NAGT > Teaching Resources > Teaching Activities > Variable Rivers

Variable Rivers

Jill Baumtrog
Wayzata Central Middle School
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Dec 12, 2013

This is a tabletop river activity. Students work in small groups to test an isolated variable; they will test either amount of water, velocity, or steepness of the riverbed to see how it affects a river's depth, width, and delta size.



This activity is designed for middle and high school students in an Earth, Physical, or general science course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered:

Students should be able to work in small groups, follow directions, write a lab report, develop an hypothesis, and collect and analyze data.

How the activity is situated in the course:

This activity can be used as an introduction to a river unit, as part of a sequence of exercises, or as a way to teach students about manipulating and controlling variables.

National or State Education Standards addressed by this activity?:

Minnesota Academic Standards, Science Content Standards: K-12

Grade 6: I. History and Nature of Science B. Scientific Inquiry

Grade 7: I. History and Nature of Science A. Scientific World View B. Scientific Inquiry

Grade 8: I. History and Nature of Science B. Scientific Inquiry III. Earth and Space Science A. Earth Structure and Processes

Grade 9-12: III. A. Earth Structure and Processes


Content/concepts goals for this activity:

The content/concept goals for this activity are: to manipulate and control variables, and to understand how the amount of water, the velocity of the water, and the angle of the riverbed control how a river erodes and deposits sediment.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity:

The higher order thinking skills goals for this activity are: analysis of data, formulation of hypotheses, and synthesis of ideas.

Other skills goals for this activity:

The other skills goals this activity includes are: oral and written presentation skills, working in small and large groups, taking measurments and using equipment, and writing a lab report and notes.

Description of the activity/assignment

The National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED) is a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center based at the University of Minnesota. NCED is a multidisciplinary research institution whose research is primarily focused on the physical and ecological processes shaping rivers and river networks. Practicing K-12 teachers and research staff at NCED develop materials that promote greater understanding of "source to sink" processes of erosion, transport, and deposition for the K-12 classroom. This activity is designed to provide teachers with a cooperative group-work activity for students as they explore variables affecting the size and shape of rivers. In Variable Rivers, students work in small groups to test an isolated variable affecting the size and shape of rivers. Students form an hypothesis and test the effects of: amount of water, water velocity, or steepness of the river bed. They look at these variables as they relate to river width, river depth, and delta size. Students then compare their results with other groups who tested the same variable, before presenting their information to the class.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students may be assessed by their participation in their small groups, their lab write-up and notes, and their contribution for the presentation to the class.

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Controlled Vocabulary Terms

Subject: Geoscience
Resource Type: Activities:Lab Activity, Classroom Activity
Grade Level: High School (9-12), Middle (6-8)
Ready for Use: Ready to Use
Theme: Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:K12