Lesson Plan

The Work of Water

A river surrounded by a forest

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes

Essential Question

How do water and rivers impact a landscape?


Students will be able to:
• Construct a river model and observe the role water, erosion, and
sedimentation can have in shaping the landscape.
• Describe how sedimentary rocks form.


This lesson plan is part of Work House, a Glacier National Park Science and Indian Education Program. It can be done as a stand alone lesson and activity or as part of the larger Work House Program.

This activity gives the students a hands-on experience with the way water excavates, transports, and deposits material. Be familiar with erosion and background information on rivers and rocks. View the instructional video which shows one version of how to make a river model of erosion and water flow. Perhaps a sand box or other outdoor version would work just as well. Could older students build something? There are also models available through science stores and local Conservation Districts. Decide which you will use and obtain the materials. You will need to identify a place for students to go outdoors to create/use the stream model. For the science extension, it will be necessary to obtain a Glacier raised relief map. (An excellent river dynamics digital student resource to consider obtaining in advance is the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes’ Explore the River Interactive DVD-limited copies vailable for free from CSKT for educators.)


  • Two class periods are necessary -one to construct the model and one to observe erosion and deposition. Additional time to let sediments settle to see layers. Can be multi-day with students doing exploratory play.
  • Trough-one can be built from 2’ x 10’s nailed together
  • Clay from a stream bank or recycled potters clay
  • Soil -garden or used potting soil
  • Sand
  • Small sized gravel from the schoolyard or aquarium gravel
  • Several ping pong ball-sized rocks of different shapes
  • A two-quart juice pitcher with a narrow spout
  • A transparent container to collect runoff materials
  • Optional: toy houses; Glacier raised relief map/eye dropper/ food coloring for extension activity


  1. Review with the Unit 2 Student Reading how stream erosion is one of the major agents shaping the topographical features in the environment. Be sure to relate the formation of the ancient sedimentary rocks comprising Glacier’s mountains to this activity.
  2. Take the students and materials outside and guide them in constructing a river model.
  3. Arrange the trough so that the lower end hangs over the transparent glass cake pan.
  4. Mold a bedrock base of clay in the bottom of the trough.
  5. Have students sprinkle layers of gravel, sand, and soil along the length of the trough making sure that there is a top layer of soil.
  6. Push rocks down into the soil near the center and along the course of the trough.
  7. As an added touch the students may want to place little twigs and pine trimmings along the course to represent trees.
  8. When the model is complete, slowly pour water (or trickle water from a hose) into the top center of the trough. Allow the water to percolate gently until it begins to make its own bed down the center of the trough. Rocks in the way will create meanders in the river bed. There is no need to overdo the water. When the cake pan is nearly full of water with its sediment load allow it to settle naturally.
  9. At this point you may wish to casually teach a little river nomenclature. Point out and discuss the source, the banks, tributaries, confluence, meanders, the course, delta, and the mouth of the river. Add any other vocabulary and information that you are comfortable with.
  10. Allow the contents of pan to sit for several hours or until the next day. Point out how the different materials have separated themselves into sedimentary layers.

Possible Extensions

Science Extension: Take the small Glacier relief map and locate Triple Divide Peak to the south of St. Mary Lake. Suppose that for some reason you needed to dispose of some water on top of Triple Divide Peak. Where would that water go? Use an eye dropper to deposit water on the map until it finds its way down the three drainages into the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean and into Hudson Bay.

Writing Extension: For a writing and research assignment you might invite the students to write a story about a trip in a canoe, or as a drop of water or a stick, that begins at the top of Triple Divide. Which drainage would you take? What would you see and what would happen along the way? Where would you finally end up?”

Field Trip Extension: 


Banks, confluence, course, delta, drainage, excavates, mouth of the river, meanders, river source, sediment, terracing, topographical features, transports, tributaries.

Assessment Materials

If possible, leave these materials out so that the students can continue to experiment with them. Practicing their vocabulary and naming formations. Finally, save this model for further activities with the unit on Glaciers and Glaciation.

Additional Resources

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Last updated: September 10, 2019