Part I: Exploring My Watershed Teacher Guide


Being Prepared

Students will enroll in your class using the class word before beginning Day 1. If you need assistance, use the tutorials located in the HELP section of the ITSI portal.

Before beginning Part I, students should have prior knowledge of the water cycle, including the terms evapotranspiration, runoff, infiltration, precipitation, evaporation, and condensation. Students should also have a background in point source and non-point source pollution.

Using MMW for Part I

  • Place the address of your school in the Search bar.
  • Select the HUC basin boundary in the drop-down menu for boundary type. Click on your school to identify your watershed boundaries. You may need to zoom in/out to view all of the businesses, land cover types (farm, turf grass, forest, etc.), and local waterways within your watershed boundary.
  • Click the satellite (Google Hybrid or ESRI World Imagery) image overlay.
  • Use the data from the land cover to analyze your watershed health.
  • Determine the effects the “neighbors” (businesses, golf courses, farms, houses, etc.) have on the local watershed. For instance, do they produce harmful runoff? Do they help to clean the water that is infiltrating, etc.?



Getting Started

The ITSI portal contains all materials needed for students to engage in this activity.


For this activity each student will need access to a computer or tablet. (If necessary, students can work in pairs. One student will log on to ITSI and “invite” the other student to join. This will create a group logon and each student will have their activity information filled in once they hit submit.)

You may want to print out Part 1: Exploring my Watershed from the ITSI portal. To do this, click the “print” button in the top right corner of the page. The activity includes a short article from Science and Children. You may want to print copies for students.

Suggested Timeline

The activity is designed to be completed in a 45-minute period.

Thinking about the Discovery Questions

The following are the big ideas that pertain to this activity:

  • What is a watershed?
    • A watershed is all of the land where rain drains to a single outlet. Watersheds are nested. Larger watersheds are made up of smaller ones. For example, the Mississippi River Watershed is made up of the Ohio River, the Missouri River and the Arkansas River watersheds, among others.
  • Do you live in a watershed?
    • Yes! Unless you live on a boat in the middle of the ocean, you live in a watershed.
  • How can you be a good watershed neighbor?
    • Water flows downhill. Whatever washes into the water is carried downstream. You can be affected by what happens upstream and what you do affects those who live downstream. You wouldn’t throw trash in your neighbor’s yards, so you should not throw pollution into the river that flows past your neighborhood.

Learning Objectives

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How do the actions of one neighbor impact all members of the watershed?

Driving Question: How can we be good watershed neighbors?

  1. Students will be able to identify and describe their watershed.
  2. Students will explain how the land that makes up a watershed is connected and how the actions of one member of a watershed impact all other members of the watershed.

Discussion: Setting the Stage

In this activity you will examine the following questions:

  • Q: What is topography?
    A: The physical features of the land, i.e., mountains, valleys, hills. Water takes the path of least resistance and will always run downhill.
  • Q: What is a watershed?
    A: A watershed is the land where all rain that falls there flows to the same stream or river.
  • Q: How are areas in a watershed connected?
    A: Because all of the rain that falls in a watershed drains into the network of streams and ends up at the mouth of the largest stream or river, everything that is on the land can wash into the stream or river. That means that what someone is doing upstream affects people who live downstream. (Upstream areas are at a higher elevation in the watershed and drain smaller areas. Downstream areas are lower in elevation in the watershed and any contaminants that flow down from the headwaters (upstream) can contaminate the water downstream.)
  • Q: What activities or land practices are happening upstream in your watershed and why does it matter?
    A: Ask the class whether there is agriculture upstream. If so, is it made of crops or pastures? Have them describe how this could affect the watershed (sediments, manure and fertilizer can wash into the streams causing algae blooms and muddy water). If there are areas with housing developments, ask them how they think this will affect the watershed (increased runoff that can cause flooding and erosion of stream channels).
  • Q: Is the schoolyard a good watershed neighbor?
    A: Ask the class whether there are impervious surfaces (paved areas) in the schoolyard. If so, how much of the schoolyard is paved? What is the outcome of this pavement? What about playing fields? What do they think that these will do? (Mowed fields are compacted and much less water infiltrates. Additionally, these areas are often fertilized, so the fertilizer washes into the stream and can cause algae blooms.)

Discussion: Formative Questions

Use the following questions during the activity with students or the whole class.

  • Q: Where else can water in the watershed go besides into streams and rivers?
    A: Water can runoff over the surface of the land, soak into the ground (infiltration), evaporate into the air or be taken up by plants and released into the air (transpiration). The term evapotranspiration is the combination of evaporation of water off surfaces and transpiration from plants.
  • Q: What areas in the schoolyard do you think cause the most runoff?
    A: Paved surfaces such as parking areas cause runoff of most of the water that falls on them. The remainder evaporates into the atmosphere. However, turf grass can also causes up to 50% of the water that falls on it to runoff. This is because mowing compacts the soil, making it more difficult for the water to soak in. How much of your schoolyard is turf grass compared to pavement? If your schoolyard has turf grass areas, it may be causing as much runoff from the grass as from the paved areas.
  • Q: What areas of the schoolyard do you think cause the least runoff?
    A: Unmowed areas can infiltrate more water, as can areas with trees and shrubs.
  • Q: What are wetlands and what do they do?
    A: Wetlands are low-lying areas that water flows into. A wetland can be a depression. The soil there is nearly always wet and plants that grow there are water-loving plants. Wetlands allow water to soak (infiltrate) into the ground, which replenishes the groundwater. They are an important part of the water cycle.
  • Q: Compared to the schoolyard, how does your own yard handle rain that falls on it?
    A: Ask students to describe their yards. Is their yard heavily paved? Remind them that the roof of their house also causes runoff. Their lawn also causes runoff (~50% of the rain). Ask them how much roof and driveway they have compared to the lawn area.

Discussion: Wrapping Up

  • Q: Before we started, how did you think your schoolyard affected the watershed?
    A: Ask students whether they thought that the schoolyard was a problem for the watershed. What do they think now?
  • Q: How do you think your yard or the area around where you live affects the watershed?
    A: Students should describe their neighborhood and decide if it is a good watershed neighbor and why. Students should focus on impervious and pervious surfaces (or other conservation practices like green roofs, etc.) and how these practices impact their watershed.
  • Q: What do wetlands do for the watershed? How?
    A: Students should describe how wetlands are low areas in the watershed that soak water into the ground rather than allowing water to run off overland into streams and rivers. Wetlands can decrease flooding and restore water to the water table (the water below ground from which plants draw their water).
  • Q: What is the most problematic part of the schoolyard? What is the best part for the watershed?
    A: Have the class make a list of areas in the schoolyard and rank them from best to worst.


Introduce a career in which the employee must be knowledgeable about water that students do not usually think of as related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). One career is provided in the activity. Additional careers can be found on

Water Resource Specialist- Water resource specialists often regulate drinking water quality, devise plans for emergencies, and implement safe water plans and procedures. These plans often include designing storm water systems that identify and build water resource improvements. Water resource specialists also conduct investigations on matters such as water storage, wastewater discharge, pollutants, permits, or other compliance and regulatory issues. Different types of watershed emergencies include flood water surges, chemical spills, droughts, etc.

Additional Background

All land is comprised of watersheds. Smaller watersheds are nested within larger ones. The largest watershed in the U.S. is the Mississippi River watershed. It is comprised of other large watersheds, such as the Ohio River and the Missouri River watersheds. Each of the smaller watersheds is also comprised of smaller ones, until you get down to “first order” watersheds, where the water drains off of nearby slopes into the stream channel. There are many more miles of first-order watersheds than there are of larger (higher order) watersheds.

State Specific Resources (More Coming Soon) - feel free to share!


IA: Water Rocks and Rock My Watershed game (; Polk County Conservation District, Enviroscape,

KS: Soil and Water Conservation Districts (Stream trailer or Paint tray)





Evaporation – when water turns from a liquid to a gas. That gas is water vapor, where the water molecules are suspended in the air. Warm air holds lots of water molecules, which is why it feels more humid in warm weather.

Evapotranspiration – the combination of evaporation of water off surfaces and transpiration from plants.

Infiltration – the process of water soaking into the ground.

Photosynthesis – the process that green plants use to make food from carbon dioxide they get from the atmosphere and water they get from the ground through their roots.

Pollution – chemicals, pathogens, and other harmful things that could have bad effects on people and other living things.

Runoff – water that does not soak into the ground but runs across the surface of the land into streams, rivers, lakes, or stormwater basins and sewers.

Topography – the physical features of the land (mountains, hills, valleys, etc.)

Transpiration – the process that plants do when they take up water to support photosynthesis, then release water back into the atmosphere through evaporation.

Watershed – all of the land where any rain that falls runs into the same stream, river, or lake. It includes the hills, valleys, towns, farms, and any other land, even rivers, lakes, and wetlands where the water goes.

Wetlands – low areas that water flows into and where the soil is almost always wet through most or all of the year. There may or may not be water visible at the surface.


Questions from the activity are provided with answers below.

  • Q: What did you learn about your schoolyard?
    A: Have students discuss which areas they felt were the most beneficial to the watershed and which were the most problematic.
  • Q: Can some of the problem areas be changed? If so, how would they change them?
    A: Have students rank problem areas by whether they can be eliminated or changed.
  • Q: What areas cannot be eliminated because they are too important to activities at the school?
    A: Have students list areas that cannot be eliminated. Keep this list because in a later lesson, they will learn how some surfaces can be made more watershed friendly.
  • Q: How does their yard and neighborhood compare to the schoolyard? Is it better or worse?
    A: Have students think about their own yard and compare it to the schoolyard. Also, ask them about areas in their neighborhood that they think are good for the watershed or bad for the watershed. Ask them to explain why they think they are good or bad. Keep this list so that students can suggest ways to improve them in later activities.
  • Q: Ask students if they know anyone they think is a watershed professional and what they do.
    A: This is a good place to introduce professions such as civil engineer (an engineer who modifies the land surface for development and remediation), hydrologist (someone who studies water in the landscape), geomorphologist (someone who studies the land surface, including how streams and rivers form the landscape), ichthyologist (someone who studies fish), and aquatic entomologist (someone who studies insect larvae to determine water quality).

Further Investigation

In completing the “at home activity” students will be taking pictures using their own device. If students do not have access to a camera, they can sketch pictures of the outside of their home or yard/neighborhood for use in their snapshot album.

The pictures must be saved to a computer prior to uploading to ITSI. To upload the pictures to the snapshot album on ITSI, students will need to click on the “Take a Snapshot” button.