Model a Watershed


Maria Papadimitropoulos

Henry Street School for International Studies, Manhattan


Summer Research Program for Science Teachers

August 2007






Grade Level: Middle School (Grades 6-8)


Time: 1-2 Class Periods


To introduce what a watershed (also called catchment basin by GLOBE protocols) is and how it works.



Students will construct a 3-dimensional model of a watershed. They will use the model to explore catchment basins, water pathways, and manipulate the model to illustrate how watersheds can change.

Student Outcomes:

Students will be able to:

- define the concept of a catchment basin/watershed

- give examples of how their model relates to the real world

- give examples of basic concepts of catchment basins and watersheds, such as, water runs downhill, hills make divides, low-lying areas create pooling, water quality is affected by what is upstream.


Science Concepts:

(GLOBE Hydrology Protocols align with the following concepts)

Earth and Space Science

Soils have properties of color, texture and composition; they support the growth of many kinds of plants.

Landforms are the result of destructive and constructive forces.

Soils consist of weathered rocks and decomposed organic matter.

Water circulates through the biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere (water cycle).

Water is a solvent.

Each element moves among different reservoirs (biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere).

Scientific Inquiry Abilities

Develop descriptions and explanations using evidence.

Communicate procedures and explanations.


Materials and Tools:

v  Plastic Bin (larger bins are best, but any size will suffice)

v  Miscellaneous objects that may be used to create the model infrastructure, such as buckets, bowls, rolls of paper towels, clay, wood blocks, rocks, etc.

v  Plastic sheet or Plastic Wrap(2 x 2 meters)

v  Spray bottle with water

v  Sponges

v  Red food coloring

v  Permanent marker that will write on plastic or black electrical tape

v  Ruler

v  Topographic map


Preparation: (minimal)

Gather materials/tools needed, separate so each group of students gets one watershed set-up. If a yard or outdoor space is available and conducting this lesson in that space is feasible, it may reduce the mess/clean-up.


How to Make the Model:

1. Designate work area- If working indoors, have students build their model in the plastic bins. If working outdoors, find an open space that students can wet with water.


2. You and your students gather the various objects to make the model, such as a plastic sheet, rocks, buckets, sponges, spray bottles with water, and food coloring.


3. Have the students arrange objects of various sizes inside the area. The tallest objects will become ‘mountains’. Shorter objects or buckets or bowls may become hills, lakes, or plains.


4. Cover the entire area and all of the objects with a sheet of plastic. Have the students use their hands to mold the plastic loosely around the covered objects. This is a model of a landscape with hills, valleys, and connections between them.


5. Have the students predict what will happen if it ‘rains’ on their model. Where will the water go? Will it go faster in some places? Will some places form pools? How do you know?


6. Use the spray bottle to ‘rain’ on the top of your highest ‘mountain’. Continue raining until you can see where streams, rivers, and lakes form.


7. Have the students choose a small pool on their model to be their “Hydrology Site.” Mark the site with a marker, stone, or other object.


8. Ask the students to make it rain by using the spray bottle. Ask the students questions. Where does the water come from that flows to your Hydrology Site? Where does water flow away from your Site? What things on the landscape determine what will be part of your basin? What determines the watershed? Explain to the students that the places where water hits and flows into their Hydrology Site are in the catchment basin for their site, the watershed is the basin boundary.


9. Ask students: Where would be a good place on their model to have their school? Where would you like your house to be? Have the students mark these places on the model.


10. Have students explore the consequences of changes in their catchment basin. Here are some things you can do:

a. What happens if you dam the stream that flows to your water site? (Use a sponge to create a dam).

b. What happens if you plant a forest above your site? (Use a large flat sponge for the forest - it will soak up water for a time just like soil and vegetation) What happens if you remove the forest?

c. What happens if someone builds an industry that causes pollution? (Use a small piece of sponge soaked in food color where your industry will be and watch the ‘pollution plume’ as it rains.)

d. What happens if someone decides to use water from your stream for irrigation or urban use? (Make ‘canals’ that take the water away from your stream to other places.)




National Science Standards: