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Teaching Watershed Science to Young People

By: Liz Clift

I used to teach an introductory version of watershed science to school children. Depending on how much time I had with these young people, this might include diverse topics such as where our water came from, the water cycle, and/or the movement of pollutants and/or particulates through a system.

In the summer camp version—which meant I had them for a full week instead of a maximum of 90 minutes like I had them during the school year—the curriculum included an exploration of the water cycle that involved several hands-on experiments, giving students the opportunity to explore how sediment falls out of water, to attempt to use different household materials to filter out visible particulates and pollutants, pH testing, examining water from different sources under a microscope and more, with the curriculum modified depending on the age of participants.

At the end of the week, we’d pull out a scale model version of our local watershed. It came with props that were part of our watershed, including people, animals (livestock and wild), cars, train tracks, houses, and lots of trees. Sometimes I’d pull out some clay for the students to use to hold certain things (houses, trees) in place—which was an impactful way to show how landslides could happen because of a soaking rain.

Watershed Resource Regions, from USGS

We’d go over how to replicate a gentle rain, a soaking rain, a downpour using the tools provided*, and then the participants would get to work (the model included a drain that I’d position over a bucket, and hope the bucket didn’t get knocked aside, or worse, over!). This allowed them to see how different amounts of rainfall could alter our watershed. After a while, I’d introduce a pollutant (in the form of food coloring). Sometimes we’d decide as a group to put it in a particular place, and wait to see when the water reached it. Other times, I’d introduce it without fanfare at points in the watershed and ask the young people to describe what was happening.

Afterward, we’d talk about what they’d observed about types of rainfall, about flooding, about what places tended to fill with water first and why, about the introduction of pollutants. We’d talk about ways we could individually help limit pollution in our watershed, and about any feelings the activity brought up. If we had time, they were then free to return to any activity we’d done over the week, including the scale model watershed (always the most popular).

Helping young people understand the dynamics of a watershed—and for that matter, helping them conceptualize their watershed—can be an important component of making science and conservation tangible. It can be especially useful in arid environments where most of the water comes from snowmelt, as it was in the place I taught this class (replicated with crushed ice, when time allowed).

A few years later, I taught a similar class in another state in a three-week long summer camp. I didn’t have a scale model of the watershed. Instead, I had the ability to take the young people on field trips. We did many of the same activities, interspersed with exploring our watershed.

That camp class, of all the ones offered, was the one the young people kept clamoring to come back to—not because they had any special affection for me, but because we did things like look at pond water, the backbone of a catfish, and sand under a microscope; performed pH tests; watched tadpoles develop; and made bracelets representing the water cycle. For field trips, we traveled to a nearby glacier, to a eutrophic creek, to a local pond, to an “Aqua Golf” course, to a neighborhood waterpark. With the oldest group of participants (rising 5th and 6th graders), I had long conversations about water waste and conservation that the participants brought up among themselves and then to me.

Some of these oldest campers did additional research on their own, and taught back to their families. In this way, they became watershed ambassadors, which is an important step to encouraging community-scale conservation and restoration support.

*Misters, pipettes, funnels, small measuring cups, etc.

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