Aquatic Science Studies: 10 Activities for Teens

Aquatic science – the study of wetlands, freshwater and marine systems – can be a little intimidating. With adult supervision and clear boundaries and expectations outlined in advance, taking time to explore these diverse habitats can be very rewarding. The focus of my post today is on aquatic systems – estuaries, ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers.

image of the Sundial Bridge in Redding, California with text overlay Aquatic Science Studies: 10 Activities for Teens @EvaVarga.net

Physical Factors of Aquatic Systems

Abiotic factors are components of a natural environment that are not alive. In other words, abiotic factors are the physical or chemical parts of the environment that affect the organisms in that environment. For aquatic ecosystems, these factors include light levelswater flow ratetemperaturedissolved oxygenacidity (pH), salinity, and depth.

Upper elementary and middle school students are capable of exploring how each of these abiotic factors affect the environment. If you are just getting started, I encourage you to begin with a small pond. Here, children can enjoy the freedom to explore safely while also focusing their attention on specific learning goals – observations and data collection.

The most distinctive area of an aquatic system is likely the riparian zone. Acting as buffers between upland areas and open water, riparian zones help filter pollutants such as nutrients and sediment. Healthy riparian vegetation helps to reduce stream bank erosion and maintain a stable stream channel. Vegetation also provides shade, which works to lower water temperatures.

Conduct a riparian area survey with your students with my guide, The Many Parts of a Stream Bank. This half-day field excursion is a wonderful outdoor science experience for teens.

A few years ago, my STEM Club was immersed in a three part ecology unit, Field, Forest, & Stream. One of their favorite activities in this unit study was the stream survey – after all, we spent much of our time in the stream – the perfect way to cool off in the stifling heat of a Redding summer. Some of the physical factors we investigated were bottom substrate, channel shape, and the velocity of the current.

image of teen setting a crab trap at low tide

Flora & Fauna of Aquatic Systems

Move beyond the physical factors to explore the impact these abiotic factors have on the animals and plants that make their home in freshwater streams and rivers. Expand on your stream survey to include the flora (plants) and fauna (animals) of the riparian zone. Take it further by investing how biotic factors such as invasive species affect the native organisms.

Reach out to your local fish and wildlife agency or watershed associations to inquire about their outreach classes and internships. Many provide opportunities for youth to get involved in long-term projects.

For example, my daughter and I recently collaborated with an undergraduate looking at the effects of the invasive European green crab on our local estuaries. We spent the day collecting traps that had been set out the day before and in turn setting them out in new locations. We also collected data related to the abiotic and biotic factors:

  • What crab species are present?
  • What is the water temperature? air temperature?
  • What is the time of day and location?
  • Of the non-natives collected, what is the size and sex distribution?

Design a simple lab experiment to explore how environmental changes affect aquatic organisms. I’ve outlined the procedure in my post, Environmental Science: How Species Respond to Environmental Changes.

Inquiry based science projects like these allow students the opportunity to become the scientist themselves – using the tools and resources of real scientists. For more ideas, here are 100 Science Fair Projects.

Beavers are the largest rodents in North America, and they spend most of their time in the water. Nature’s engineer, the industrious beaver is often cited as an example of a keystone species because through its dam-building behaviors it has major influences on both the vegetation of an area and the water table.

Initiated by the fur trade, the consequences of losing beavers has had a profound impact on our ecology: streams eroded, wetlands dried up, and species from salmon to swans have lost vital habitat. A fabulous non-fiction book for adults and advanced students is Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They MatterThe author outlines the strategies undertaken by scientists, ranchers, and passionate citizens who recognize that ecosystems with beavers are far healthier, for humans and non-humans alike, than those without them.

Do you have beavers in your local area? What about the past? How has the range of beavers (or another animal) changed over the years? What impact does its absence or presence have on the ecosystem?

For younger readers, consider Salmon Stream by Carol Reed-Jones. The illustrations and text blend well together to give a great sense of the ecosystem and watershed. Written in cumulative verse, the author has created a book that is enjoyable for students and a valuable teaching resource. Awarded the CBC/NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book, it provides an accurate description of the life cycle of salmon – from their form as eggs in a stream to the wide ocean, eventually making a hazardous journey home to their stream of origin. At the back is a section on salmon facts and what makes a good habitat for them, teaching the basics of ecology and why clean streams and waters are so important.

To accompany this book, I created a printable you can download FREE to illustrate the life-cycle of salmon.

simple graphic image of green grass on white background with text Nature Book ClubWelcome to the Nature Book Club Monthly Link Up. Devoted to connecting children to nature, the monthly link up will begin on the 20th day of each month. We welcome your nature book and activity related links. Read on for more details.

See all the great posts from The Nature Book Club’s co-hosts in August

The Nature Book Club is brought to you by these nature loving bloggers which are your co-hosts. Are you following them? If you don’t want to miss anything, be sure to follow each one.

Seasonal Pond Study and Printables from Barbara at Handbook of Nature Study
Sensory Bin and Observation Notebooking Page from Jenny at Faith & Good Works
Pond Life Printable Pack from Emily at Table Life Blog
Aquatic Science Studies: 10 Activities for Teens from Eva at Eva Varga
Above and Below a Pond Unit Study and Lapbook from Tina at Tina’s Dynamic Homeschool Plus
Online Book Study about water cycle from Dachelle at Hide the Chocolate
STEAM Challenge – Does Water Ever Flow Up? from Erika at The Playful Scholar
Who Was?® What Was?® Where Is?® Book Series: Where is the Mississippi River? from Sharla at Minnesota Country Girl
River Exploration and Frog Catching from Thaleia at Something 2 Offer

Party Rules

Choose an engaging nature book, do a craft or activity, and add your post to our monthly link up.
The link up party goes live at 9:00 a.m. EST on the 20th of each month and stays open until 11:59 p.m. EST on the last day of the month. Hurry to add your links!
You can link up to 3 posts. Please do not link up advertising posts, advertise other link up parties, your store, or non-related blog posts. They will be removed.
By linking up with us, you agree for us to share your images and give you credit of course if we feature your posts.That’s it.

Let’s party!


Outdoor Pond Studies: Getting Started with Aquatic Sciences

Aquatic sciences include the study of wetlands, freshwater and marine aquatic systems, and their boundaries. Though we had a particularly dry winter, March has brought the rains – Yippee!  We took advantage of the blue skies one morning to do a little aquatic science of our own and explore the vernal ponds.

Vernal ponds or ephemeral pools, are temporary pools of water that provide habitat for distinctive plants and animals. They are considered to be a distinctive type of wetland usually devoid of fish, which thereby allow the safe development of juvenile amphibian and insect species.

pond studies

Pond Studies – Let’s Get Wet

The kids were very excited to explore this ecosystem.  Upon arrival, they dropped their journals and immediately waded into the water in search of critters.  The dominant organism observed was without a doubt the tadpole.  All the kids exclaimed that they wanted to bring home a few tadpoles and fortunately I brought along containers for each family.

The kids enjoyed the freedom to explore for about an hour.  We then gathered our collection tubs together to take a closer look at what we found.  I had hand lenses and a microscope on hand for those who wanted to observe the critters in more detail.  I loved that my kiddos pulled out their journals and began to illustrate what most interested them.

In addition to the tadpoles, we also observed several aquatic insects:  backswimmer larvae, mosquito larvae, water striders, and water boatman. We are looking forward to observing our catch more closely at home when there are fewer distractions.  Setting up an aquarium at home provides us with the opportunity to observe the critters more closely and thereby further our pond studies at home.

Looking for aquatic critters has always been one of our favorite activities when the weather warms.  Take a peak at one of our earlier excursions, Aquatic Critters: Summer Nature Study, and download a free dichotomous key to aquatic insects.

pond study printablesTake it Further – Inquiry Science

Upon visiting a pond, collect critter samples to bring home for an aquarium for closer observations over time. Use pond water to fill your aquarium, not tap water, because it contains the microorganisms plankton eat.  Any tap water added to account for evaporation should be first left uncovered overnight to allow the chlorine to vaporize.

I’ve created a free printable you may wish to use to record your observations: Download the Pond Studies Printable here.

** Remember that backswimmers and giant water bugs bite with a stinging effect and large dragonfly nymphs may also bite.

How would you set up an experiment to answer these experimental questions? Make a list of needed materials and write down a hypothesis before you begin.

  • If given a choice between open water and water filled with submerged plants, which animals choose the open water?
  • Do more prey survive when plants are present?
  • Will predators eat less of one particular type of prey if other prey are present as well?
  • Do pond animals have any preference between light and dark?
  • Does darkness affect the ability of the predators to catch the prey?
  • Where will algae and snails survive best, in the dark or in the light?

More Outdoor Learning Ideas

Ecology Explorations Curriculum For more ideas for ecology studies, Ecology Explorations is a wonderful collection of hands-on lessons and inquiry projects designed with the middle school student in mind.

Though it is a 10-week unit, you can pick and choose activities to according to interest or to tie into another curriculum study.

While exploring the pond, the kids will undoubtedly enjoy the squishing mud between their fingers and toes – I know I do! Combine playing in mud, and nature study with another hands-on science activity – making seed bombs with this tutorial from Dachelle.

Looking for more outdoor learning activities to inspire your children this season? Check out Rachel’s compilation of 24 Outdoor Learning Ideas.

Aquatic Critters :: Summer Nature Study

We’ve been going to Indian Mary near Grants Pass every 4th of July holiday for nearly 15 years now. Each year, I spend a little time picking up the rocks along the shore and investigating the invertebrates that cling to the rocks. The past couple of years, since we are now “homeschoolers” we have gotten a little more scientific about our search and bring along tools for collecting. I hadn’t previously considered documenting our findings until this year.

rogue7Searching for aquatic critters is one of our favorite summer activities. The kids spent hours along the river rubbing the rocks to see what critters might fall off into the dish pan. We then carried this back to the campsite where we could sit in comfort of the shade to observe our specimens more closely.

In past years, I’ve always seen a number of dragonfly, mayfly and stonefly nymphs. Planaria worms have also been prevalent.  This year however, I didn’t find a single planaria and instead found numerous midge larva and leaches!  Quite a surprise.

Additionally, we discovered many translucent little gel-like bubbles attached to the rocks as well as a couple of white tissue-like cocoon shapes (shown below).  I am not certain what these are, however.

We pack along a few reference materials with which to identify our discoveries and to learn more about each specimen. Click on this link, A Guide to Aquatic Insects, for a free excerpt from Science Logic: Ecology Explorations.  Using these references, the kiddos and I spend some time sketching and taking notes in our nature journals.

As I shared our discoveries with friends and family with whom we were camping, it was brought to my attention that a notice had been posted near the restrooms that a health concern regarding the portability of the water had been issued due to the water turbidity.  Turbidity is the cloudiness of a liquid caused by individual particles or suspended solids that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in. The measurement of turbidity is a key test of water quality.

Using another key test of water quality, I was delighted that we had determined this for ourselves!