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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 region’s 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 Earth’s inhabitants?

Southeast Asia’s 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 changes.

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
Natural Hazards
Risks and Benefits

Content Standard G — History and Nature of Science
Science and a Human Endeavor

Learning Objectives

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
Previewing Activities
(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:
  1. the Mississippi River
  2. the town of Grafton, Illinois
  3. the Amazon River
  4. the Andes mountain range and Brazil
  5. the Mekong River
  6. the countries that border the Mekong River (China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam)

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 rain forest.

2. Introduce the following key terms to students:

  1. aquatic feeding ground – an area from which water-life obtains food
  2. deforestation – the natural or intentional removal of trees from a specific area
  3. delta – a deposit of sediment at or near the mouth of a river
  4. fertile soil – soil that is rich in natural resources
  5. flood – any relatively high flow of water that overflows natural or artificial banks of a stream, river, lake, or body of water
  6. flood plain – a strip of relatively flat land bordering a stream, river, or lake that conveys the overflow of floodwaters
  7. levee – an embankment built along side a river to prevent high water from flooding bordering land
  8. 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
  9. reservoir – a natural or artificial lake in which water is stored for use
  10. runoff – that part of precipitation that cannot immediately be absorbed into the surrounding earth
  11. 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."

Viewing Activities

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.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. If the actual amount of rainfall along the Mississippi River hasn’t 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.)
  2. What are some of the results of the flooding? (Answers will vary.)
  3. What line of defense did flood plain communities use to protect themselves from the flood? (Answers: sandbags, levee systems, information from satellite images)
  4. Why do communities along the Mississippi River need to re-evaluate plans for further development? (Answers will vary.)
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. What mountain range is the major source of water for the Amazon River? (Answer: the Andes)
  2. How much of the world's fresh-flowing water is discharged by the Amazon River? (Answer: one sixth)
  3. What causes the Amazon River to invade the flood plain each year? (Answer: melting snow off the Andes and dense tropical rains)
  4. 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.)
  5. What do you think the results will be if people continue to destroy the rain forest? (Answer: fewer and smaller fish)
  6. 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.)
  7. How do satellite radar images help us to monitor the devastating changes to the rain forest?
  8. 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 region.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. Why has over fishing helped to cause a decline in the fishing industry in Manaus? (Answer: The size of the catch has declined.)
  2. 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.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. How did the fishermen of Sao Miguel increase this year’s catch? (Answer: newly-acquired resource management skills)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. 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 Beautiful)

Topic: Managing Water Resources
Say . . . "Leaving the Amazon rain forest, we visit Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Fifteen million Vietnamese live in the steamy wetlands of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong is among the least developed of Asia’s 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 black.
(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.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. What has made the economic boom of the Mekong Delta possible? (Answer: new trade pacts between Mekong River nations)
  2. 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)
  3. Why is it necessary to pump fresh water into the lower delta? (Answers: Upstream demands have reduced the river’s 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 clean.")

Post-viewing Discussion

  1. How has the Oanh family become prosperous? (Answer: by owning their own catfish farm)
  2. How did the Oanh family operate their successful business? (Answers will vary; encourage student discussion.)
  3. 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)
  4. 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.)

Further Discussion
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?

Special Projects

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 Survey’s "Water Science for Schools" page on Earth Water: Runoff ( 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 (

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 ( where your students can connect with classrooms in over 90 countries.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Give each student four factor cards, labeled "trees," "plants," "insects," and "water."
  4. Instruct each fish to display one factor card to show what he/she needs to survive.
  5. Instruct each supplier to display one factor card to show what he/she can supply for the fish.
  6. Have students turn and face each other.
  7. Ask each fish to walk to a supplier who is showing a matching card.
  8. When a fish cannot find a matching supplier, it "dies" and is no longer in the game.
  9. Let students repeat the game until the supplier cards do not match any of the fish cards.
  10. 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 activist, etc.

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 steps;
  • 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 world’s rain forests. They can begin their research by visiting Live from the Rainforest ( and the Rainforest Action Network (

9. Have students take an imaginary trip 50 years into the future. On this trip, students will visit one of the world’s rain forests and record their observations in journals.

10. To demonstrate that pollutants are not easily removed from the water cycle through natural filtration, conduct the following two-part experiment.

  1. 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.
  2. 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

12. Have students research and establish a classroom aquarium (fresh or salt water) to better understand the delicate balance necessary to maintain an ecosystem.


Internet Sites

EE-Link (Environmental Education on the Internet)
This site’s 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 NASA’s 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 Nino."

Live from the Rainforest
Some of the world’s leading biologists introduce students to the planet’s largest rain forest.

NOVA Online—Flood
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 Earth’s 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 Survey’s "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
Public Information
1129 20th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20013
The agency was established to protect the nation’s 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
(313) 761-8142
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
(800) 666-0206

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 Children’s Books with Environmental Themes." Bowker, 1992


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