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Investigating Your Local Watershed
This series of investigations is part of a semester-long STEM kit on the theme of interdependence. The NGSS standards addressed are from grades 3, 4, and 5 although the kit is used in 4th grade in the Anchorage School District. These investigations complement and extend classroom and field trip activities in Fish Finders and its focus on adaptation. (3-LS4-3)
Essential Question(s)
1. What is a watershed and how are we connected to it? How does it change?
2. How do interactions of Earth systems move water and soil through a watershed?
3. How do people participate in our watershed ecosystem?
1. How does water move through our community? In what ways is fresh water an essential natural resource?
2. What are the effects of human activities on other species that live in our watershed?
PDF Investigation
Time Required
Depends on learning activities selected
Life Sciences
Investigation Type
Field Trip, Classroom
Grade Level
NGSS Performance Expectations
Materials Needed

NGSS Performance Expectation

Students who demonstrate understanding can:

Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all. (3-LS4-3)

Analyze and interpret data from maps to describe patterns of Earth’s features. (4-ESS2-2)

Obtain and combine information to describe that energy and fuels are derived from natural resources and their uses affect the environment. (4-ESS3-1)Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans. (4-ESS3-2)

Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact. (5-ESS2-1)

Describe and graph the amounts and percentages of water and fresh water in various reservoirs to provide evidence about the distribution of water on Earth. (5-ESS2-2)


Knowledge - Students will know that:
  • (See Disciplinary Core Ideas and Cross-Cutting Concepts for each Learning Experience.)
Skills - Students will be able to:
  • (See Science and Engineering Practices for each Learning Experience.)
Local and Cultural Connections
These investigations focus on local watersheds. See each investigation for specific connections.
Teacher Preparation

A watershed is a dynamic, ever-changing, interconnected physical and biological system.Interactions among Earth systems (atmosphere, geosphere, biosphere, and cryosphere) move water, in its different forms, and other substances like soil and nutrients, and connect the living and nonliving components of watershed ecosystems. Watersheds, rivers, wetlands and oceans of the world are an interconnected “system of systems,” because each watershed includes portions of all of terrestrial ecosystems - wetlands, forests, and tundra - and all watersheds are connected with the ocean ecosystem.

Alaska watersheds are diverse in size – from short, steep coastal watersheds in Southeast Alaska to the Yukon River watershed that originates in Canada and drains more than 320 square miles in Alaska – in topography, and in hydrological patterns of runoff from snow melt and rain.

Freshwater sources for drinking water as well as for fish and wildlife habitats are essential natural resources. In addition to harvesting fish and wildlife in watershed ecosystems, human activities that affect the watershed including the ocean can impact the water supply, wildlife habitat, and food webs. People derive energy and fuels from natural resources which may result in pollution that is toxic to life in streams, wetlands, or the ocean. Other human activities could potentially convert healthy habitat into places which few species can survive. People use science to avoid or minimize these types of impacts or to restore habitat.

Learning Experiences

(45-60 min.)

Give students the following task:

You are the manager of your community's water system. Some people in your community are worried that you'll soon run out of water to meet your community's needs while others argue that you can never run out because the water cycle will always continue. Provide data about the scarce nature of fresh water on Earth and the relative amounts in various types of reservoirs, then provide a map that shows where your local water reservoirs are located. Argue from evidence whether or not you think it is possible for your community to run out of drinking water. How could you use science to collect more information to protect water as a resource and your community's water supply?

Your presentation can be either in writing or orally (your teacher's choice).


Students construct a model of a watershed that demonstrates the interconnectedness of the physical and biological environments. The model must include the role of humans as well as patterns of connections throughout the watershed. Students also collect data and research to combine information about ways communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources and environment.

Where Does My Water Come From?

Students create a model watershed to simulate the flow of water through the landscape. They investigate the sources of their home drinking water. Students then identify local watershed sources, watershed boundaries and understand how the size and shape of their watershed affects water flow.
Students interpret data to describe the pattern of water flow in a watershed, and interpret topographic maps to relate the steepness of the slope to the rate of runoff.

Water, Water Everywhere?

In Part 1, Where is Water Stored on Earth?, students study the availability of water on Earth by viewing a demonstration that models the relative distribution of water in various reservoirs of fresh and saltwater in the context of interactions of Earth systems (hydrosphere, geosphere, biosphere). They gain an understanding about the relative rarity of fresh water available as sources of drinking water for people and habitat in aquatic ecosystems. Students develop a graphical expression to depict the relative amounts of fresh water in each reservoir using the same relative percentages at a different scale.

In Part 2, Water Expeditions, students review the water cycle in the context of by modeling and >describing the movement of water drops as they move between the interacting Earth systems of hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, and biosphere.

Soil Soakers

Students test different soil types, moss, and peat wetlands to compare drainage, porosity, and water retention. Students learn that soil porosity and water retention determine water storage capacity of the particular material within the watershed. They summarize their results in a bar graph and rank the “ground” in different types of places in terms of relative capacity to retain and store water. Students also consider what happens when soils become waterlogged and runoff may result in erosion.

How Much Water Do You Use?

Students monitor and estimate their weekly water use for both themselves and their family. They problem-solve about ways to reduce water consumption individually and schoolwide. Students then create posters supporting and promoting water conservation.

Teacher Background

Components of Next Generation Science Standards Addressed

Science & Engineering Practices

See each Learning Activity.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

See each Learning Activity.

Cross-Cutting Concepts

See each Learning Activity.

Common Core

See each Learning Activity.
See each Learning Activity.
Alaska Cultural Standards
Investigations developed or adapted by Marilyn Sigman, Alaska Sea Grant in collaboration with Anchorage School District teachers and Kathryn Kurtz and Deborah Greene, Anchorage School District STEM Department; and with Patricia Partnow and Trisha Herminghaus, curriculum consultants to the North Slope Borough School District.
Last Updated on
Last Updated by
Marilyn Sigman
Alaska Sea Grant University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Department of Education and Early Development NOAA