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!


Field, Forest, & Stream: Stream Ecology

With our STEM Club, we recently undertook a three part ecology study I call, Field, Forest, & Stream.  We met at a local preserve with a fabulous outdoor classroom space and spent the day inundating ourselves in outdoor science. Today, I share with you the activities we enjoyed as a part of our stream ecology lesson. 

stream ecologyStream Ecology

Streams and their surrounding riparian areas provide essential habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife species. To maintain a healthy population of fish and wildlife, a habitat must provide food, water, cover from predators, breeding, nesting, and rearing areas, and protection from heat and cold.

Healthy riparian areas provide most or all of these elements for fish and wildlife species. “Riparian” means riverbank, and “riparian area” refers to the border of moist soils next to a body of water, and the plants that grown there. A small stream with steep banks could have a riparian area that is only a couple of feet wide, but a large lake in a broad valley could have one several hundred feet wide.

Stream Survey / Habitat Assessment

Many factors go into making up a riparian area that is healthy and meets the needs of a variety of species. The data we gathered as a part of our habitat assessment evaluates many of the key indicators of the condition of these important areas. Typically, an authentic riparian area habitat assessment evaluates eleven different parameters, we focused on just a few to simply gain field study experience.

stream data

Bottom Substrate

Substrate is the material that makes up the bottom of the stream. It can be a good indicator of land use activities and gradient upstream. It determines what types of macro invertebrates can live there and the suitability of the site for fish and spawning. A diversity of types and sizes of materials is considered to be better habitat than just fine materials such as silt and sand. The bottom substrate affects the characteristics of flow, the quality of the water, and the suitability of habitat for instream life.

Channel Shape

Channel shape can be an indicator of other forces at work in the steam and of conditions at other times of the year. Is the shape a natural product of stream forces, influenced by the actions of humans, or a combination of both?

Velocity of Current

Fast-flowing water is generally more turbulent than slow-moving water.  Turbulence is one factor that influences concentrations of dissolved oxygen.  Both fast and turbulent flow require different living strategies for organisms found in these reaches. To calculate the current velocity, we measured a 50ft distance along the shore. We then used a stopwatch to calculate the time it took an orange to float this distance. V=50ft/x sec.

Interested in undertaking this study yourself? Field, Forest, & Stream is part of the Life Logic: Ecology Explorations unit that I have developed for middle school students. What better way to learn about ecology than to get out there, collect data, and experience the physical factors that influence the animal and plant communities first hand.