Topics touched upon in this program include flooding, loss of wetlands and habitat, destruction of the Amazon rain forest, over fishing, and the impact of economic development on water resources. The Rivers of Destiny Lesson Plan explores each of these issues in more detail.
This lesson focuses on three rivers the Mississippi, the Amazon, and the Mekong.
Each locale serves as an example of what can happen when human beings tamper with the
makeup of a river. Without thoughtful planning, the consequences can be disastrous. But if
communities work together, a balance can be achieved between the needs of people and the
needs of the river.
In 1993, major flooding nearly destroyed the small Mississippi River community of
Grafton, Illinois. How can the people of Grafton and others who live along the Mississippi
prevent similar disasters in the future?
The Amazon flood plain is threatened by the regions need to create economic
opportunity. What will be the ultimate results of this destruction? Can a balance be found
that preserves this area of the world which is so critical to all of Earths
Southeast Asias Mekong River is at the heart of newly developed economic growth.
How can the nations that depend on the Mekong for their new-found prosperity change the
river without doing permanent damage?
These issues and others are the focus of the video segments in this lesson. As students
watch these video segments examining the current "health" of each river, they
will begin to understand the importance of maintaining the well being of the natural and
human-made processes that govern the Earth. After viewing the segments and participating
in the accompanying activities, students should realize that human activities can produce
long-term changes that impact the environment, and should be able to describe those
National Science Education Standards: Grades 5-8
This lesson correlates to the following content standards:
Content Standard C Life Science
Regulation and Behavior
Population and Ecosystems
Diversity and Adaptation of Organisms
Content Standard D Earth and Space Science
Structure of the Earth System
Earth in the Solar System
Content Standard E Science and Technology
Understanding about Science and Technology
Content Standard F Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Population Resources and Environment
Risks and Benefits
Content Standard G History and Nature of Science
Science and a Human Endeavor
Students will be able to:
- explain the importance of rivers in the natural balance of life on Earth
- identify what happens when people begin to tamper with rivers
- offer suggestions for dealing with the outcomes of human intervention
(Note: The teacher will need to introduce and discuss the concepts and vocabulary with the
students before proceeding with the rest of the lesson.)
1. To familiarize students with the areas in the program segments, use a wall
map, desk map, or atlas, and have students locate:
- the Mississippi River
- the town of Grafton, Illinois
- the Amazon River
- the Andes mountain range and Brazil
- the Mekong River
- the countries that border the Mekong River (China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia,
After the students have found each of these, begin a discussion to discover what they
already know about these regions, rivers or mountains. Have the discussion center on
environmental problems that they are familiar with, such as the destruction of the Amazon
2. Introduce the following key terms to students:
- aquatic feeding ground an area from which water-life obtains food
- deforestation the natural or intentional removal of trees from a specific
- delta a deposit of sediment at or near the mouth of a river
- fertile soil soil that is rich in natural resources
- flood any relatively high flow of water that overflows natural or
artificial banks of a stream, river, lake, or body of water
- flood plain a strip of relatively flat land bordering a stream, river, or
lake that conveys the overflow of floodwaters
- levee an embankment built along side a river to prevent high water from
flooding bordering land
- rain forest a tropical woodland with an annual rainfall of at least 100
inches and marked by broad-leaved evergreen trees forming a continuous canopy
- reservoir a natural or artificial lake in which water is stored for use
- runoff that part of precipitation that cannot immediately be absorbed into
the surrounding earth
- water pollution the presence of any substance in water or addition of any
substance to water that restricts the use of water
3. Student Discussion
To help students make a connection between what they will see in the video segments and
what is happening in their own lives, have them talk about the role of water in their
everyday world. Ask them to name the different ways they use water everyday (e.g., for
drinking, cooking, washing the dog, etc . . .). Tell them to think about their local water
supply. Where does their community's water originate (from a lake or river)? If their
water supply is dependent on a river, how would flooding along that river affect them and
their community's water supply?
Focus for Viewing
Say . . . "As you watch the following video segments, look for the results of human
tampering with our rivers and for some of the solutions or compromises people have come up
with in order to live in harmony with their local rivers."
The topics in these activities could be covered in one lesson or extended into several
lessons. The following viewing activities offer opportunities for student discussion of
how their lives are inescapably tied to the rivers of Earth and how unexpected changes in
these rivers impact the environment and threaten their way of life.
Topic: Flooding on the Mississippi
Say . . . "First, we are going to look at the town of Grafton, Illinois, and how it
was affected by the flooding of the Mississippi River in 1993. As you watch this section
of the video, think about how efforts of people to control their environment have
sometimes produced undesirable results."
View Segment One: length 3 minutes and 19 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Visual and audio cues: Start when you see a stormy sky and hear "The year is
1993. An almost never-ending series of storms stalls over the upper Mississippi basin. . .
." Stop when you hear ". . . nothing can stop a powerful river from
trying to reclaim its rightful inheritance.")
- If the actual amount of rainfall along the Mississippi River hasnt really changed
over the past 90 years, what caused the flooding in Grafton? (Answer: The addition of
concrete and asphalt to the wetlands accelerated runoff and flooding.)
- What are some of the results of the flooding? (Answers will vary.)
- What line of defense did flood plain communities use to protect themselves from the
flood? (Answers: sandbags, levee systems, information from satellite images)
- Why do communities along the Mississippi River need to re-evaluate plans for further
development? (Answers will vary.)
- What is meant by this phrase from the video segment ". . . nothing can stop a
powerful river from trying to reclaim its rightful inheritance." (This is an
opportunity for student discussion. But before beginning any conversation, students may
wish to view the last section of this segment again.)
- Have students discuss any flooding problems that have occurred locally or in nearby
areas. Ask them: "How has this flooding resulted in changes in the way of life for
the community?" "What efforts are being made to deal with this problem?"
Topic: Amazon River/Rain Forest
Say . . . "Now we will travel to South America and the Amazon River. Unlike flooding
along the Mississippi, seasonal floods are a blessing to the rain forest. We will look at
the importance of the rain forest and some of the problems caused by its destruction. This
is another example of how the activity of people (deforestation) has resulted in the
destruction of the flood plain and the loss of aquatic feeding grounds."
View Segment Two: length: 3 minutes and 49 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Video and audio cues: Begin when you see fish appearing to jump out of a cascading
waterfall and hear "The Amazon River is enormous." Stop when you hear "The
large red area indicates intense human activity.")
- What mountain range is the major source of water for the Amazon River? (Answer: the
- How much of the world's fresh-flowing water is discharged by the Amazon River?
(Answer: one sixth)
- What causes the Amazon River to invade the flood plain each year? (Answer: melting snow
off the Andes and dense tropical rains)
- What are some of the consequences of this flooding? (Answers: An underwater forest is
created which serves as an aquatic feeding ground to over 3,000 species of fish. The
flooding also renews the fertile soil of the flood plain.)
- What do you think the results will be if people continue to destroy the rain forest?
(Answer: fewer and smaller fish)
- What effect do you think the destruction of the rain forest will have on you? And, why
would it be in your best interests to protect the rain forest? (Answers: Plants used for
producing medicines would be lost along with animal species. Destruction of the rain
forest could affect global warming/the Greenhouse Effect and influence air quality.)
- How do satellite radar images help us to monitor the devastating changes to the rain
- Is there a solution to this problem? What can we do? (student discussion)
Topic: Overfishing in the Amazon
Say . . . "As we look at environmental problems such as deforestation and destruction
of the flood plain in the Amazon region, the problem of over fishing is rarely talked
about. On a visit to the fish market in Manaus, Brazil, we will see a consequence of over
fishing in this region."
View Segment Three: length 45 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Visual and audio cues: Start when you see a man in a blue tee-shirt named Carlos Miller
standing in a fish market and hear "We are right in the fish market of Manaus."
Stop when you hear "This is a consequence of over fishing that we are having in this
- Why has over fishing helped to cause a decline in the fishing industry in Manaus?
(Answer: The size of the catch has declined.)
- What are some of the other environmental problems in the Amazon region? (Answers:
deforestation, burnings, and mining)
Topic: Solution to Over Fishing
Say . . . "In the next segment we will see how the fishermen of Sao Miguel have found
a solution to over fishing. Their solution is an example of how problems can be solved
when the whole community works together."
View Segment Four: length 2 minutes and 19 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Visual and audio cues: Start when you see a group of men spear fishing and you hear "Five hundred miles downstream, however, the fishermen of Sao Miguel are doing
better." Stop when you hear "The problem of the dwindling Pirarucu population
was solved by controlling the catch by having the fishermen return to the
traditional ways of their ancestors.")
- How did the fishermen of Sao Miguel increase this years catch? (Answer:
newly-acquired resource management skills)
- Why is the fishing industry more productive in the lower part of the Amazon? (Answer:
Fishermen and farmers work together to preserve the integrity of the flood plain forest.)
- How was the problem of a dwindling Pirarucu population solved? (Answer: The fishermen
started controlling the catch and returned to the traditional ways of their ancestors.)
- Can you cite any examples of groups in your community which have worked together to
improve the environment? (Suggestions: e.g., Alliance for Clean Rivers and Keep America
Topic: Managing Water Resources
Say . . . "Leaving the Amazon rain forest, we visit Vietnams Mekong Delta.
Fifteen million Vietnamese live in the steamy wetlands of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is
among the least developed of Asias great rivers, yet it sustains people from six
nations. In this next segment, we will see another example of a community of people
working together to solve a problem. Sometimes people have to sit down, talk, and reach a
compromise to achieve results that are in the best interests of everyone involved. As we
view this section of the video, look for ways in which people of the Mekong have developed
activities to preserve and manage their water resources."
View Segment Five: length: 2 minutes and 42 seconds. Pause when the screen goes
(Visual and audio cues: You see men unloading bags of rice off a boat and then see a large
group of boats on the river, start here and when you hear "Clearly the delta is in
the early stages of an economic boom." Stop when you hear ". . . giving the six
Mekong River nations desperately needed time to develop strategies for coping with the
environmental threats that always accompany an increase in population.")
- What has made the economic boom of the Mekong Delta possible? (Answer: new trade pacts
between Mekong River nations)
- What development activities in the upper part of the Mekong have helped to preserve
water resources? (Answers: reservoirs for electric production, reservoirs for irrigation,
and fresh water pumped from upstream locations into the farms of the lower delta)
- Why is it necessary to pump fresh water into the lower delta? (Answers: Upstream demands
have reduced the rivers flow allowing salt water from the South China Sea to
invade the land.)
Topic: Managing Economic Development
Say . . . "The Mekong River nourishes one of the largest river fisheries in the
world. For the people of the delta, fish is the primary source of protein. Our final visit
will be to a family of fish farmers who live in Chau Doc, not far from the Cambodian
border. In Chau Doc, flooding, or where the water goes, is not the problem. What goes into
the water is the problem. We will see how prosperity has brought a series of environmental
threats to these fish farmers."
View Segment Six: length: 2 minutes and 28 seconds. Pause when the screen goes black.
(Visual and audio cues: Start when you see a woman in a straw hat weighing shrimp in a
market and hear "Not far from the Cambodian border Ha Hei Oanh sells shrimp in a
local fish market." Stop when you hear "But, for now, at least, the river is
- How has the Oanh family become prosperous? (Answer: by owning their own catfish farm)
- How did the Oanh family operate their successful business? (Answers will vary; encourage
- What are some of the environmental threats brought on by the new-found prosperity in
Chau Doc? (Answers: struggling sewage systems and runoff waters polluted by fertilizers
and pesticides that drain into the river)
- Now that we have looked at problems caused by the intervention of people along these
three rivers, what have we learned from our effort to control our environment? What does
happen when people begin to tamper with rivers? What do you think your responsibility is
in creating a balance between what people want and what nature can provide? (Student
answers will vary.)
Have students discuss how economic development has affected their communities. If the
community in which they live has experienced a lot of growth, what kinds of stress have
been placed on local water supplies, land, and traffic? How has population migration
affected their community?
1. Water runoff is critically important. It keeps rivers and lakes full of water and
alters the landscape through erosion. Visit the U.S. Geological Surveys "Water
Science for Schools" page on Earth Water: Runoff (http://wwwga.usgs.gov/edu/runoff.html) to
learn more about this phenomenon and then do the following activity.
- To demonstrate the results of runoff, have students collect tap water in a clear
container. In a separate container, have students collect water from a mud puddle, stream,
or pond. Allow the two water samples to settle. Observe any differences. Discuss.
2. Complete the following activity to demonstrate how plants help prevent the erosion
of soil. In one aluminum pan, place grass sod. In another pan of the same size, place
dirt. Use a block of wood to form a slope under each pan. Put a hole at the bottom end of
each pan to allow water to run off. Place a tray under each hole to catch the runoff.
Using a watering can, quickly pour a quart of water into the top of each pan.
Observe both pans as the water flows down each tray. Also observe the water that collects
in each tray following the runoff. Discuss.
3. Research the duties and responsibilities of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
Identify projects in your local area that have been completed by the Corp of Engineers.
Begin your research at their Web site (http://www.usace.army.mil/whatwedo/)
4. Find students from another area of the state, the country, or anywhere in the world
to serve as pen pals. Discover what environmental issues they face and what actions they
or their communities plan to take. You can begin your search for electronic pen pals at
Epals (http://www.epals.com) where your students can connect with classrooms in over 90
5. Using pictures from magazines and newspapers, or using actual dirt, plants, and
water in an aquarium, have students build a model of a rainforest biome.
6. To demonstrate how environmental factors affect the ecosystem of the Amazon rain
forest, students can play the Ecosystem Game.
- Designate 1/3 of the class to be fish in the waters of the rain forest. Have
these students wear FISH nametags and stand in a line with their backs to the class.
- Designate the remainder of the students as trees, plants, insects, and water suppliers
for the fish. Instruct the suppliers to form a line, back to back with the fish. Have
these students wear SUPPLIER nametags.
- Give each student four factor cards, labeled "trees," "plants,"
"insects," and "water."
- Instruct each fish to display one factor card to show what he/she needs to survive.
- Instruct each supplier to display one factor card to show what he/she can supply for the
- Have students turn and face each other.
- Ask each fish to walk to a supplier who is showing a matching card.
- When a fish cannot find a matching supplier, it "dies" and is no longer in the
- Let students repeat the game until the supplier cards do not match any of the fish
- Following the game, have students discuss how the ecosystem of the rain forest works.
7. To demonstrate "taking control of their own destiny," have students
simulate a community meeting on managing the resources of their community. Allow students
to choose the community they will manage, as well as the environmental issues they will
discuss. Assign students specific roles, such as mayor, business leader, environmental
Next, have students create an agenda for the meeting, which includes
- a welcome;
- explanation of why the group has been called together;
- status report on where the community is with the issues the students have chosen;
- discussion of how the community can work together to achieve goals;
- list of steps needed to accomplished goals and who will take responsibility for which
- date for the next meeting to discuss what has been accomplished.
8. Have students research products of the rain forest such as lumber, food, minerals,
and medicines to understand the global impact of mismanaging the worlds rain
forests. They can begin their research by visiting Live from the Rainforest (http://passporttoknowledge.com/rainforest/intro.html)
and the Rainforest Action Network (http://www.ran.org/ran/)
9. Have students take an imaginary trip 50 years into the future. On this trip,
students will visit one of the worlds rain forests and record their observations in
10. To demonstrate that pollutants are not easily removed from the water cycle through
natural filtration, conduct the following two-part experiment.
- Using a strainer or flour sifter as the filter, layer, from the screen (filter) up, the
following materials: absorbent cotton, course clean sand, and clean pebbles. Pour muddy
water slowly into the filtering system and observe the results. Let students discuss what
is happening and how the water is purified.
- Using the filtering system from the previous demonstration, introduce a pollutant into
the ground water by adding food coloring to the muddy water. Slowly pour the "polluted" water through the filtering system. It is important that students
observe the water filter over time to see that the "polluted" water cannot be
removed naturally by the water cycle.
11. Have students conduct a letter-writing campaign to elected officials and the
Environmental Protection Agency (Public Information, Environmental Protection Agency, 1129
20th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20013) to express concern over local pollution issues. To
learn more about local pollution issues visit the EPA site at http://www.epa.gov.
12. Have students research and establish a classroom aquarium (fresh or salt water) to
better understand the delicate balance necessary to maintain an ecosystem.
EE-Link (Environmental Education on the Internet)
This sites mission is to spread information and ideas that will help educators
explore the environment and investigate current issues with students.
Environmental News Network
The mission of this network is to create environmental awareness on critical issues
through the presentation of fair and balanced daily news and information products.
Environmental Protection Agency Teaching Resources
Under the topic water, teachers will find additional information on many of the issues
covered in this lesson.
Exploring the Environment Home Page
This page links to NASAs Classroom of the Future, the Middle School Earth Science
Explorer, and other NASA links. It offers students an opportunity to examine Experimental
Earth Science modules that make use of remote sensing technology and the Internet. Modules
include the "Temperate Rain Forest," "Water Quality" and "El
Live from the Rainforest
Some of the worlds leading biologists introduce students to the planets
largest rain forest.
This Web site was developed to accompany the NOVA public television program
examining the 1993 Mississippi floods.
Rainforest Action Network
This network works to protect the Earths rain forests and support the rights of
their inhabitants through education, grassroots organizing, and non-violent direct action.
The "Kids Corner" on this site answers questions about the rain forest and
introduces students to the animals and native peoples of the rain forest.
U.S.G.S. Water Resources Information
This site takes teachers to the U.S. Geological Surveys "Water Science for
Schools" pages. They offer information on many aspects of water, along with pictures,
data, images, and an interactive center where teachers and students can give their
opinions and test their water knowledge.
Agencies and Organizations
Environmental Protection Agency
1129 20th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20013
The agency was established to protect the nations natural environment and safeguard
the health of its citizens.
Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN)
206 South 5th Avenue, Suite 150
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
GREEN takes an innovative and action-oriented approach to education based on an original,
interdisciplinary watershed education model.
North American Association for Environmental Education
NAAEE is a network of professionals and students working in the field of environmental
education through North America and in over 40 countries around the world.
Water Environment Federation
601 Wythe Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-1994
Founded in 1928, the goal of this organization is to preserve and enhance the global
water environment. The Water Environment Web provides student materials and activities
(K-12) concerning the water environment.
Baker, Jeanne. Where the Forest Meets the Sea. Greenwillow Books, 1987.
Cherry, Lynne. The Great Kapok Tree. Harcourt Brace, 1990.
___. A River Ran Wild. Harcourt Brace, 1992
Bellamy, David. "The River." Crown, 1998.
Miles, Betty. "Save the Earth." Knopf, 1991.
Mutel, Cornelia and Mary M. Rodgers. "Our Endangered Planet: Tropical Rain Forests." Lerner, 1991.
Sinclaie, Patti (ed.). "E for Environment: An Annotated Bibliography of
Childrens Books with Environmental Themes." Bowker, 1992