Investigating Neighborhood Wetlands

Tim Shulstad, Lincoln Elementary School, Alexandria, MN, based on The Nature of Science and Engineering, an original activity created by Molly Stoddard, Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, Fergus Falls, MN.


In this Environmental Science and Engineering field activity, students will map a neighborhood wetland and generate various watershed questions. Students will identify engineered structures in or around this wetland and consider how flood water can be controlled.

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Learning Goals

This activity is designed for students to construct a map of a local wetland, identify ridge lines around the wetland, synthesize various questions related to flood control in this location, generate engineered solutions to these flood control issues, and determine what impacts engineered solutions may have on the environment. Key concepts: Students must have a grasp of what constitutes a watershed, possess some basic map drawing skills, have some directional compass competence, and an understanding that water flows from higher to lower elevations. Some vocabulary would include watershed, wetland, pothole, elevation, and engineering.

Context for Use

Grade 4, 25 students. Equipment required: directional compasses, Science Notebooks, or clipboards. Prerequisite knowledge/skills: map reading/drawing, directional compass use, watershed basics. Adaptability—activity can be easily modified for small groups or individuals in urban or rural locales.

Description and Teaching Materials

Prerequisite to this field investigation, students should be familiar with map reading and drawing and can orient a map under construction according to the cardinal directions. The investigation of neighborhood wetlands may begin with a class discussion where teacher lists what students "Know" about wetlands and then what they "Wonder" about wetlands on a T-Chart display. Investigable questions should then be developed from this chart for further consideration. Instructors may guide the questioning to the engineering aspect by suggesting "How does human engineering affect the flow of water?" Instructors should identify some neighboring pothole wetlands they have determined as having some engineered features (i.e. drain holes, culverts, or dams). Students may be aware of such engineered wetlands in their neighborhoods, lending this activity to an independent investigation. Instructors then guide students to make detailed observations, preferably from an elevated position relative to this wetland, inquiring of its vegetative content, presence of open water, and relative elevation to nearby wetlands and landforms. Students should begin mapping this wetland by creating a legend on a blank page of their Science Notebooks, orient their maps according to their compasses, then map the wetland to include a ridgeline (defined in the legend). Instructors ask focus questions such as "What happens when a flood occurs?" "Where does the water go?" "How could floodwater be controlled so nearby roads or trails do not flood?" "What existing engineering structures are used to actually solve this problem?" Students are encouraged to generate their own questions and solutions to this problem. "Are there other solutions to this problem?" (Such as paved roads or trails?) "What impact do various engineering solutions have on the environment?" Thoughts, questions, and solutions, along with any additional diagrams or drawings, should be recorded in Science Notebooks for further consideration or class discussion. Students may need to be led to the Discovery and Conclusion that human engineering controls overflow of water through a system of culverts, drain holes, or dams from areas of higher elevations to lower elevations. In short, engineering manages wetlands.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Instructors may consider readiness for wetland investigation by first examining the flow of water into a nearby mud puddle. Watersheds on a larger scale may be surveyed from the U.S. EPA's "Surf Your Watershed" website (more info) . Vocabulary should be covered in the context of the activity as each vocabulary concept arises.


Science Notebooks may be collected, reviewed, and assessed for the presence of ridgelines on student wetland maps, questions related to flood control, some possible solutions to the control of overflow or floodwater, and thoughts or conclusions on what impacts engineered solutions may have on the environment.

Standards and Engineering Design

References and Resources