Modeling the Effects of Dam Removal on the Elwha River

Travis Sandland
Science Museum of Minnesota
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Students are introduced to the social and scientific issues surrounding the removal of the Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River, and conduct a hands-on experiment with real-world application to observe the effects and consequences of removing the dam.
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The River Restoration residency classes are designed for grades 5-9. The residency classes are presented to schools as part of the NCED Earthscapes Education program for school audiences. Participating teachers attend a summer teacher institute, follow-up workshops and receive the residency classes presented at their schools. The Earthscapes Education program for schools was developed to support and enhance Earth Science courses for Middle Schools.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered:

The residency was developed to provide connections between NCED and real-life science research involving earth and river systems with Middle School science classrooms. The residency is designed to support and be incorporated into existing Earth Science classroom curriculum. However the residency classes are self-contained and can be presented to students with no prior knowledge of river systems.

How the activity is situated in the course:

The residency has been taught in many different contexts and is easily modified to function as a culminating experience, a stand-alone exercise, or as an introduction or lead-in to more in depth study of river systems.

National or State Education Standards addressed by this activity?:

Minnesota Academic Standards:

5-8 History and Nature of Science
  • The student will understand that communication is essential to science.
  • The student will understand the process of scientific investigations.
  • The student will understand that science is a way of knowing about the world that is characterized by empirical criteria, logical argument and skeptical review.
  • The student will understand that scientific inquiry is used in systematic ways to investigate the natural world.
  • The student will use multiple skills to design and conduct scientific investigations.
  • The student will know that science and technology are human efforts that both influence and are influenced by civilizations and cultures worldwide.
  • The student will understand how scientific discovery, culture, societal norms and technology have influenced one another in different time periods.
5-8 Earth and Space Science
  • The student will explore the structures and functions of Earth systems.
  • The student will identify Earth's composition, structure and processes.
  • The student will investigate the impact humans have on the environment.


Content/concepts goals for this activity:

Students are given an introduction to river systems in general and the Elwha River in Washington state specifically. They learn and practice using terms to describe river systems (e.g. tributaries, watersheds, erosion, equilibrium, etc.) both qualitatively and quantitatively while making detailed observations. By the end of the residency, students will understand the both the scientific and social questions behind the removal of the Glines Canyon Dam and be able to recommend what course of action should be taken.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity:

Students are challenged to synthesize a large amount of content and ideas relating to river systems and the removal of the Glines Canyon Dam. Based on knowledge of current research involving this dam, students design different plans for removing the dam, identify dependent and independent variables in the system, form and test hypotheses, evaluate data, and brainstorm future lines of inquiry that could be pursued.

Other skills goals for this activity:

Students work in groups and have hands-on experience with a real-world situation of interest to scientists and the public.

Description of the activity/assignment

Students are introduced to key concepts of river systems and how they evolve and interact with the Earth's surface over time. Students are then introduced to the Elwha River in Washington state and the Glines Canyon dam through a series of maps and questions designed to bring out both the scope of the system and issues surrounding the use and removal of the dam. Next, using working models of Glines Canyon, students map and make qualitative observations of the system as it changes over time under different dam removal scenarios developed by the students. Students then identify dependent and independent variables, form hypotheses, plan and conduct experiments, and collect quantitative data on different dam removal scenarios. The residency then engages students to interpret, critique, and compare the data the groups collected, to identify and design other research questions that could be pursued using the equipment at hand, and ultimately to develop and advocate a recommendation for the "ideal" dam removal scenario.

Determining whether students have met the goals

As part of the residency class, students actively map the river system over time and record observations and changes on a series of maps. Before running the quantitative experiment, students complete a worksheet that guides them through forming a hypothesis, identifying variables, and designing an experiment. After completing the experiment, students are asked to analyze and interpret the data collected, make recommendations on how to best remove the dam, and finally design an additional experiment that could take advantage of the models.

As part of the summer institute, teachers participated in the residency class activities and provided feedback, suggestions and curriculum connections. During and after each residency the Science Museum Teacher meets with the classroom teacher to reflect on the program and solicit suggestions for improvements. NCED and SMM staff will meet at the end of the school year to review teacher comments, revise activities, and identify new resources and activities to be included in next years program. The NCED Earthscapes Education program for schools that includes the river restoration residency program is completing the second year of three years of grant-funded programming.

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Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics (NCED)
A comprehensive background of the Glines Canyon Dam removal can be found at:

Additional teaching materials related to the Elwha River Case Study can be found at: and the archived NCED website.