MnSTEP Teaching Activity Collection > MnSTEP Activities > Using Inquiry to Discover Stream Formations In a Small Stream

Using Inquiry to Discover Stream Formations In a Small Stream

Michael A. Elliott, Fillmore Central High School, Harmony, MN
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This is an inquiry based earth science field investigation intended for students in grades 10-12. Students first begin by mapping a section of a small stream and from that process begin to investigate and discover the basic features of a stream. These may include features such as meanders, cut banks, point bars, levees and oxbows. Students should also discover how the dynamics of stream discharge, erosion and deposition over time influence the above stream patterns and stream development. Students will be expected to collect and use data and to compile a journal which should include, data, drawings, maps, appropriate calculations, questions, reflections, and discussion notes.

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Learning Goals

1) Students will develop skills in data gathering, mapping, and measurement.
2) The student will develop an understanding of how stream discharge, erosion and deposition impacts the development of a variety of stream features.

Secondary to the main goals are a variety of other anticipated learning outcomes. These include development of skills in observation, questioning, field techniques, equipment operation, and writing. Students will also develop the higher thinking skills of data analysis, synthesis of ideas, model development, problem solving and critical thinking. In addition upon completion of the project students should be able to use and understand the following terms, discharge, flow, erosion, deposition, meander, cut bank, point bar, oxbow and levee.

Context for Use

This project involves the need for easy access to a small meandering stream. This stream should be small enough so that it is reasonably safe and can be easily crossed and entered by wading. It should also be reasonably clean so that it does not present any health risks to the students. Surrounding plant cover should also be considered as it may influence how easily students are able to move about and measure the stream.

I am designing this field investigation for a class of about 25 students mixed from grades 10-12, with a wide range of abilities and skills. I plan on performing this investigation in a small pasture about 2 miles from my school building in rural southeastern Minnesota. I have not yet performed this investigation but plan on doing it in conjunction with my "Atmospheric and Hydrological Processes" unit of the "Earth Systems" course offered at my school. I teach two sections of the course, one first semester and one second semester. Because of climatic issues in Minnesota I will be forced to do this investigation in September and in May. This will necessitate that I not cover topics in the two classes in the same sequence. I believe that I will need 3 to 4 days to complete this investigation depending on how arrangements can be made within the context of the rest of the school. Our normal class time is about 80 minutes but I hope to do at least some of the investigation in an extended class period.

Depending on how many groups, one or two long tape measures will be needed (like those used in P.E. classes).

Each group should be equipped with the following:
Directional Compass, 15 meters of white rope, Permanent Marker, Meter Stick

Each individual student should have the following:
Field Journal, Graph Paper, Pen or Pencil, Shoes and clothing for entering and crossing the stream. Digital Camera (optional).

Subject: Geoscience:Hydrology:Surface Water
Resource Type: Activities:Field Activity:Field laboratories
Special Interest: Field-Based Teaching and Learning
Grade Level: High School (9-12)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Water, Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Teaching in the Field, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Hydrology/Hydrogeology

Description and Teaching Materials

In Class Preparation
1) Students will be given a brief description of what we will be doing about a week before the start of the investigation in order to get parental permission and give students time to arrange for the proper shoes and clothing. (see attachment section)
2) Students will be divided into groups of three.
3) Working with group members students will be given 10—15 minutes to brainstorm about what are the key features that they will have to measure and what components they should include on their stream maps. These should be recorded in student journals.

On Sight Activities
1) Students will be instructed to examine the stream for about 15 minutes and note what features they need to measure in order to make an effective map. Changes, additions, and subtractions to their original lists should be made and noted.
2) Students will then be given their group equipment and instructions that they will have to find a way to share the long tape measure.
3) Each group will be given a different starting point and the instructions to gather all the data that they will need in order to make an effective map that will describe the features of the entire length of stream in question. The amount of time spent at this point will vary, but should not be so long as to complete all data gathering or too short so that little data is gathered.
4) Part way through the process, students should stop for a break. At this time instruct them to write down any particular questions or challenges they are facing.

On Sight or In Class
1) Students should be asked to share any questions or challenges they are facing. Use these questions to develop a discussion on:
  • The proper use and organization of the journal. What should be included for effective communication and recording of data?
  • The use of their compass.
  • Techniques that may be used to make proper measurements.
  • Metric or English systems, why or why not?
  • Limitations in our tools and methodology
2) Start introducing vocabulary as it relates to different stream features that are being discovered.
3) Ask questions as to why certain features may develop or why it is important to make a given measurement to have an effective map.

On Sight Activity
1) Complete the gathering of data.

In Class Activities
1) Instruct students to complete their maps on the graph paper.
2) Compare and contrast maps. Identify what features on the map make it more or less useful and what data was key to development of the given map.
3) Identify stream features on the map.
4) Ask questions about what may cause the given feature and discuss the how erosion, deposition and discharge work together to form each feature.
5) Finally students will be given a chance to write a conclusion to the field investigation. Instruct them to include the following elements in their conclusion:
  • What were the problems they encountered in the investigation?
  • What features and measurements were key to making a useful map?
  • What stream features were discovered during the investigation?
  • What could be done to improve the investigation on both a personal level and on an overall level?
  • What new questions do you now have as a result of the investigation?

Teaching Notes and Tips

Remember this investigation is all about inquiry. Don't be afraid to let the students find their own way to do things. The key is to let them develop questions and then use them as the basis of discussion.


The assessment will come in 3 levels. First, I will be looking at the journal. I will focus on the growth and questions. I want to see if the student is making an attempt at growth and improvement; are they writing questions? Secondly, I will be looking at the conclusion they will write at the end of the process. This will be the most heavily weighted part of the assessment. Finally, on the unit exam there will be questions concerning the stream formations as well as the mapping and measuring process.



References and Resources