Investigating Streamflow in the Schuylkill River

Learning Objectives

The overarching goal of this exercise is to help students read and interpret data from a series of graphs over a period of time and along the length of a river.  Students utilize real-time streamflow discharge data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) website from stations along the Schuylkill River, although any local river that has USGS monitoring stations can be substituted.

Standards Addressed

(Note that this exercise can be completed in middle school through university-level classrooms):
Standard Area - 4.2: Watersheds and Wetlands
Grade Level - 4.2.7: GRADE 7

Standard - 4.2.7.A: Explain how water enters, moves through, and leaves a watershed.   Explain the concept of stream order.  Describe factors that affect the flow and water quality within a watershed

Preparation Time Needed

If students will be doing the plotting on paper, time is needed to gather the supplies (graph paper, colored pencils). If students will be able to access the data tables in class on computers/tablets, then no additional prep time is necessary.  If there is no computer access in class, teachers will need to print off the data charts for each student or team of students.  This could take 20 minutes, but then the data tables can be reused for the next time this exercise is conducted with students and just updated with the recent year of streamflow data.

Class Time Required

For an introduction to streamflow, accessing and plotting the data, and answering questions, teachers should have at least two hours of class time.  The activity can be extended where students are encouraged to investigate streamflow of a stream closer to their school over the same time period.

Activity Description

This exercise is presented in a jigsaw format but can be easily scaled to lower grade levels, where students prepare and/or are presented just one graph from one location for one period of time.  Note that once the data is accessed on the USGS website, the data can be downloaded to work with in Excel, or (as this exercise suggests) a data table can be printed off for students to create graphs from.  To help students visualize the units in which streamflow is measured, cubic feet per second (cfs), I bring to class a 1 ft x 1 ft x 1 ft box to show them what a cubic foot looks like.

This article on National Atlas Realtime Streamflow Stations has a summary of the professional uses of streamflow data.  The EPA also explains What is streamflow and Why is it important?

The first attached file is an overview of streamflow discharge graphs and how they record variations in water inputs (rainfall, snow melt, etc.).  The second attached file has instructions for students to access the data and suggestions for teachers.  A series of questions is presented at the end of the exercise for classroom discussion or individual written responses.

Teachers are encouraged to first explore the Water Resources of the United States page of the USGS:

Additional streamflow exercises that can be found online include:

  • Rivers: Short In-class Activity - Images of the James River at Belle Island, Virginia, including one at flood stage, a plot of peak streamflow since 1935, and an image of potholes in the Petersburg Granite at the same location. These images can be used to have the students make observations, estimates, and interpretations.

Interested in having students look at watersheds with streamflow data?  Visit Explore your watershed in Google Earth.  Scroll down to Download outlines of watersheds of the United States.  Click on USGS Elevation Derivatives for National Application (EDNA) Watershed Atlas, then in the new window click on the USA map to download a KML file with the watershed data.