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Running a River

Concept: Rivers are systems that meet the many different needs of the people, plants, and animals that live with and use the river, and the landscapes through which the river flows. Because a river is a system, changing one part of it can affect other parts, sometimes in unintended ways.

Summary | Objectives | Materials | Importance | Procedure | Standards

Download the Lesson

Summary: Students create 3D models of a small section of river using modeling clay, and then explore how changing their model changes the flow of water. Most appropriate for upper elementary and middle school, but can be modified for younger and older students.

Objectives: Students learn
- the typical features of a river and basic river vocabulary;
- that river features affect the flow of water;
- that humans can change the flow of water by changing river features;
- that because sections of river are connected to each other, upstream changes can have unintended consequences down stream


For each student or pair of students
- 2-4 oz modeling clay or Play-doh
- 1 river platform (4” x 15” section of sturdy cardboard wrapped and taped in some waterproof material (plastic, foil, etc.)
- 1 channel shaper (pencil or a 6" dowel)
- 1 toothpick
- 1 rag to blot up spilled water, or dry off clay so it can be remodeled
- 1 block to provide slope for the platform
- 1 jar lid filled with circles of paper towel to soak up water flowing out of the river channel
- 1 small water bottle with a drip tip, preferably one that cannot be weaponized

For the class as a whole
- l large river platform – you will need to estimate how many river sections you will need space for, and find and water proof a piece of heavy duty cardboard or board to use
- several blocks of wood to provide slope for the large platform
- one to four buckets or similar large containers 1/4 to 1/2 filled with slightly soapy water from which students can refill their water bottles
- posted around the room on 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper, the 8 Science and Engineering Practices, the 7 Cross Cutting Concepts from NGSS 3Dimensional Learning, and whatever concepts you want students to understand


Importance: Rivers meet many critical needs for humans. A river can provide a renewable source of fresh water for personal uses like drinking, cooking, cleaning; for irrigation for crops; and for a raw material for industry. A river’s energy is a source of power for mechanical work and for producing electricity. A river’s flow, relative flatness, and low frictional resistance makes it ideal for transporting goods up and downstream. A river’s flow also means human and industrial waste can be quickly carried away from a city. The fish and other animals that live in and near a river can be an important source of food, and the river itself can be used for recreation or can serve as a source of aesthetic and spiritual meaning.

For the plants and animals that live in and near a river, it provides or replenishes habitat, it is a source of water and food, and it may provide specialized habitat for reproduction. For species dependent on migration, it can be a critical stop for food and rest.

Rivers also play an important role in modeling the landscapes through which they pass. At its source, the river erodes and carries away rock and soil, depositing them as sediment downstream where ever the current slows enough to drop some of its load. This sediment, and the nutrients it carries can be important resources for people and wildlife.

Procedure (5 E Model)
1. Engage (15 minutes) Demonstrate Making River Sections
Gather students in a circle around you to demonstrate making a river section (see directions below).  Encourage them to take notes and ask questions

As you place your features,(channel, flood plain, bed, banks, mouth, source, upstream, downstream, right bank, left bank,  meanders, wetland, levee, dam, side channel and island), name them and explain how they affect the flow of water in the main channel by speeding it up, slowing it down, or redirecting it.

Demonstrate how to use the bottle to drip water into the river at the source. Before you begin, tell the students to pay attention to how the water flows, and if it is affected by any of the features you have put in place.

Tell them they are each going to get materials to make their own river sections based on the situations and needs of the people, the organisms, and the landscape through which the river flows.

2. Explore (15 minutes) Make and Test River Sections
Have students pair up. Give each student in a pair 2-4 oz of clay, a river platform, a block, a jar lid, a paper towel, a channel tool, a toothpick, a bottle, a rag, and a copy of the River Diagram and River Vocabulary. Have each pair decide how they want to collaborate, whether combining their clay to make one long, large section, or working individually to make two smaller shorter sections they can put together.

Give each pair two to four River Situation Cards. Again, let them decide how they are going to make river sections that meet all the needs they are given – they can meet all needs with one river section, or split up the needs and do them on separate river sections.

Give each group about 15 minutes to make their sections, make sure they can get water flow, and test them at least three times to see if their sections can meet the required needs. They can modify their river sections to make them work better after each test, though they should blot the clay with the rag to make reshaping it easier. They should write down their findings as they go along

3. Explain (10 minutes) Share Results
After they have done their trials, each pair should take about 10 minutes to figure out how to explain their results. They can consider these questions.

4. Extend (10 minutes) Connect the River Sections
Give each group a River Section Card with a number/letter designation that determines their location in river sequence. Use river miles, 1, 2, 3, 4 and add a few cards for tributaries, 1rbt for a right bank tributary on river mile 1, 3lbt for a left bank tributary on river mile 3.

Have them bring their section to the large river platform in order, 1, 2, 2rbt, 3, 4, 4 lbt and so on, and carefully pick up their section and lay it in place so that the sections can be connected to make one continuous channel. Make sure the mouth of the river section drains into the large container.

When that is done, have one person from each pair ready with a filled bottle at the top of their section (including students whose sections are joined to another at their top). On your signal, each student should start dripping water into their channel.  Encourage comment and excitement about the behavior of the water.

5.Evaluate (10 minutes) Reflect on Learning

Ask students to reflect on their experience of making the river sections that connect with Science and Engineering Practices and Cross Cutting Concepts. Ask the students to reflect on how something happening upstream can affect what is happening downstream. Focus questions on the role of dams and levees in changing where flooding happens, on the role of wetlands as habitats and as places to store river water.

Assessment: Have the students write 50-100 words describing their understanding of any concept covered in the lesson that includes evidence based on their experience with the model.

Possible Science Standards Connections
(from MEEA’s Not the Standards Guide to the Missouri Learning Standards)

K ESS 2 Earth’s Systems E Biogeology 1. How organisms change environments to meet their needs
K ESS 3 Earth & Human Activity C Human Impacts 1. Solutions to reduce human impacts on local environments
K PS 2 Motion & Stability A Forces & Motion 2. Ways to change direction and speed

Second Grade
2 ESS 2 Earth’s Systems A Earth Materials & Systems 1. Solutions to slow/prevent wind/water erosion
2 PS 2 Motion & Stability A Forces & Motion 1. A change in an objects motion is proportional to the change in applied force or the object’s mass

Fourth Grade
4 PS 2 Motion & Stability A Forces & Motion 1. Predict future motion
4 PS 3 Energy A Definitions of Energy 1 The speed of an object is proportional to its energy
4 PS3 Energy C Relationship Between Energy & Forces 1. How simple machines transform energy (hydroelectric dams)

Fifth Grade
5 ESS 3 Earth & Human Activity C 1. Ways communities use science to protect Earth
5 PS 2 Motion & Stability B Types of Interaction 1. Earth pulls objects to its center (down – water finds its own level)

Middle School
6-8 PS 3 Energy A Definitions of Energy 1. Kinetic energy is proportional to an objects mass and speed, 2 Potential energy is proportional to an object’s position
6-8 LS 2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy & Dynamics C Ecosystem Dynamics 1. How environmental changes affect populations, 2. Maintaining ecosystems
6-8 LS 2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy & Dynamics C Ecosystem Dynamics 1. Ecosystem stability and change, 2 Helping to maintain biodiversity

High School
9-12 ESS 2 Earth’s Systems A Earth Materials & Systems 2. How a change in one system can cause change in another
9-12 ESS 3 Earth & Human Activity A Natural Resources 1. How natural resources, hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity 2. Competing design solutions for resources based on cost/benefit
9-12 ESS 3 Earth & Human Activity C Human Impacts on Earth’s Systems 1. Simulate relation among natural resources, human populations, and biodiversity 2. Evaluate/refine technological solutions to human impacts

English Language Arts Connections - taking notes, reading diagrams, learning vocabulary, and discussing concepts and evidence are all connected to ELA. The assessment provide an opportunity to evaluate their writing skills.

Math Connections - This lesson doesn't provide lots of opportunities, but students can collect data on the number of dams, levees, wetlands and other modifications they made to their river sections. They can use these data to practice ratios, fractions, proportions, and decimals. For older students you can check out this lesson: A River Runs Through Math and Science

Directions for making a river section

You should practice this a few times until you become fluent in the making and explaining of the river features

Take about 2 oz of the clay, reserve a small portion and then roll the rest into a ball, and then into a “snake” 6”-10” long. Lay the “snake” parallel with the long edge and in the center of the river platform with one end slightly overlapping one of the platform’s short edges. Flatten the snake to create the “flood plain” of your river. Use a channel shaper (a pencil or similar sized and shaped object) to make a channel in the center of the flood plain. 

Add the following features to your river channel:

  1. meanders – gently pick up your river and bend it into an S shape, then lay it back down (make sure the end still overlaps the edge of the base
  2. a wetland – with your pencil or stick, gently roll flat a section of clay on one or both sides of the channel, then use a toothpick to carefully draw small channels from the main channel into your wetland
  3. a side channel and island – with the toothpick, carefully draw a side channel off the main channel of one of the meanders and then connect it back to the main channel
  4. a levee – with some of the reserved portion, roll a small piece into a tiny snake and attach it to one side of the channel so that there are no gaps for water to flow
  5. a dam – with some of the reserved portion, roll a small piece into a tiny snake and lay it across the channel so that there are no gaps for water to flow

When the features are all in, pinch the clay at the source end into steep ridges to help direct the initial flow of water into the channel.

When you are done putting in all the features, prop the edge of the base with the river mouth over the jar lid, and place one block under the other end. It should be just enough higher for water to flow down the channel. If it is any higher, the water may flow too fast to be affected by the river features.