Course Overview

This course is place-based and hands-on in nature. It is NorthBay’s watershed field course for teachers in an online format. Online does not mean alone nor inside in our way of thinking. This course is a hybrid of online and on site learning, requiring a minimum of six stream visits to the stream of your choice. If possible, we encourage you take the course with a colleague or colleagues. In fact, we hope you will collaborate often in this course with colleagues and students and with us. Sharing and practicing learning will make for a richer, more lasting, experience. Here are a few specifics: Assignments will be completed at your site and at home and be submitted digitally. A variety of learning pedagogies are used to provide an integrated, engaging experience. We will invite you into silent, sensory-based reflective practices, and encourage you to use the observations made during those moments to launch inquiry research, using the Investigating and Evaluating Environmental Issues and Actions inquiry model  developed by Harold R. Hungerford, Trudi L. Volk, John M. Ramsey, Ralph A. Litherland, and R. Ben Peyton, (2003), and modified by NorthBay. We will present essential watershed ecology concepts, and scientific protocols you may need to conduct research. We will guide you through developing a mini research project, and ask you to reflect on your teaching and learning process. This course is designed to provide everything you need to feel confident and inspired to take your students outside to conduct research at a local stream or river. We strive to do even more beyond research. In keeping with NorthBay’s mission and environmental and societal needs, we will encourage you and your students to leverage research findings into lasting solutions for local stream and/or river issues and to share them with other community members: to show what is possible.

At NorthBay Education Foundation we tell the students who visit us that the choices they make matter. We say a student’s choices affect his or her life now, his/her future life, and also, the lives of other humans and other species. Sometimes we say that our combined choices are so powerful that we are affecting our environment; moreover, it appears we are even affecting our own planetary climate system. That is how interconnected we are. That is how important our choices are.

To make wise choices, we must be well-informed. Often, “well informed” implies possessing factual knowledge. Here at NorthBay we mean having factual knowledge and we also mean knowledge that comes from the deep understanding of our hearts, those wellsprings of compassion and empathy and relationships and yes, even love. This course for teacher professional development, therefore, has been created to support your learning and that of your students about a local stream ecosystem in a holistic and integrated way. A way that will fulfill standards and curricular needs. A way that will help you and your students make wise choices. A way that models making decisions that considers the needs and lives of all inhabitants.

Lastly, even though we are presenting to you this course in an online format, we want to be available to support your needs. It is our intention to give you everything you need to accomplish what we will ask of you in this course. We have field-tested all the protocols and materials, but we understand questions will arise. Please contact us when you need a question answered, support carrying out a stream assessment, using a research protocol, or anything else. We will be here for you. Furthermore, twice a year we will offer a one day in-the-field-day for teachers who have taken one of our online courses in the previous six months. This workshop will be held at our main campus in North East MD. Housing will be available for those who need it. While at NorthBay, participants in the online course will have the opportunity to network with other educators and practice course content in the field. We will address roadblocks and challenges, and share experiences. This face-to-face time will enrich and clarify the experiences had online and in the field on your own and with your students.

Intentions of the Course

• For you to become intimately acquainted with your local river or stream as a teacher, a citizen-scientist, storyteller, stream snorkeler, witness and participant in the stream community.

• For you to become aware of how stream study using issue analysis can help you reach existing academic standards.

• For you to identify and understand the reciprocity of our relationships with freshwater systems. Recognizing fully that the choices we make affect the capacity of humans and other nature to flourish both currently and in the future.

• For you to strengthen understanding of stream and river ecology.

• For you to develop the confidence to share this integrated approach to teaching stream ecology with your students so that they may also experience the stream community from multiple perspectives and conduct research that will lead to lasting solutions for local stream or river issues.

Course Expectations

Please read the course expectations carefully to decide whether or not you have the time to join us on this learning journey. Once you begin the course  you will have three months to complete it. We expect you will spend approximately 45 hours working your way through, and upon successful completion, you will receive the number of professional development units your state approves for a 45 hour program.

Here is a list of what we will ask you to submit to us:

  1. At least one journal entry from each stream observation for a minimum of six entries. Journal entries can be text, watercolors, acrylics, collages, or a combination of media. We want you to express your experiences in ways meaningful to you.
  2. Evidence of one practice that is outside your comfort zone – we are  Northbay, an organization which asks people to go beyond perceived boundaries.
  3. A stream/river mini research project.
  4. Evidence of practice/research with students.
  5. A final multimedia project to represent what has been learned and applied personally and professionally, including any transformational or “ah ha” moments.

Other assignments are found throughout the course. We ask you to complete them on your own or together with your students. They’ll appreciate helping you, and seeing you as a fellow learner.


Materials you’ll need:

• A YouTube or Vimeo account where you can upload your personal videos to share in the virtual classroom

• Reliable internet

• Access to a non-tidal stream or river

• A journal

Across the course of this learning experience we will ask you to go to a stream at least six times. During each visit you will be asked to spend some time in contemplation, quietly noticing what is happening inside you and around you. We encourage you to go as often as you can, for as long as you can. Furthermore, you can go by yourself or invite someone else to sit in silence with you. Afterwards, you can share your experiences with each other, thereby deepening the experience.

At times, we will challenge you in this course, ask you to go beyond your perceived limits. That is what we do at NorthBay with 15,000 students and their parents and 700 teachers each year. At the same time we challenge you, we will support you. Even from a distance. You ought never to feel alone as you work your way through.

We intend to give you everything you need to accomplish what we will ask of you in this course. If something is missing, please let us know right away. Lastly, we want you to know that if you choose to take this course you will be contributing to its ongoing development. Therefore we encourage you to share with us your learning, your struggles, your joys, your overall experiences. For your participation and feedback, we are truly grateful.

How the Course is Structured

We structured this course about stream ecology like a stream itself. Nine topics, which we refer to as tributaries, are explored separately. As you move through the course the knowledge, skills and meaning acquired in each tributary will converge into an issue analysis based research project, and finally, and most importantly, in meaningful teaching and action that catalyzes behavior change.

While each Tributary is unique, you will find teacher sidebars, a contemplative practice, a reflective practice, background knowledge, video, and assignments in each one. Between selected tributaries you will find Interludes. Interludes are one page poems that represent calm quiet pools–moments to pause and reflect before you move forward. We encourage you to savor them before moving on to the next section. Finally, appendices at the end contain resources, references, notes, and research protocols.

INSERT A STREAM GRAPHIC HERE with nine tributaries. Based on Keith’s whiteboard graphic.

Essay: How Do We Learn to Love?

Take a moment to think about something or someone you care about deeply. How did these feelings develop?  Is your life different because of this relationship? Maybe you have experienced romantic love or deep friendship. I would wager that these feelings have grown from sharing experiences and spending time together, not from reading and memorizing a Myers Briggs personality inventory on this person. Maybe you love TV. If so, I doubt it is because of a history of film class you took freshmen year of college where you compared and contrasted the shooting style of six documentaries to six sitcoms. I bet it’s because you got wrapped up in amazing stories, got to know the characters, and were transported to a different level of experience.

As an environmental educator, I work with a lot of people who are head-over-heels in love with our world. They are the kind of people who spend Black Friday on the Appalachian Trail and watch more sunsets than evening news programs. Part of our goal is to help students to fall in love with the world. To open their eyes to see how beautiful, how intricate, how dynamic our planet is. To see that nature is not just in a Costa Rican eco preserve, but it’s all around us wherever we are. In fact, we ourselves are nature!

As a native Pennsylvanian, I fiercely and deeply love the Mid Atlantic forests, rivers, and hills. Nobody wrote a checklist of outcomes and told me how to feel. As near as I can tell, this relationship developed in two ways.First, when I was young, I ran wild with a stick through the woods, cutting down May Apples and reenacting imaginary historical battles. In the woods, I found a place that I could be myself without being observed by other people. In spite of all the snakes, thorns, and stories of rabies and errant mountain lions, it was, perhaps, the first truly safe place I found. I dug holes, built forts, made ineffectual traps and truly dangerous catapults, built dams, threw rocks, and climbed trees; all in a narrow strip of trees stretching between neighborhoods in suburban Pennsylvania. It was a place I could make mistakes and feel their consequences without judgment. It was a place I could try new ideas. I was just barely out of sight of thirty houses, but to me it was a wilderness, a frontier, a place that anything could happen.

The second phase of falling in love was actually facilitated by an assignment from my mom. She had me mark out one square meter in the woods and observe it for a half hour once a month for a year. I found a tiny tributary that my young legs could easily leap across and marked out my meter, reaching from halfway up the bank all the way to the middle of the stream. I flopped down on my belly and opened my eyes, maybe for the first time. This tiny square of earth and water turned out to be teeming with life. Although this was twenty years ago, or more, I can still remember the way a salamander swam through the water, the way the ice crystals stretched and shimmered in the thin January sunshine, the way the insects broke through the dirt as it began to warm in March, the way tiny green leaves unfurled, the way the bank always changed shape after storms. So much happened in such a small area.

As teachers, we use IEEIA to engage students in inquiry-driven learning and we meet curricular standards, but the end goal is bigger than building critical thinking skills. It’s about connection. It’s about love.

We build relationships through shared experiences, and we, as teachers, can facilitate shared experiences between our students and the natural world. A snorkeling trip can meet common core standards but it is also a truly immersive experience that a student shares with the river. To our teacher-trained brains, it can look like so much splashing and carrying on, but it is so much more than that. Twenty minutes sitting and mapping a spot is like getting coffee with a new friend. It might feel awkward at first, the silences might stretch just a little too long, but you will learn things that surprise you. You might even find a beauty you missed at first glance.

These activities are outside the comfort zones of many teachers, and that’s ok. We are constantly told that nature is dangerous, that the woods are scary, and that our students need more structure. But there is a power in these activities that is worth stretching outside of our comfort zones to experience. You will see students with different learning styles excelling and succeeding in a different environment. You will be a part of building a deeply meaningful relationship that can last a lifetime. You will be planting seeds that will forever change the way students relate to our world.
Data doesn’t change people’s behavior. Connection does.

Upon completing Start Here: Our Course Begins, please progress to Tributary 1: A Contemplative Visit

After completing Start Here: Our Course Begins, please continue below.

Tributary 1: A Contemplative Visit

Before you begin, we’d like to share some thoughts about practicing a contemplative activity: While many contemplative activities focus on one’s inner experience, the practices we will ask you to complete at each stream visit, are designed to help you focus on the experience of being with a stream/river. To borrow words from a practice from the Center for Imagination, Education and the Natural World in North Carolina, we encourage you to focus on developing “relationship” and experiencing “resonance” at your special place.Usually when we attempt to settle down and quiet our minds, especially the first time and often during subsequent sessions, they begin to chatter, sometimes wildly and loudly. Given this tendency of our minds, feel free to pay attention to the chatter, but don’t get carried away by it. You may also, because of all you have learned, be tempted to interpret what you observe. Try not to interpret. Instead, try to stay with your direct sensory experiences. Sometimes quietly noting/ acknowledging the chatter and interpretations that exist will allow you to refocus on directly experiencing what is before you. Don’t be alarmed if you have to repeat the noting process over and over. Chatter and thought production are simply processes our minds engage in. They are what our minds do.

In addition to spending time in contemplation, we will ask you to Reflect. This may seem like we are asking you to do the same practice twice. We are not. Here is how the two differ. When we ask you to contemplate, we ask that you directly experience with your senses what is going on around you. As we have already mentioned, please turn off the part of your brain that wants to interpret, categorize, name, organize etc. Using the prompts given and your senses, just notice what is happening around you and if you wish, inside you too. What we refer to as Reflect is a practice whereby you’ll weave together the contemplative experience with knowledge acquired from the section in which you are working. Reflection therefore, is time to process and integrate different ways of knowing.

Teacher Sidebar: Local Streams

Most people live within a 5 minute walk of a stream. The stream or river you choose to work on with your students doesn’t have to be large. It can be a small first order stream, a drainage ditch, or even a stormwater retention area. The idea is to locate a stream close enough to school that you can walk your students there and back within one class period. This way the investigation and assessment of the stream can be conducted as part of class rather than as a one off school trip. This eliminates the cost of transportation, enables students to conduct much more in depth research, and facilitates the production of meaningful student action projects. Of course, you can choose a stream that is further from the school and arrange to have students visit the stream as a class trip. Typically, a steam that is within 5 or 6 blocks of school should be close enough for you to conduct the research without the need to obtain transportation. School district rules will vary, however.

Stream Visit

Estimated time for this stream visit: 1 hour
What you’ll need: Journal, regular and color pencils, something to sit on.

Contemplate: Sit Spot Visit 1

Before you embark on this journey, be sure you are dressed appropriately for the weather. If it is cool, bring something to sit on. Once you have made these preparations, go find an enchanting and comfortable location at which to sit near a stream or river, a place compelling enough that you will return to it over and over. It doesn’t have to look like a tropical paradise. There might be trash or graffiti, there might be a road nearby. When you look, however, you will certainly find life. Pay attention to how you choose your site. What do you find appealing about the spot you have chosen?  

Now become quiet and still, like a rock, or like a leaf sitting quietly and unobtrusively on the ground, and activate your senses of sight, hearing, touch, and smell. This settling in might take a while if you aren’t used to stillness and silence.

What do you immediately notice?
• What takes longer to reveal its presence?
• What is within your sightline?
• What is close up? Farther away?

Next, consider sounds.

• What do you hear?
• What sounds come from the stream?
• What sounds come from the surrounding vegetation?
• Listen attentively to the music of the stream or river and the surrounding floodplain.

Now consider what you can examine using your delicate sense of touch.

• What is within your reach?
• Go beyond naming; explore textures and forms.

Moving to your sense of smell.

• What do you smell?
• Are the smells powerful or gentle?
• Do the smells arise and then vanish or do they float softly in the air?
• What do they remind you of?

After or during this thorough investigation of the site, draw a simple map in your journal. Anything that you observe using your senses should go in your map (Young, Haas, & McGown, 2010, pp. 58-59). After you finish mapping, or during mapping, take a moment to record what you are wondering about this stream/river.

Sample “sit spot” map created by an 18 year-old in her backyard.

Reflect: What Do You Wonder?

After spending some quiet time at your sit spot, what are some things that caught your attention? What are some things that interested you or puzzled you?  If you were to spend some more time studying this section of your stream (spoiler alert, you are!), what would you want to investigate?  

Write down and save one or more questions to guide your future investigations.

Interlude 1


Watching you look at each other while sailing into the clouds,
I wonder
what are you communicating
about the scene below.
The bay unfurling into infinity: today blue-brown, tomorrow a different color.
Fish and other animals beneath the churning surface
that will also change
Humans and our structures along the shore.
What do you sense and understand that I can’t?
What would I do differently if I knew what you thought?
What would we do differently if we knew?

-Kathy Chambliss

Upon completing Tributary 1: A Contemplative Visit, please progress to Tributary 2: Streams, Rivers, Watersheds 101

After completing Tributary 1: A Contemplative Visit, please continue below.

Tributary 2: Streams, Rivers, Watersheds 101

In this section we present a broad overview of key watershed concepts and terms. Use the information here as you need.

Some of the content may be new, some may be review. What strikes us as we write this chapter are the physical and biological complexities of stream and river ecosystems, and the myriad interactions within them, some hidden, others more apparent. Moreover, there are interactions that happen between the stream/river and the surrounding terrestrial landscape. Neighboring ecosystems are interlinked. What is also present to us is the significance of scale on stream and river ecosystems. Watershed scale features such as hills and mountains and underlying bedrock, and large scale land use practices, influence how water flows through the landscape. Within streams and rivers themselves, smaller scale features such as downed trees, and piles of rocks or stones influence water velocity, depth and water temperature, and the quality and quantity of habitats. This chapter is designed to provide learners with background knowledge of these incredibly dynamic systems in preparation for stream/river assessments and research.

Teacher Sidebar: Making Observations

Encouraging students to make observations and ask questions.

Science is rooted in making observations and asking questions. Thoughtful humans from a variety of disciplines have made groundbreaking discoveries and produced spectacular works of art because of their highly refined abilities to notice something that does not fit the usual pattern, or their curiosity coupled with  skilled observation revealed something that was previously hidden from view. “Something-slightly-different” or “previously-hidden-from-view” may spark questions that throw open the door to a whole new way of thinking and understanding. Groundbreaking discoveries, spectacular art, and new ways of thinking are not the only reasons however, to hone observation skills. There are other, more elemental reasons. Noticing can lead to wondering, wonder, and feelings of connection and joy.

Here are some ideas to prepare students to strengthen their abilities to observe: An observation is something perceived through the senses. Observations are what you notice, not what you already know. Observations describe an object. Saying “it is brown” is an observation. Students, however, may have the habits of substituting opinions or names for actual observations. Saying “it looks awesome” is an opinion, not an observation. Saying, “it is a shell” is an identification not an observation. Be alert for this happening, so you can elicit true observations from your students.

Ideally, take students out onto the school yard. Let them pick one object, a leaf, a rock, a twig, etc. If you are not able to take your students outside bring a larger natural object into the class, something big enough for all of the students to see as they sit in a semicircle/circle  around the object. Or bring a collection of enough natural objects such as shells, seeds, or stones so that each student has one. Students should shake, listen to, smell, touch, look at in its entirety, their object to really “see” it with all of their senses except for taste.

Next, students should say their observations out loud starting with the statement “ I notice…” Acknowledge that talking to themselves may feel uncomfortable at first, but it will help them develop good observation skills. They can also share with a partner. If students get stuck help them make a basic observation like color. Suggest they listen to people next to them to get ideas for describing their own observations.

Here is an additional idea to consider when making observations: How much exists beyond the surface of whatever subject we are observing that we cannot see?


What do you notice in this photo of where two streams meet? Do you notice how the two streams are different colors, and how they have different levels of turbidity? The stream on the left is very murky, with zero visibility, but the stream on the right is more clear. What do you wonder? Do you wonder why this happens? It comes down to watershed. The river on the left has a watershed that is dominated by agriculture and residential development. The stream on the right has a watershed that is mostly forested. Watershed land use is the single most important factor that determines water quality. A watershed is the area of land that drains into a water body. Watersheds can be extensive in area. The Chesapeake Bay drains 64000 square miles of land from six states: New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia. What we do on land directly affects the water quality of the closest water body in a watershed. In fact, the cleanliness of the water in a watershed depends on how well the land in it is managed. Forested watersheds produce the cleanest water. When it rains, the rainwater in a forest percolates through the soft forest leaf duff and soil and does not directly run off to the local stream. As rainwater percolates through the soft forest soil, it is filtered. When rain falls on an agricultural watershed, more water runs off directly to local streams and carries soil, fertilizers and agricultural chemicals with it. When rain falls on a suburban or urban watershed, any water that lands on impervious surface – a hard surface that doesn’t allow the rain to soak in – runs off and carries any contaminants that are on the surface with it. Oil, antifreeze, brake dust (which is high in heavy metals) coming from vehicles, and fertilizers are all carried in the water, which runs rapidly to the local creek. Since the water coming from impervious surfaces runs with high velocity, it scours soil and turns the water muddy.

Assignment 2a. Analysis of a Hydrograph

What do you notice about this hydrograph? (Goldman, 2008.) Make a statement supported by CER based on the data represented in this hydrograph.

Sediment Pollution: When soil is washed into water it is called sediment. Cloudy water is called turbid, and turbidity is a measure of how cloudy the water is. Sediment has different impacts. One is that sediments can smother bottom habitat in aquatic environments. Streams thrive when they have diverse habitat with lots of nooks and crannies that provide habitat for an array of species. Many fish lay their eggs on clean gravel bars, and cobble, and many benthic macroinvertebrates cling to these rocks and take advantage of the oxygen and water that rushes by. When sediment settles out it buries these rocks and the bottom becomes a sand or mud flat with little habitat diversity. Low habitat diversity means little biodiversity. Fish that rely on cobble for reproduction leave, benthic macroinvertebrates can’t make their homes in the sand and mud. The quality of the stream declines.

Some fish species use eyesight to feed. When they can’t see due to cloudy, turbid water, they can’t eat, and they must try to move to places that have cleaner water. Other types of animals also depend on clean water to survive. Hellbender salamanders are the largest salamander in North America and are declining in number partly because of increased sedimentation. The Last Dragons, is an amazing 10-minute film by Freshwaters Illustrated that shows the plight of the Hellbender and how the U.S. Forest Service is working to protect them.

Nutrient Pollution: Nitrogen and phosphorus wash into our rivers from agricultural and suburbanized land. These nutrients come from animal waste, human sewage, pet waste, lawn fertilizers, and car exhaust. Septic tanks do nothing to reduce the nutrient levels of human sewage, and sewage treatment plants often don’t reduce nutrient loads. Excess nutrients in water sources can make excess algae grow.

Algae are an important food source for streams and 50% of the food needed for a river’s food web comes from algae. Too much algae from too many nutrients results in eutrophication. Phytoplankton, or single celled algae, live for a short duration then die. When they die, bacteria decompose the dead algae and use up available oxygen in the decomposition process, which results in oxygen levels too low to support life, especially in deeper, slower moving, sections of the stream. This process is called eutrophication.

Other Pollutants: Contaminants that wash into rivers and streams from suburbanized and urbanized landscapes include heavy metals and petroleum products. These can be directly toxic to stream life, and to us. It can be a stretch to think that turning off unneeded lights could impact stream health, but this action does have an effect, and here is how. Coal is still a major source of energy. We burn coal in power plants to boil water to produce steam which powers turbines that generates electricity. A byproduct of this product is mercury, a heavy metal. It is released into the atmosphere and brought down to earth and washed into streams by rain.

Although humans are responsible for many pollutants entering the water they can also be a part of the solution. We encourage you and your students to generate solutions by conducting research that leads to action on behalf of local waterways. Planting trees in agricultural, suburban, and urban watersheds can help restore water quality, and installing rain gardens, green roofs and other engineered green infrastructure used to control runoff can make a big difference to the life of a stream. Each of these practices controls runoff and absorbs or transforms contaminants, all of which restore water quality.

What we do on land affects water quality, and water quality affects those downstream. In a very real sense, all rivers eventually flow together. We are all connected through water and we are all downstream and upstream of someone else. What we do on land can affect someone on the other side of the world. We are all connected in one large global watershed, and our actions impact everyone else.

Assignment 2b. What Is Your Watershed Address?

When we think about our address, we tend to think street name and town, and maybe, state and country. This address, however, is only one of our addresses. We have another one, our watershed address. To find it, locate the stream nearest to your school and/or home. Use Google maps, local maps, Gazetteers etc. to find your school. Where is the nearest stream to your school? Does it have a name? What is the nearest stream to your house or neighborhood? What river does the stream lead to? Where does the river flow?  What waterbody does the river ultimately drain to?

Develop your watershed address, starting with the largest waterbody and working back to the smallest waterbody. For example, my watershed address is: the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay, Susquehanna River, Octoraro Creek. What is yours?

Assignment 2c. Local Watershed Group

Identify and meet a local watershed group. Members of this group may become future partners for your classes.

Assignment 2d. Do it! Local Watershed Model

Make a simple model of your local watershed using materials you have available. Green Tip: Consider using recycled or repurposed materials. Post a picture of this for us.

Assignment 2e. Do it! How Land Use Influences Runoff

Model the effect of land use on runoff quantity and quality.  For fun and inspiration, watch the 5-minute NorthBay video that explains how watersheds work using the character, “RD” (Rain Drop)

Teacher Sidebar: CER

CER is a simple and effective three-part method of conclusion that requires students to use multiple ways of thinking. CER stands for Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (NSTA, 2015). Formulating a CER report requires students to state empirical scientific information and draw reasonable conclusions, while leaving space for focused creative thinking.

The claim is a matter-of-fact answer to the original research question. Evidence is specific data and hard facts that support the claim. Reasoning is educated speculation that outlines the relationships between claim and evidence. The claim and evidence will be empirical and will not vary within a group of students working on the same study; the reasoning calls the student to apply critical—and creative—thinking and will be unique to each student.

For example, let us consider the vulture lesson at Northbay. Students have access to a bank of historical data; they also gather current data within the guidelines of a research question. The standard research question is, “To what extent is the vulture population changing over time at Northbay?” Students collect data on the current vulture population, based on a 20-minute observation time. At the end of the lesson, they are instructed to formulate their own CER reports.

An example of the CER that would be produced by this study is as follows: Claim: The vulture population is changing over time. The population of turkey vultures is increasing over time, while the black vulture population is decreasing. Evidence: Today in our data collection, we observed 11 turkey vultures and 3 black vultures. In the past 4 years, there have been equal numbers of turkey vultures and black vultures observed. Reasoning: Black vultures can see very well, but cannot smell. This makes it difficult to locate carrion in wooded habitats. They have most likely started living in other habitats that are less wooded. – OR – Today was a cold rainy day. It is possible that black vultures are more likely to take shelter on such days. The population may be constant, but they were not present today.

Stream Order

Look at the model you created. Do you notice that small streams flow into larger ones?
Land drains into the nearest creek, that creek flows downhill to join other creeks and form larger and larger streams. Streams are classified in a specific way. A stream that has no tributaries is called a first order stream. A stream that is formed when two first order streams come together is a second order stream. A stream that is formed when two second order streams come together is called a third order stream. When two third order streams come together they form a fourth order stream and so on. The order of a stream only increases when two streams of equal order meet. The Amazon is a 12th order stream, the highest order on earth. Use a map to determine the order of the stream closest to your school.

Assignment 2f. Do it! Water Cycle.

The Water Cycle. We experience it. We are part of it. We contribute to the water cycle and impact its health. Use any media to show the water cycle and your role in it. Have fun with this!

Hydrology and the Physical Environment

Watersheds are a landscape level feature. Land use in the watershed dictates how water moves through the watershed, whether the majority of the water flows over land as runoff, or whether it soaks into the ground and moves through the watershed as shallow subsurface flow, or becomes part of the groundwater. How water moves through the watershed or landscape affects rivers and stream at a number of levels, including the reach level.

A stream reach is a section of stream with similar hydrologic characteristics.The reach of the stream is affected by how the channel responds to water and sediment movement. There are three kinds of flows that influence the physical characteristics of stream reaches. Base flow is the water that is in the stream without a storm event. Base flow is the slow release of surface water or groundwater that seeps into the stream bed. Base flows provide aquatic habitat because they are the source of stream water between rain events. Frequent storm flows, or bank full flows fill the channel up to the top of its banks and are responsible for shaping the channel. They are what occur during larger rain events and typically occur about once a year in a watershed that hasn’t been modified by agriculture or development. Rare flood flows are discharges that escape stream banks and move into the floodplain, the low-lying area adjacent to the stream reach. These occur less frequently than bank full flows but can have a big impact on the behavior and appearance of the stream channel for years after the flood event.

Riparian Zone

The riparian zone is land adjacent to streams that provides the transition between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. As you will see shortly, the boundaries between these two systems are porous, as materials and species flow between them. Riparian forests, or riparian buffer zones, are critically important to water quality. They shade the water which helps keep water temperatures low. This is very important for the health of stream organisms, especially cold water fisheries, such as trout. Riparian forests also trap sediments, remove pollutants and take up nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. They stabilize stream channels by providing structure. The roots of trees bind soil along the bank and help the bank resist erosion. Riparian forests help lessen floods. They give the water somewhere to go, and the trees and vegetation reduce the velocity of the water. Riparian forests interact with streams. Tree leaves provide food and attachment sites for underwater organisms when they fall into the stream. Stream macroinvertebrates that emerge from water as adults rest on nearby tree branches and trunks. When trees fall into the water, their woody structure provides underwater attachment sites and can influence water flows, thereby creating additional habitats.


A drainage network or watershed can be measured in hundreds of miles. A stream reach can be measured in hundreds of feet. Stream features can be measured in tens of feet or less. Some examples of features found within a stream reach include pools, glides and riffles. These features can contain smaller structures like sandbars, gravel riffles, boulder cascades and woody material. Stream features and structures influence local hydraulic conditions, creating eddies in some locations and swift turbulent flows in others. The features and structures found in the stream and the way the water flows through them form a complex, diverse, multilayered habitat, which is important for biodiversity. Different species have different habitat requirements, so diverse habitat provides the best support system for the most species. Biodiversity, or diverse life, leads to stable ecosystems, and it can also mean rich ecosystem services such as air filtration, clean water, and pollination of plants that produce food for human beings. Please study the next four photos which illustrate stream features and changes in water velocity and depth.

Click images for a closer look.

  • What do you notice in this photo? Can you identify different habitats?

    The most obvious features in a stream reach are usually related to the changes in the slope of the stream channel which affects the velocity of the water. Changes in slope create riffles, pools and runs, and each of these affect the kinds of organisms we find.

  • A Riffle

    What do you notice in this photo? Does this look like a low energy or high energy environment? Riffles are areas where coarse gravel or cobble have gathered. Water depths are shallow. The shallow, uneven bottom causes fast water velocities and turbulent flows. The spaces between the cobble provide lots of habitat for a variety of aquatic organisms.

  • A Pool

    What do you notice in this photo/video? How is it different than the first one? Pools and glides are found where the stream bottom has low or reversed slope. Water depths in the pools are deeper than anywhere else in the reach, and water velocities are low compared to other places in the channel. Glides are like pools, only shallower (two to four feet deep compared to over seven feet deep for pools). Pool bottoms often are covered in sediments since the low energy environment allows them to settle out, whereas glide bottoms are often sand and gravel.

  • A Run

    What do you notice in this photo? Is it similar or different from the first two? Runs are intermediate between pools and riffles and have moderate depth and flow velocities. They share characteristics of both pools and riffles.


Stream features may contain structures: gravel/cobble bars, boulders, woody material. Take a few moments to look at the three structures in the next set of underwater photos. They can be located mere feet from each other, yet they drastically impact the type and quality of life that is possible in a given location. What can you picture living in proximity to each of the following structures? How does each structure offer different benefits and/or risks to members of the aquatic community?

  • A sand and gravel bar

  • A boulder cascade

  • Woody material

People who fish know to look for features and structures. They know that bass lurk in the shade of submerged logs. They know that trout wait at the bottom of a boulder cascade ready to snatch up dislodged invertebrates as they tumble through the water. Exploring children know that flat rocks can hide crayfish. That an undercut bank is a perfect place to find a frog. Turtles know that a half submerged branch is a perfect place to catch some rays. Raccoons know where to find food.

Habitat features and structures affect aquatic life and shape biotic communities. Anything that affects aquatic habitat, affects aquatic life. Each feature and structure may be relatively small in size but collectively they provide texture and richness, influencing the stream reach to create a diversity of habitat for a multitude of aquatic organisms. Each individual feature may seem insignificant, but each one is important to the organisms that need it as habitat.

Character Connection

At NorthBay, we weave character themes into our lessons. We want people to think about what they need for their own wellbeing, and how their choices and actions matter. How what they do is impactful. For this section about streams, there are natural parallels between what individual physical features, structures and species contribute to the overall health of the stream, and what humans contribute to human and other ecological communities. Take a moment to consider the roles you play in your family, community, and local and global environments. And how significant they are. How impactful.

Local Hydraulic Conditions

There can be localized changes in flow conditions within a reach due to the effects of structures and abrupt channel transitions.
Structures such as large rocks and roots that stick into the channel can cause changes in flow.

  • Watch the 30-second video North Creek Eddy:

    What do you notice about this video? Do you wonder how that material is swirling in the water? Eddies are formed when the main flow is deflected around an obstruction, like a rock. The deflection causes a lower pressure spot on the downstream side of the obstruction and the water recirculates from a downstream to upstream direction into that low pressure spot. Swirling water behind the obstruction results and there is often much less water velocity behind the obstruction. Eddies provide habitat for some organisms.

  • Watch the the 1-minute video, Climbers Run Hogsucker:

    What do you notice in this video? Do you see that fish vacuuming up sand on the bottom? What do you wonder? Sand and gravel bars form when sand, gravel or cobble accumulate due to water flow. Bars often form in slower water like behind large rocks or on the inside of bends, where water velocities are lower. Bars provide habitat to animals adapted for life on a sandy bottom. For example, hog suckers vacuum food from sands and gravels.

  • Watch the 35-second video, Passage Creek Bass:

    What do you notice about this video? Do you see the fish tail sticking out of the hole in the clay bank? What do you wonder about that? Clay banks form when the stream cuts down into underlying clay. These clay banks can also provide habitat to a variety of organisms. Crayfish burrow, and sometimes, fish carve out homes.

The physical features and structures in a stream play an important role in the food web by influencing the spatial and temporal availability of habitat for food, reproduction and predation avoidance. The primary biological communities in a stream ecosystem are bacteria, algae/diatoms, macroinvertebrates and fish. Different species have different habitat requirements for successful reproduction and development across their life spans. Each species has a role to play in a stream’s food web.

Food Webs

Fifty percent of the food that fuels a river ecosystem generally comes from outside of the river in the form of leaf litter and other organic debris that falls in or washes into the stream. Streams must have the right features – such as rocks and eddies – to capture this imported food. The other half of the food comes from algae. The microscopic community plays an important role in the ecology of the stream, either through the direct production of food via photosynthesis in the case of algae, or through decomposing organic materials that fall into the stream in the case of bacteria. Algae and diatoms tend to use the hard substrates found in streams. Algal and diatom community richness are vital to other components of the food web such as the benthic macroinvertebrates.

Benthic Macroinvertebrates: Benthic macroinvertebrates are organisms that live on the bottom of streams. ‘Benthic’ means ‘bottom’. ‘Macro’ means ‘big enough to see without magnification’, and ‘invertebrate’ means ‘without a backbone’. Organisms like caddisflies, mayflies, clams and crayfish are benthic macroinvertebrates. This group of animals is very important for stream health and for processing and transforming organic matter into food for other aquatic life. Macroinvertebrates have a variety of lifestyles and feeding modes.

Shredders – decompose large organic particles that fall into streams like leaves and twigs.

Grazers – scrape algae and diatoms from rocks and other substrates. Collectors filter fine particles transported from upstream.

Predators – feed on other animals. The more diverse the features of the stream, the more diverse the macroinvertebrate community.

Teacher Sidebar: Aquatic Diversity

Healthy streams typically have species from several feeding groups and lifestyle modes that inhabit different stream features available within a drainage network. Active filtering collectors, such as clams and several species of mayflies, are found in pools and runs. They are active because they move water through or around their bodies in order to collect food. Passive collectors, such as net spinning caddisflies, are found in riffles. The flowing water brings the food to them. Leaf litter in pools harbor shredders such as amphipods. Shredding stoneflies inhabit leaf packs trapped in riffles and runs. The slow moving water of pools is home to predatory dragonfly larvae, while predatory stoneflies inhabit riffles and runs. Grazers such as snails and many mayfly species exist where there is a hard substrate colonized by algae and diatoms.

Fish: The physical habitat characteristics that influence the macroinvertebrate community also influence the fish community. A stream with diverse habitats will likely have a diverse fish community. Similar to members of the macroinvertebrate community, different species of fish are adapted to occupy different features in the stream. For example, suckers are well adapted to glean food from soft sediments in pools and runs, while predators like trout and bass use hiding places provided by woody debris and large rocks to ambush prey.

Teacher Sidebar: Using Media to Discover Local River Issues

1. Google the name of your local stream/river and see what comes up. Use the keywords issues, environment, water quality, dams, sedimentation or invasive in conjunction with your local river name google search.
2. Make an issue notebook by compiling issue articles from newspapers and magazines.
3. Keep a diary of environmental issues reported on television, the internet, and radio.
4. If you haven’t already, contact river based organizations, such as local riverkeeper/waterkeepers, watershed associations, local Trout Unlimited chapters, or other environmental organizations.

Develop a list of river related issues you are interested in investigating. Later on we are going to take this list and compare it to other information you’ll collect to identify a river issue to research.


Land and water, humans and streams, physical features and biotic communities; all are intimately and irrevocably connected. Human activity on land changes runoff patterns and can increase or decrease pollution. Runoff quantity and quality impact the stream channel, shaping the reach, crafting the features. Stream features and structures impact microscopic life, which form the base of the aquatic food web. Changes in features change the ability of benthic macroinvertebrates and fish to thrive. Healthy biotic communities and low levels of pollution make our water safe to enjoy, safe to sustain our lives. We are all connected.

Stream Visit

Estimated time for this stream visit: 1 hour
What you’ll need: Journal, regular and color pencils, something to sit on.

Contemplate: Sit Spot Visit 2
When you visit your stream this time, listen and look carefully. Notice the sound of the stream and how it changes. Notice the surface, where it is smooth and calm, and where it is fast flowing. Notice structures like logs, rocks. Look for swarms of insects above the water. Leaves from nearby trees falling in the water. When you are done noticing with your senses, move to the reflection activity, where you’ll sketch and label the stream features, structures and webs you learned about in Tributary 2.

Reflect. Sketch Your Stream.
Sketch your stream. Add lots of details, including the stream soundscape. Where is it gurgling, bubbling, silent?  Where is the water running smooth, and where is it turbulent?  Label riffle areas, pools, runs, glides, and structures, such as boulders, cobbles, and trees or branches in the water. Begin to sketch a food web, as best you can. You’ll fill in more details later, after completing a stream assessment in Tributary 3. Consider what is happening beneath the water surface as you complete this reflection.

Extension: After sketching your stream and labeling features and structures, pull out your phone and record the stream sounds. The stream music. Share the recording with someone else.

Interlude 2

Upon completing Tributary 2: Streams, Rivers, Watersheds 101, please progress to Tributary 3: What Makes a Healthy Stream?

After completing Tributary 2: Streams, Rivers Watersheds 101, please continue below.

Tributary 3: What Makes a Healthy Stream? (Assessment Basics)

The goal of a stream assessment is to assess the overall health of the stream. To do this successfully it is important to look at three basic areas: physical, chemical, and biological.

Physical – A stream’s physical characteristics include depth, width, current, turbidity, bottom substrate, structures, woody material, and the nearby terrestrial environment. Healthy streams look different in different geographical locations, but knowing what a pristine physical environment looks like in your area and how your stream measures up is a key part of the stream assessment.

Chemical – Using test kits it is possible to measure for different chemicals that affect the quality of life and overall cleanliness of water. Commonly measured indicators include: pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, salinity, total dissolved solids, nitrites, phosphates, and temperature. Test kits generally include a guide to what levels are considered poor to excellent.

Biological – The ultimate measure of a stream’s health is its ability to support life and the hallmark of a healthy stream is a diverse and abundant biotic community. The more diversity there is in a stream, the healthier it is. As we get closer and take a look at individual species we can learn even more. Many ecologists study benthic macroinvertebrates (bottom dwelling water insects). Certain species of benthic macroinvertebrates have strict requirements for what chemicals and conditions they can and cannot tolerate. By carefully flipping over rocks and identifying who does and does not live underneath, it is possible to get a good measure of not only the diversity of the community, but also the chemical and physical quality of the stream environment over time.

Assignment 3a.

When possible, find and visit a stream known to be in excellent condition so you have that example for comparison.

Assignment 3b.

The more time you spend with creeks, streams and rivers, the more you will be able to notice the different physical characteristics. It takes time to develop this awareness. Give yourself the time to get to know them. Don’t stress about not knowing enough quickly. Just look around with intention when you are out driving and walking and carrying out the rest of your life. See what you notice about streams.