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Scales of Inquiry

Explore watershed and water quality issues in a favorite place in the Lake Champlain Basin or in a remote corner of the world.

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Design Focus: Finding Your Lens

Teacher with micrscope

We all live in watersheds—but watershed studies come in many shapes and sizes. Teachers can decide to focus learning on a particular aspect of a watershed. They may focus on wetlands, a lake, city, shoreline or a particular river. They may focus on a public, well-used space or a secret area.

What will be the focus of your study?

Wherever you situate your study, you can provide context to the larger watershed. When Chris Shaeffer (WEC 2008-2009) taught in North Troy, Vermont—a town in the northern tier of the Lake Champlain Basin—he was challenged to connect his students to the idea of "the Watershed." His students were far away from the lake itself and weren’t aware of where their local waters drained. He created a unit in which his students compared their observations of the nearby habitat to what they were learning about the characteristics of the Basin. Did they live in a place that was similar to the rest of the Lake Champlain watershed or was their place unique? As a culminating activity they were asked to write a story of their journey to the Lake—traveling in whatever mode they chose as long as they could create a cohesive narrative. Their story had to include an accurate description of the flora and fauna they “passed” on their way and was assessed on their ability to include accurate geographic and scientific information—as well as correct vocabulary and a clear narrative. His design focus was his local watershed within the larger watershed.

A river, a forest, a floodplain, an urban landscape or a village would each tell a different story of the watershed. Whatever your subject, the focus of your approach to exploring its story can range from a single subject to an interdisciplinary study to an open-ended inquiry of civic engagement. Here, we use a river to consider these choices.

What is a river?

Rivers offer a unique opportunity to understand many related topics: broad topics such as river ecology, water quality, human settlement patterns, and geologic land formations as well as specific concepts such as erosion, transportation and wildlife habitat. While studying rivers, we can learn about our interactions with nature and explore questions of development and land use.

Missisquoi River Missisquoi River

When teachers consider how to teach these ideas, they must decide on the scope of the unit in regards to the subjects they teach. It is possible to teach about a river as:


Rivers can be explored from the perspective of a single subject. A social studies teacher might want to look at the relationship between people and a river. She might consider an essential question such as “What is a river?” and explore questions such as these:

ENDURING UNDERSTANDING: Rivers play an enduring and dynamic role in the settlement, livelihood and daily lives of the people who live nearby.

If considering a particular social studies angle, she might want to pose these questions:

A science teacher might explore the question “What is a river?” from the point of view of animal habitat, hydrology, water quality or human impact. She might want her students to study the health of a river and explore questions such as:

ENDURING UNDERSTANDING: Rivers play a significant role within the larger ecosystem and can provide important lessons about ecological balance and biological integrity.

A teacher might focus on particular scientific concepts and topics such as:

Single Subject Example

In this example, a social studies unit is focused on the essential question What is a River?

ENDURING UNDERSTANDING: There are complex interrelationships between natural systems and human beings. The natural features [in this case a river] of the places we live impact the lives of human beings and humans impact the quality and life of the river. A river can be defined by these many interrelationships.

When designing a unit—teachers need to consider how their students can “unpack” the essential question. What do they need to know to create a well-educated, worthwhile response? They need to be ready to experience enough content, skills and analysis to be able to construct their own answer that begins: “A River is…..” Their response is built on how they have interpreted and experienced the river from many different perspectives.

In the introductory lesson, students experience the essential question in an experiential, first-hand way. In the subsequent lessons, students learn specific knowledge and skills that will help them build their ability to answer the question. In this case, they will experience their own river and explore a variety of ways that humans and rivers interact, locally and around the world. As they learn about rivers elsewhere and compare this new learning to their experience and knowledge of their own river, they develop some insight into all rivers and the inter-relationship of humans and rivers. Their research will give them an opportunity to explore an aspect of the essential question in depth and present it in a public venue.

This unit remains mostly a social studies and language arts unit. Some students might meet up with science material and questions, but the majority of their work focuses on the interaction between places and human beings—a social studies concept.


In an interdisciplinary study many of the same questions can be pursued but students would be invited to look at the question through a variety of disciplines. The essential question a teacher might use is: How has this river changed over time?

The focus is on understanding the place—no matter what the subject emphasis. Big ideas such as geologic change, historical change, population fluctuation, human impact, river ecology and water quality— all can be pursued to get a holistic understanding of the many ways a river can change over time—and how it might change in the future.

Interdisciplinary Study Example

An interdisciplinary unit might focus on the essential question How has this river changed over time?

ENDURING UNDERSTANDING: A deep understanding of how a place changes over time will integrate geologic, ecological and climatic patterns of change and how humans have played a part in these changes.

Boom or Bust? Many rivers around the globe are sites of a community’s ebb and flow. Mills, remnants of a forgotten past, stand as testimony to an industrial age of a booming production, long hours of work and profits for some. Studies of the past can link towards a community’s thread to the future.

LEARNING ACTIVITIES: Explore the history of the river (timeline, guest speakers, art-work, research), ecological integrity over time (scientific research, guest speakers, film), human impact (visit to local mill to learn about changing perspectives on industrial pollutants and clean-up efforts), status of living critters (micro-macro invertebrates, bio-diversity index, field visits, digital recordings and changing climate. Invite guest speakers to discuss changes from multiple perspectives---climate, development, population density, transportation changes. Invite speakers to share ideas about the future of the river from a variety of perspectives. Throughout the unit students consider what the river means to them personally, how the changes have affected them personally and what future considerations they care about.

CULMINATING ACTIVITY: Student choose a venue to depict the many changes that have happened to the river. Ask them to consider in what way they could create a multi-dimensional “artistic-historical-scientific-literary” timeline that will tell the story of the river over time. What changes are important to them and their community? What will the future bring? Students might choose to make a film together. One outcome presented publicly has the added challenge of having to flow as one coherent message. That would make for some interesting decisions and dialogue. The film can be assessed on storyline, scientific knowledge, examples and explanation of aspects of local river under study and ability to use details to explain scientific phenomenon, historical and geologic change as well as a presentation of issues and possible solutions.

In order to consider what they want to happen to their river in the future they may want to invite the public into the conversation. Maybe the final work can be shown in a public venue and involve a conversation about the future of the river. This kind of public dialogue that flows so naturally from this work becomes more of a civic engagement unit—that can be the main focus of some studies—as outlined in the next section.


In a more integrated or transformative approach, students would learn about the river in the context of its current health and impact on future generations. Are all people able to obtain clean water? Is action necessary to safeguard the preservation of this waterway?

Open-ended Inquiry Example

A unit with an eye toward civic engagement might focus on the essential question Is this river healthy? How can I take care of this river for future generations?

ENDURING UNDERSTANDING: Understand the ecological workings of a river, how humans have impacted it and what should be done in the future to protect this place. Understand both individual and collective impact on future of waterways.

When teachers begin an exploration of a local place with an eye to civic engagement, they may not have the entire unit etched in stone. They have a direction, and some of the learning mapped out, but students—if it is to mean something—will take it in their own direction. If there is an existing or emerging sense of a community of learners, students work together in partnership with community members so that the project emerges from the dialogue and work done.

Although it is not a water-based study, this 5th grade project, which uses goats to remove poison ivy, is great example of how to involve students in authentic research.

LEARNING ACTIVITIES: Field visits to river, guest speakers from watershed groups, sharing of data with students up and downstream, identification of restoration effort, meeting and planning with community partners, identification of service project. Students might research and create portraits of how different people work to improve the quality of the river and the river experience. Students might write personal essays on individual actions and connections to others who work to protect waterways and share these thoughts in a public way.

CULMINATING ACTIVITY: A service experience with local partners might be a signage project that documents historical and scientific treasures of river and communicates specific actions needed to protect it. The public signage might include personal belief statement from adult citizens and students about their commitment to individual action steps.

In an inquiry that is more student-directed, all of the assessment plan is not determined ahead of time. But certain knowledge and skills are identified before and during the process as important. Criteria might be a mix of teacher intentions, student interests and community needs. In this example, students might be assessed on their ability to interpret signs of water quality, analyze human impact and apply action steps to improve the quality of the water. They might also be assessed on their writing skills and ability to work in a group. Part of the final assessment might be authentic feedback from the community on how they view and use the new signage (or whatever way students have decided to communicate.) The community may express a new relationship with the river and that new understanding might be part of the outcome of such a study. That is authentic assessment!


In all these examples, the river has provided ways to the student to engage in the learning, in the subject, in the place and in the opportunity for community engagement.

No matter how you structure your unit, make room to share students’ personal experiences of this place. You will probably have a few anglers in your class—and maybe some students who live on or very near the river. They might remember flooding or crossing it on a bridge. You also will have students who have never been to the river or experienced it first-hand. Be sure to consider an initial “Touch Lake” experience!

When Katie Wyndorf taught 8th grade Language Arts Teacher in Fairfax, Vermont she found ways to explore the Lamoille River in the school's back yard. She is a former environmental/outdoor educator and looked forward to spending time learning about different aspects of the river with her students.

Katie writes: This piece was written by one of our talented poets. He wrote this during a journal write session at one of the power spots. The area was on a riverbank where the Lamoille River seems to be its widest (at least in our area). It is just beyond a gravel bar and includes a pretty sharp bend. The students were asked to sit and reflect upon where they were. Since it was our first visit, the assignment was intentionally open and flexible. Frank asked if he could write a poem. Here it is!

By Frank King