#StayHomeSTEM: Exploring Salmon, Topography, and Watersheds

My small contribution to help parents and educators during the COVID-19 pandemic is providing #StayHomeSTEM blog posts full of ideas for at-home science learning, as well as helping to moderate the Facebook page, Supporting Temporary Homeschoolers Everywhere. Today’s activities relate to learning about salmon, topography, and watersheds and are appropriate for elementary aged kids.

These topics are particularly relevant to Pacific Northwest students. Here in the Seattle area, many students participate in the Salmon in the Schools program where they help to raise salmon from eggs in large tanks in their schools, and then release the fry in the late spring in a local waterway. Salmon are part of the cultural identity of indigenous people of the PNW, a healthy component of our diet, and a contributor to region’s economy and recreation industries. Fisherman’s Terminal is near my home, where Alaskan-bound salmon fishing and crabbing boats spend their time off-season.

In first grade, my daughter participated in the Salmon in the Schools program at her school, so she already had a solid foundation in understanding the salmon life cycle, their habitat needs, and some of the threats to survival they face throughout their journey from natal freshwater stream to saltwater and back again to spawn. During this time of at-home learning, I looked for ways to connect her everyday expertise about salmon with her school science unit on Changing Landforms (Amplify Science 2nd grade curriculum unit).

First, we participated in the annual Survive the Sound game, an online experience in which you choose a fish avatar and track its four-day journey as it migrates from its natal river (ours were the Nisqually and Duwamish Rivers) to the Puget Sound. By tracking the progress of our salmon (hers and mine both died), we learned about data collection, wildlife tracking, map reading, and the perils faced by salmonids.

Next, we learned about watersheds by first studying topography of our local area, developing an understanding of how to read (and make) topographical maps, and exploring how topography defines watershed boundaries. These activities are described below.


Activity One: Topography and Map Reading

First, we explored a 3D topographical map of our local region, tracing our fingers over the tall mountains and deep river valleys. We traced our fingers from the glacial headwaters of a river to its mouth where it spilled into the Puget Sound, learning new terms like “tributary” and “estuary.” We noticed that little brown lines indicated the elevation of features on the map. We looked at the map’s legend to help us understand all the different symbols on the map, including a symbol for mudflats and estuaries.

Using activities from Salmon Stewards: Bringing Salmon & Watersheds Into Your Classroom, a curriculum that I co-authored for Pacific Science Center, we made our own topographical maps using two fun activities: Knuckle Topo Maps and Clay Topo Mountains.





Knuckle Topo Maps: 1 water-soluble marker  

For Knuckle Topo Maps, we held one of our hands in a fist-shape to form a mountain range with four tall peaks (the knuckles) and three deep river valleys (the space between the fingers). We used a water-soluble marker to draw little circles, starting at the top of each peak (knuckle), drawing the concentric circles so that they stayed at roughly the same elevation. When we opened our fists and flattened out hands, we had topographical maps of the mountain range! This helped my daughter understand how a topo map is a flat, 2D representation or model of a 3D world, and how the elevation lines provide information on the height or depth of the features on the map.





Clay Topo Mountain: Clay or play-dough, dental floss or string, paper, pen or pencil  

Next, we made a topo map in a different way by building a small mountain out of play-dough. We then stuck a pencil (or straw) through our mountain in two pieces, all the way to the table. (This is important, as it will help us to later correctly line up the pieces of our mountain). Then, using dental floss, we carefully cut the mountain into vertical slices. Next, we took a piece of paper and used a pen to trace each slice on the paper, starting with the largest slice (from the bottom of the mountain) and ending with the smallest slice (from the mountain’s peak). We used the holes left by pushing the pencil through the mountain to make sure we were lining up the slices in the correct orientation. After tracing the last slice, we could see that we had made a 2D topographical map of our mountain. We talked about elevation lines and learned how to check a map to see the distance between the contour lines and the elevation of mountain peaks. We also returned to our real topo map to explore how the shape of the lines can indicate valleys and ridges.



Activity Two: Topography Defines Watershed Boundaries

Our second set of activities focused on understanding how a region’s topography defines the boundaries of watersheds, and how smaller watersheds make up larger watersheds. We did two different versions of making and exploring wax paper watersheds.

Wax Paper Watershed, Version 1: 1 sheet of wax paper, tray or plate, cup of water, food coloring, pipette/dropper, permanent marker 

We created a simple model of a watershed to explore how water moves through areas of different topography. First, we took a sheet of wax paper and drew four X’s around the sheet, using a permanent marker. Then the fun part…crumple up the paper! Unfold it a bit until it resembles a model of a landscape, with tall mountains, ridges, and deep valleys. Set the wax paper on a tray or plate, as this is going to get messy. Mix a few drops of food coloring (blue if you have it) into the cup of water. Then, imagine that you are going to dribble water (representing precipitation in the form of rain) on each of the X’s. Predict where the water will likely travel. You can trace the predicted pathways with your finger, or like we did, draw a line using your permanent marker. Then, explore what happens when you drip water onto each X. Where does the water travel? What pathway(s) does it take and why? Where does the water collect? Consider how the model represents a real landscape. Where are the mountain peaks, rivers, alpine lakes, lowland lakes, and larger sounds or oceans forming? You can also use a spray bottle filled with water to spritz the wax paper to further explore how water moves, drains, and collects in the watershed model.

Note: It is important to talk about how water actually moves through a watershed. If your child doesn’t yet know the water cycle, this is a great time to introduce it. It is important for children to understand conceptually that unlike the wax paper model, water does not just run across the surface of the ground straight into a river, but rather is absorbed into the soil and taken up by plants; it charges groundwater and aquifers, and feeds into rivers in a more complicated system than what is shown by our model.


Wax Paper Watershed, Version 2: 1 sheet of wax paper, tray or plate, water-based markers in different colors, spray bottle with water

Next, we explored how topography creates the borders to a watershed. We took a new piece of wax paper, crumpled it, and unfolded it slightly, sitting it on a tray. Then we used different colors of water-soluble markers to draw along the peaks and ridges of the different high mountains on the wax paper model, each mountain/ridge lines with a different color. Then, make it rain! Spray the water bottle using the mist function to make it rain all over the wax paper, saturating it so that the water begins to run and pool across the landscape. You will see different watersheds form by color: a red watershed, a blue watershed, a green watershed, and so on. Discuss what it is about the topography of the area that makes each watershed form, and point out how smaller watersheds actually make up larger watersheds (or drainage systems) that all drain into a larger body of water.


Activity Three: Watershed Diagrams

Watershed Diagrams/Maps: Paper, markers/crayons/colored pencils 

Pulling together what we had learned, we drew diagrams/maps of a fictional watershed. We tried to incorporate important concepts related to topography and watersheds in our maps. While drawing our maps, we decided to add cities and towns, and talked about why people would want to live in our imaginary watershed and what impacts they may make to the environment. If your child needs more scaffolding, you might consider creating a word bank of relevant science terms, such as: watershed, river, stream, lake, estuary, ocean, headwaters, mouth, glacier, mountain, peak, elevation, etc.


Additional Resources for #StayHomeSTEM Learning:

  • Pacific Science Center just released today Curiosity at Home resources focused on watersheds! From PSC: Watch and experience We All Live Downstream, then see how water gets from mountains to streams. Create a paper watershed model and explore how water interacts with the land in Watershed Exploration. How do beaches change over time? Make a model of a beach and see what effect waves have in Beach Erosion. Watch Rock Flower Garden with your little learner and use different shaped and colored rocks to make a garden.
  • Salmon in the Schools offers many lesson plans, activities and videos for young children, elementary students, and secondary students.
  • The Burke From Home program of the University of Washington’s Burke Museum offers weekly curriculum packets for at-home learning for elementary aged kids. Their Fish Packet has some great activities introducing the salmon life cycle and the perils of migration through the watershed.
  • Survive the Sound offers activities, games, community action projects, and more, including Salmon 101 information. Just scroll to the bottom of their Classroom web page.


Today is the 40th anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ eruption. Next up for #StayHomeSTEM, I’ll be sharing some resources for learning about volcanoes in general, and this incredible historical and geological event in particular.

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