Human Impact on the Watershed

High school students investigate human impact on the watershed by studying land cover change over time and evaluating its effect on runoff rates and stream discharge.  This curriculum promotes the use of authentic scientific data and technology in the high school classroom. Students and teachers learn to use FieldScope, a specialized GIS tool developed by National Geographic, to access live scientific datasets and investigate complex earth system science issues like water availability and human impact on flood frequency.   

Download the curriculum summary and background information for teachers here.

The data used in this investigation were collected and compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium, a partnership among numerous federal agencies.

 Text Box:       Changing land cover in Reno, NV 1992-2001.







For each of the 8 activities in Human Impact on the Watershed, there is a Teacher Overview, Student Guide, and Answer Key unless noted otherwise.  The Teacher Overview provides details on setup, content tips, and relevant learning outcomes.  The Student Guide facilitates the activity and includes questions for students toanswer  as they complete the activity. The Answer Key provides sample responses or concepts that students should address in their responses. Click on the activity title for more information and to download documents for individual activities. You may download the complete guide to this unit below.


Download the curriculum here:

Complete curriculum (includes Teacher Overview, Student Guide and Answer Key for all 8 activities) - REVISED November 2011

Student Guides only

Relevant learning standards (AAAS, NSES, NGS, ACT)

Or you can download individual activities from the pages linked below.

Activity 1: "Philadelphia Tackles Rainwater Runoff Pollution" podcast
In this activity, students are introduced to the idea of runoff through the use of an NPR podcast and a Wordle diagram to access their prior knowledge. This introductory activity provides a context for the activities that follow.

Activity 2: Building A Watershed Model

Students use simple materials to construct a 3-D watershed model in class. Students learn about the characteristics of a watershed and simulate rainfall to observe how water flows through their model.

Activity 3: Measuring Streamflow Lab

This field activity introduces two methods of measuring streamflow and teaches students how to calculate the cross-sectional area of a stream, which they use to calculate stream discharge.

Activity 3b: Virtual River

An online, interactive activity which provides a more in-depth introduction to measuring streamflow, stream discharge, and stream dynamics. This is a highly effective activity, particularly if a field trip to do Activity 3a is not feasible.

Activity 4: Just Passing Through 

This hands-on activity demonstrates how water moves through various soil types. Students also learn how chemical and physical properties of water change when it travels through soil.

Activity 4b: Infiltration Protocol

In this field activity, students observe how water infiltrates into soil as a function of time. Students learn that infiltration rates are determined by soil saturation level.

Activity 5: Investigating Land Cover and Surface Runoff using NetLogo

Students learn to manipulate the NetLogo Runoff model to study runoff in a watershed outside of Chicago, Illinois. Students explore how changes in land cover affect runoff by interpreting hydrographs created by the model.

Activity 6: Analyzing Hydrographs

Students read a New York Times article about the 2008 floods in Iowa and practice interpreting hydrographs from rivers in different locations around the U.S.

Activity 7: "How does Land Cover Affect Stream Discharge? A FieldScope Investigation"

In the culmination of the Human Impact unit, students use FieldScope, a web-based GIS tool, to investigate land cover changes and their impacts on stream discharge in a watershed of their choice.  The Student Guide is embedded in the Lab Journal within FieldScope.

Activity 8: Extensions (optional)

These additional activities may be assigned to assess student learning at the end of Human Impact on the Watershed.