Streams and Rivers
This unit contains resources about streams, how they modify the landscape, and flood hazards. This is a unit about erosion and deposition of sediments associated with streams. Introductory material on the agents of erosion is available in the Erosion unit.

Workshop Presentations

PowerPoint Click to download the MS Powerpoint file (100 Mbytes).

PDF. Click to view or download the presentation in PDF (11 Mbytes).

HTML. Click to view the presentation in html..

Online lecture Pt. 1 Click here to view the first part about stream discharge and drainage networks. (22 minutes)

Online lecture Pt. 2 Click here to view the second part about erosion, sediment transport and deposition and flooding. (~38 minutes)

Instructional Case

The Rivers Instructional Case (IC) consists of four lessons that can be used to supplement a broader unit on erosion. The rivers instructional case advance students’ qualitative understanding of how rivers modify and shape the Earth’s surface. Through this instructional case, students will develop an understanding of the how rivers transport (erosion) and deposit sediment and evolve over time. Through hands on activities, students will gain an understanding of how water velocity (gradient) may affect the shape of the river and observe the surface features that result.

Overview. Click to download an overview of the Rivers Instructional Case. IC Overview PDF

Teacher Background. Click to download a primer for teachers on mechanical and physical weathering of rocks and minerals. Teacher Background PDF

Glossary. Click to download a glossary of scientific terms with definitions and explanations from a scientist and from the perspective of a student. PDF

Unit Timeline. Click to download a Unit Timeline that includes unit objectives and vocabulary. Timeline PDF

Lesson 1 Down by the River. In this lesson, the teacher administers an assessment probe to activate students’ prior knowledge about how moving water (rivers) change the surface of the Earth. The results of this probe can be used to guide instruction to address misconceptions and gaps in understanding. The real life application of which side of the river should you build your house on stimulates students’ interest in the erosion and deposition of sediment that may modify the landscape.

Lesson 2 Rivers, Rocks and Sand. Students will be given sediment tubes containing gravel, sand and silt. They will be asked to make a prediction as to which type of sediment will be on the bottom of the tube when the tube is shaken.

Lesson 3 Vocabulary Card Sort. A vocabulary card sort introduces the geologic features they may observe in a stream table lab. Students experience a model of a stream table to form an understanding of the different variables that can shape a river and its surroundings. .

Lesson 4 Stream Table Lab. Students will recreate a model of a river system in a table top experiment. The lesson advances students’ qualitative understanding of how rivers shape the Earth’s surface while explicitly providing opportunities to develop their science practices such as observation, modeling and experimentation. Included is a PowerPoint presentation that can be used to help students set up their experiment.

Online Video and Media Resources

The Colorado River: Running Near Empty This video follows the course of the Colorado River and shows the impact of water diversion on the river. Source: Environment360

Saltation Video. This slow motion video shows the process of saltation. Thermocinetique Nantes Laboratory

Kootenai River Bedload This video from the USGS shows the motion (saltation) of sediment in the Kootenai River, ID. USGS.

SciFri Stream Table This video from Science Friday shows a large scale research stream table investigating the factors that result in the formation of meanders.

Measuring the Migration of River Networks This video discusses a mapping technique that measures how much a river network is changing, and in what direction it may be moving. MIT News.

Stream Table Meander Bend Run This timelapsed video demonstrates the evolution of streams using a large stream table. Davidson Geology.

Bay Area: Do You Know Where Your Water Comes From? This is an interactive map that shows the different water districts and the sources of water for the SF Bay Area.

When The Water Ends: Africa's Climate Conflicts This short article and video discusses the effects of drought and dwindling water resources on nomadic people in Africa. Source: Environment360

Saltation videos This USDA website shows the saltation of grains. Although the videos are taken in a wind tunnel, the process is similar for the bed load of sediments in a river.

New Land on the Louisiana Coast This NASA site shows satellite photos of the Atchafalaya River from 1984 and 2014 demonstrating the growth of river deltas. Be sure to click the "View Image Comparison" button and use the slide on the photos to compare the two images.

Meandering in the Amazon This NASA site shows satellite photos from 1985 and 2014 demonstrating the rapid development of meanders. Be sure to click the "View Image Comparison" button and use the slide on the photos to compare the two images.

Useful Websites

National Weather Service River Forecasts water.weather.gov/ahps/forecasts.php This NWS site shows river gauge data for stream levels and forecasts of flooding.

California Nevada River Forecast Center www.cnrfc.noaa.gov/ This NOAA website shows river gauge data for streams in California and Nevada. Click on a river gauge to see real-time data for rivers. NOAA.

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas

Grade 2
ESS2.A: Earth Materials and Systems. Wind and water can change the shape of the land. (2-ESS2-1)

ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes. Water is found in the ocean, rivers, lakes, and ponds. Water exists as solid ice and in liquid form. (2-ESS2-3)

Grade 4
ESS2.A: Earth Materials and Systems. Rainfall helps to shape the land and affects the types of living things found in a region. Water, ice, wind, living organisms, and gravity break rocks, soils, and sediments into smaller particles and move them around. (4-ESS2-1)

ESS2.E: Biogeology. Living things affect the physical characteristics of their regions. (4-ESS2-1)

Grade 5
ESS2.A: Earth Materials and Systems. Earth's major systems are the geosphere (solid and molten rock, soil, and sediments), the hydrosphere (water and ice), the atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (living things, including humans). These systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth's surface materials and processes. The ocean supports a variety of ecosystems and organisms, shapes landforms, and influences climate. Winds and clouds in the atmosphere interact with the landforms to determine patterns of weather. (5-ESS2-1)

ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes. Nearly all of Earth's available water is in the ocean. Most fresh water is in glaciers or underground; only a tiny fraction is in streams, lakes, wetlands, and the atmosphere. (5-ESS2-2)

Middle School
ESS2.A: Earth's Materials and Systems. All Earth processes are the result of energy flowing and matter cycling within and among the planetÕs systems. This energy is derived from the sun and Earth's hot interior. The energy that flows and matter that cycles produce chemical and physical changes in Earth's materials and living organisms. (MS-ESS2-1)

ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes. Water's movements - both on the land and underground - cause weathering and erosion, which change the land's surface features and create underground formations. (MS-ESS2-2)

High School
ESS2.A: Earth Materials and Systems. The geological record shows that changes to global and regional climate can be caused by interactions among changes in the sun's energy output or Earth's orbit, tectonic events, ocean circulation, volcanic activity, glaciers, vegetation, and human activities. These changes can occur on a variety of time scales from sudden (e.g., volcanic ash clouds) to intermediate (ice ages) to very long-term tectonic cycles. (HS-ESS2-4)

ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes. The abundance of liquid water on Earth's surface and its unique combination of physical and chemical properties are central to the planetÕs dynamics. These properties include water's exceptional capacity to absorb, store, and release large amounts of energy, transmit sunlight, expand upon freezing, dissolve and transport materials, and lower the viscosities and melting points of rocks. (HS-ESS2-5)

Common Scientific Misconceptions

Streams are simply flowing water (with little to no concept of sediment movement).

Rivers flow south - sometimes modified to rivers in northern hemisphere flow south, while those in southern hemisphere flow north.

Concept of 30-year,100-year, 500-year floods meaning set time intervals between events, rather than water heights.

Idea that human activities cannot affect geological processes like river flow, flood cycles, etc.

The idea that increased water improves or aids wetland areas/environments

Floods are rare, atypical, almost unnatural events rather than normal river behavior.

Rivers do not carve valleys, but only passively flow down them (this is an old idea, the role of rivers in sculpting the land surface was not even recognized by most geologists until the exploration of the southwest United States by Powell's and other early surveys).

Although rivers can cut down over time, they do not cut to the sides (inadvertently aided by widespread attention paid to Grand Canyon, and Goosenecks in earth science texts).


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