Notes and Tips

Because one of my main goals for this investigation is for students to experience success, it is vitally important that each student get their hands dirty as they learn to use equipment and follow procedure to perform this investigation, and that they have a supportive team as well as an attentive and available instructor. An essential requirement is that the area being studied is easily accessible and safe. Students need to be dressed appropriately for the field investigation and weather. Appropriate gear should be provided (waders, rubber gloves, etc) to ease student apprehension as they try something new. To aid in data collection-and also to keep their hands otherwise occupied- students should have a clipboard to help keep track of observations and data collected. All equipment should be gathered well ahead of time.

Training the volunteers and school staff to guide and assist-but not do-is also important so students know that THEY can do it!

In the past I have brought macro-invertebrates into the classroom and the students have identified them. Essentially I had all of the fun. This time the students will collect and in turn learn to use equipment, experience science in the field, and be invested enough to ask questions and develop a further investigation.


Individual Assessments:

  • Active group member taking responsibility for equipment and data collection.
  • Completion of pre and post test in macro-invertebrate identification.
  • Active class member involved in discussion and development of a further investigable question.
  • Personal reflection on learning including what was fun, weird, exciting, scary, what made me think, what I didn't like or got in the way of my learning, what would have made it a better learning experience, and the one thing I think I'll always remember about the stream study.
  • Involved in some aspect of the final presentation in the spring.

Group Assessments:

  • Completed stream data collection sheets for each of the three sites. (one sheet per group per site)
  • Group lab report including but not limited to: Purpose, Observations, Raw Data, appropriate graphs, conclusions, further questions.
  • Take responsibility in planning one aspect of the spring stream investigation. (from planning & logistics to final write-up & report)


8.I.B.1 Investigation in Systematic Ways: Elements of Scientific Investigation
8.I.B.2 Investigation in Systematic Ways: Simple Systems Generalized to Complex Systems
8.I.B.1 Design and Conduct Scientific Investigation: Specify Variables
8.I.B.2 Design and Conduct Scientific Investigation: Trials and Sample Size
8.I.B.3 Design and Conduct Scientific Investigation: Tech and Math Skills to gather and interpret data
8.III.A.2 Earth's Processes: Earth's features change (Erosion and Deposition)