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Activity Guide

Study Science

Season 2 Materials

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Activity Guide
Troubled Waters: Stream Monitoring


  • This activity can be conducted as a one-time field study, or as a component of an ongoing partnership between schools, informal education institutions, and non-governmental organizations.


Take action! Take advantage of any of a number of stream monitoring networks to conduct hands-on study of a local stream or river.


Students will:

  • Conduct accurate tests for biological or chemical indicators of water quality.
  • Interpret test findings.




abiotic, alkalinity, biotic, dissolved oxygen, indicator species, Secchi disk transparency, turbidity, watershed


1 session to extended unit


  • Local watershed map
  • Equipment varies with tests selected


This activity supports the following National Academy of Sciences Science Education Standards (Grades 5-8):

  • Unifying Concepts and Processes—Constancy, change, and measurement
  • Standard A: Science as Inquiry—Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • Standard B: Physical Science—Properties and changes of properties in matter
  • Standard C: Life Science—Regulation and behavior
  • Standard C: Life Science—Populations and ecosystems
  • Standard D: Earth and Space Science—Structure of the earth system
  • Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives—Populations, resources, and environments
  • Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives—Risks and benefits


Streams, creeks, rivers, and other waterways are windows to environmental quality. Measuring biotic and abiotic factors can tell us much about the general health of ecosystems. The small animals living in the water tolerate pollutants to varying degrees; the presence or absence of such creatures indicates the changing ability of a waterway to support life. Chemical factors such as dissolved oxygen can also inform us about the quality of a waterway.

Many programs exist on local, regional, and national levels that support the study of water quality through stream monitoring. This practice engages students in hands-on scientific study and, when paired with interpretation of test findings and implementation of related waterway improvement projects, gives meaning to the study of the local environment.


1. Contact a local, state, or national stream monitoring program that is active in your area. Some national programs are listed in the MORE INFORMATION section of this activity. Many of these programs offer curricula, training, and support.

2. Determine whether you want to conduct a one-time stream study or become a part of a larger data collection and exchange project. Consider incorporating the stream study into a broader unit of study and select teaching activities to support the unit.

3. Select the tests you want to conduct from among those recommended by the support program with which you choose to participate. Possible tests include: habitat survey; stream flow; macroinvertebrates; dissolved oxygen; biochemical oxygen demand; temperature; pH; turbidity; Secchi disk transparency; phosphorus; nitrates; total solids; conductivity; total alkalinity; and fecal bacteria. Testing methods are described in many of the resources listed in the MORE INFORMATION section of this activity; the EPA Web site includes a methods manual.

4. Obtain the equipment necessary to conduct the tests you have selected.


Implementation of this activity will vary widely with the approach selected. You may include a number of teaching activities to supplement the content, or conduct a one-time study. At minimum, the following broad steps should be taken, but it is intended that any monitoring effort will be done in concert with instructions and support provided by an established local, regional, or national monitoring program.

1. Introduce the concept of “watershed.” Look at your local watershed map and find your location within the watershed. Explain that biotic and abiotic factors can tell us much about the quality of water in a stream, and that these factors can be measured.

2. Demonstrate the testing techniques you will be using.

3. Visit a stream site and conduct tests.

4. Record, graph, and compare results. Discuss what the results indicate regarding water quality in the area.

5. Compare data with that collected at other times at the same or nearby sites.

6. Interpret the data and develop plausible explanations for the results.

7. Discuss community actions that might contribute to any issues indicated by the data.


Varies with the scale of the program, tests conducted, and type of service-learning project.


Adopt-A-Watershed is a K-12 school-community learning experience using a local watershed as a living laboratory in which students engage in hands-on activities, making learning applicable and relevant to their lives. The program engages students at each grade level in five important elements: applying science concepts directly to a local watershed; monitoring local watersheds through field studies; restoring watersheds through community needs-based projects; educating through community action projects; and reflecting upon concepts learned and contributions made to the community. Professional development and consulting services that focus on educational practices, leadership, cultural competency, educational resources, and networking are available. Learn more about Adopt-A-Watershed at www.adopt-a-watershed.org .

GREEN (Global Rivers Environmental Education Network) helps young people protect the rivers, streams, and other vital water resources in their communities. This program merges hands-on, scientific learning with civic action. GREEN resources and publications, including the curriculum Protecting Our Watersheds and water quality monitoring equipment, are available to educators across the country. GREEN training and support for educators is available through offices, affiliates, and partners. The program includes mechanisms for electronically storing and sharing data with other program participants. GREEN is a program of Earth Force. Learn more about the GREEN program at www.green.org .

Save Our Streams (SOS) is a national watershed education and outreach program sponsored by the Izaak Walton League of America. For more than 30 years, the Save Our Streams (SOS) program has developed innovative educational programs for groups and individuals. SOS has educated and motivated citizens to clean up stream corridors, monitor stream health, restore degraded stream banks, and protect dwindling wetland acreage. These important watershed stewardship activities have been implemented nationally through SOS and in communities across the country through the League’s more than 300 local chapters. Resources and materials are available. Learn more about Save Our Streams at www.iwla.org/sos .

National Directory of Volunteer Environmental Monitoring Programs
The US Environmental Protection Agency maintains a directory of volunteer environmental monitoring programs established throughout the country. Programs operate on local, state, and national levels and are searchable by location. Basic descriptions and contact information are included for each program. The Web site also offers fact sheets, a methods manual, and other useful resources developed by the EPA. For more information on volunteer monitoring programs, see www.epa.gov/owow/monitoring/volunteer .

Acorn Naturalists
Low-cost test kits and stream monitoring equipment are available through the Acorn Naturalists catalog and Web site at www.acornnaturalists.com/store/ .

Go Global
World Water Monitoring Day
Compare the data you collect to those being gathered across the entire globe. Every October, citizens of the global community join in World Water Monitoring Day, a worldwide opportunity to positively impact the health of rivers, lakes, estuaries and other waterbodies. Volunteer monitoring groups, water quality agencies, students, and the general public are invited to test four key indicators of water quality: temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity. To find out more visit:

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