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    What is RiverWatch?

    If you're a teacher considering a field ecology study for junior or senior high students, we've got a great idea for you!

    RiverWatch is a hands-on, get-your-feet-wet approach to ecology field studies. There is no better way for your students to learn and experience what a river is all about than by actually stepping off from shore and into a whole new environment!

    The innovative nature of RiverWatch was recognized through the 1997 Prime Minister's National Award for Teaching Excellence. RiverWatch will accomplish your curriculum objectives and provide a one-of-a-kind learning experience for your students.

    Imagine your classes studying environmental chemistry – not from a textbook, a video or even a bus – but while actually floating by raft to study sites along their nearest local river! The study of environmental chemistry is as close as the nearest river. RiverWatch provides an authentic and generative science experience that helps students answer the question, "How healthy is our river?"

    Mobile Chemistry Labs

    RiverWatch opens a whole new world to students. At each shoreline study site, students collect water quality data through the use of portable testing kits that measure key substances in the environment dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and pH.

    Chemistry Safety

    Even though RiverWatch is conducted outside of a traditional lab setting, all lab safety procedures are still followed. Students wear eye goggles while handling chemicals. Eyewash bottles and a first-aid kit are always on hand. No food or drink in the lab area. Garbage is picked up and all liquid wastes are collected for proper disposal.

    Chemical Change

    Students observe several signs that chemical reactions have occured.  Chemical reactions involve the formation of new compounds with a resulting change in color, temperature, solubility or gas formation. Color changes are witnessed during RiverWatch testing for pH, ammonia nitrogen, phosphates and dissolved oxygen; a precipitate is formed during the dissolved oxygen test.

    Acid Base Theory

    Students conduct an acid-base titration.  RiverWatch uses a wet chemical test for dissolved oxygen that involves an endpoint change from a yellow to a clear solution. Additional acid-base theory is discussed during the measurement and analysis of pH levels.

    Impact of Phosphates

    Students see first-hand that phosphate is both a limiting factor in the growth of plants and a pollutant. Without adequate phosphate, plants cannot process available nitrogen, however, with too much phosphate, plant and algal growth is accelerated. The resulting explosion of green growth eventually dies and decomposition by bacteria may reduce dissolved oxygen to levels that kill fish. Where does that extra phosphate originate?

    Engineering Technology

    RiverWatch provides all the expertise and equipment to float classes to study sites above and below a nutrient point-source such as a wastewater treatment outfall. Whenever possible, students participate in a walking tour through a water treatment facility to observe the latest in engineering technology before rafting downstream to measure the effectiveness of that technology.

    RiverWatch students learn the principles of freshwater ecology while raft floating to study sites along their nearest local river. RiverWatch provides an authentic and generative science experience that helps students answer the question, "How healthy is our river?" A day on the river addresses several curriculum topics.

    Water Use

    Each one of us uses a tremendous amount of water every day and even more during the summer growing season. Whether we consciously realize it or not, we use rivers each time we drink, eat, brush our teeth or flush the toilet. Our very bodies are composed of up to 80% river water!

    Water Cycle

    A day spent with RiverWatch increases student's understanding of the water cycle. Paddling a boat suddenly gives the glacial meltwater sources of a river more importance  is there enough water or too much water for rafting?  How much water should be in a river?

    Watershed Impact

    Watersheds are areas of land that eventually drain into one main river. We're all "downstream" users of water, and it becomes relevant to know what town or ranch used our water before us and who will receive our wastewater after us. RiverWatch tours conducted through wastewater treatment plants and the observation of storm water outfalls both serve to bring home our impact on watersheds.

    Erosion and Deposition

    Paddling a raft creates real student interest in current velocity and current direction. Other rafts pass you by if your boat is not in the main current, and you may even run aground on shallow gravel deposits and have to walk. "Catching an eddy"  a spin into a calm area along the shoreline  will cause a raft to stop.  Sufficient water depth for rafting is indicated by choppy waves, downstream "vee" channels, dark water or stone riprap reinforcing river banks against erosion on the outside of a bend. Measurements of increased turbidity (cloudy water) may also indicate higher rates of erosion.

    Flow Volumes and Velocity

    The flow volume of river has a marked effect on how fast any raft can travel. More volume equals more current and faster velocities. River currents travel to the outside of a bend and leave shallow water and gravel on the inside of the bend. It pays to stay focused on stream dynamics in the cutthroat world of raft racing! Miss the main current or run aground on a gravel bar and the quick and easy raft ride turns into walking or paddling!


    Ecosystems are networks of interactions that link living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) things. Sunlight energy flows through producers and consumers in interconnected food webs. Food webs utilize decomposer organisms to cycle nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Cold river ecosystems often have few aquatic plants and instead depend on falling leaves and flying insects as an energy source. RiverWatch students observe and record abiotic factors such as dissolved oxygen and biotic factors such invertebrate populations.


    Rivers and terrestrial ecosystems lie in close proximity to each other. Water quickly gives way to beaches, riparian areas, prairies or forest. The water's edge is an especially rich ecosystem in its own right called the riparian green zone. The great biodiversity of riparian areas makes for many wildlife viewing opportunities during a RiverWatch trip. Many species  like cottonwood trees or mayfly insects  exhibit amazing adaptations to their environments.

    Invertebrate Indicators

    RiverWatch uses the relative abundance of various invertebrate species as an indicator of environmental quality. Chemicals may wash through a river relatively quickly, but their effect will remain preserved in the numbers and types of invertebrate organisms that survive. In essence, the invertebrates function as bio-indicators of chemical concentrations. Whenever possible, students collect and identify aquatic invertebrates at study sites above and below a wastewater treatment plant outfall. Students can infer the water quality at a given sample site based on the diversity of the invertebrate life captured with a kick net. Fewer species and larger populations can be an indication of nutrient loading by a pollution source.

    Nutrient Loading

    Wastewater treatment and cattle waste have a profound effect on the health of a river. Without good wastewater treatment or cattle watering strategies, excessive amounts of phosphorus and ammonia can enter a river and result in increased plant and algal growth. Algae and aquatic plants growing in thick mats can be an indication of nutrient loading. RiverWatch students measure phosphorus and ammonia levels in addition to qualitative observations of plant and algal growth.

    The actual paperwork required for data collection out on the river amounts to just one sheet. The idea is to keep things simple  less to lose and less to get wet. No booklets  just one long sheet of paper.

    Everything Is Provided

    On the day of the field trip, RiverWatch will provide a carbon copy datasheet along with a clipboard and pen. Students don't have to bring any electronics, paper, binders or writing tools.

    One For You and One For Us

    The RiverWatch datasheets produce carbon copies. Teachers take the top white sheet back to school and RiverWatch keeps the bottom yellow copy. Each raft group will complete one datasheet. After the field study, RiverWatch staff use the datasheet to enter data on-line to this web site and teachers use their copy for further discussion and/or assignments back at school.

    Aquatic studies and river monitoring are done by students and volunteers across North America and around the world. However, RiverWatch is truly a one-of-a-kind program!

    Holistic Science

    RiverWatch is the first program in the world to take tens-of-thousands of students out rafting and learning on their local river! The result is more than just a collection of science facts RiverWatch creates a dynamic experience that appeals to the whole person such that students…

    • Experience the teamwork required to paddle a raft
    • Connect with science as a tool to answer questions
    • Become comfortable with the river environment

    A Growing Database

    RiverWatch is more than an isolated one-day field trip - it helps form a valuable picture of river health around the province, over the seasons and across the years.  Following a field study to collect physical, chemical and biological data, RiverWatch staff enter the findings into a growing database hosted on this website.

    Teacher Support

    RiverWatch is more than a one-day field trip  it's a field study program! RiverWatch provides all the necessary teacher support, including planning for the field study; pre-trip lessons that prepare students; expertise and equipment to conduct the highest quality field study; and a website to collect, display and analyze data after the field work.

    RiverWatch is a carefully planned and resource-rich science program that has operated in Alberta since 1995. Classroom resources are as close as a school computer and the field study comes to your nearest river by bus and trailer.

    Teacher Assistance

    The intent of RiverWatch is to provide teachers with all the support they require for quality river ecology studies in an enjoyable, safe and hassle-free environment. Participating teachers are assisted by a helpful RiverWatch staff that operate rafts outfitted with paddling gear and science equipment.  RiverWatch meets the needs of teachers who are, in turn, looking out for the needs of their students!  When it comes right down to it, teachers are our clients. If they're happy with the service provided to their students, they'll book RiverWatch for their classes in the following year. Here are a few of the things that RiverWatch does for teachers!

    RiverWatch provides pre-trip assistance

    RiverWatch provides helpful advice, experience and materials with each booking. There is extra work involved for teachers when they plan learning experiences outside of a classroom. RiverWatch assists with all the pre-trip paperwork, equipment arrangements and student preparations.

    River Watch takes the pressure off

    RiverWatch provides local, professional guides to "carry the ball" while teachers and their classes are out on the river. Gone is the requirement that teachers be a "jack-of-all-trades" and expert in chemistry, biology, fieldwork, trip safety, data collection and site selection.

    RiverWatch handles all the extra physical work

    With RiverWatch, teachers no longer have to borrow, repair, transport, clean and store equipment. At the end of the day, teachers and students board their bus, wave good-bye and leave the clean-up duties to our staff!

    RiverWatch supplements school equipment resources

    A fleet of fully equipped floating laboratories is made available to schools around the province. Each participating school no longer needs to purchase and maintain their own equipment. RiverWatch provides a central source for rafts, lifejackets, raincoats, chemistry kits and invertebrate nets.

    RiverWatch is available to all schools, regardless of size or location. We're able to send staff, equipment and rafts out to smaller rural centres that, by themselves, could not support a daily program.

    RiverWatch forms significant partnerships

    Partnerships formed with federal and provincial governments, corporations and community resources include funding for capital equipment, access to expertise and the use of facilities that are made available to each school in the RiverWatch Program.

    Local Professional Guides

    Teachers now work within an education system and a society characterized by increased litigation. In light of this trend, the traditional "generalist approach" to field trips can constitute a great deal of personal exposure and professional risk for classroom teachers.

    School jurisdictions are now applying a rigorous screening process or "filter" before approving field trips. Approval for some trips may be contingent on teachers engaging the services of local professional guides.

    The RiverWatch Science Program addresses school board field trip approval processes that require local professional guides.

    • RiverWatch guides are certified river instructors trained and knowledgeable in the use of raft and science equipment.
    • RiverWatch guides are well aware of navigation hazards, changing water levels, potential hazards, safe procedures and points of interest. These guides operate on the same stretch of river every day each fall and spring.
    • RiverWatch guides are trained in first-aid and carry emergency equipment such as first aid kits, rescue ropes and cell phones with
      two-way radio capabilities.
    • RiverWatch is fully insured for liability and equipment damage.
    Medical Model

    The service that RiverWatch provides to teachers can be likened to the medical model of a general practitioner, patient and medical specialist. The family doctor knows the patient best and over a long time period, however, the patient is referred to the specialist in situations requiring specific knowledge, more in-depth training or specialized equipment.  In the case of River Watch, teachers are in the role of general practitioners that refer their students into the care of local, professional guides for the best possible river ecology field trip.

    Real Science

    Over the course of a busy six-hour day, RiverWatch students learn the reasons for river monitoring and use the same chemical testing kits as professional researchers. RiverWatch is more than a science study  it's real science!

    Science is a tool

    RiverWatch demonstrates that each of us can understand science, become involved with science and then use science to help solve societal problems.

    Students collect relevant data

    RiverWatch collects data in an authentic manner through real-life experience. RiverWatch guides do not lecture on whether or not a river is healthy  students find this out for themselves.

    Students base their judgment of river health on scientific data they themselves collect, rather than on media stories, hearsay or just the color of the water.

    Intensive monitoring

    RiverWatch operates under an intensive monitoring schedule  not just once a year and not just from one river. Daily sampling from several rivers provides participating schools with a more in-depth look at how river health changes from day-to-day, season-to-season, year-to-year and even between watersheds around Alberta.

    Data analysis is empowering

    Both on and off the river, students are more than technicians collecting data  they are now researchers empowered to chart data, analyze trends and draw their own conclusions.

    A next-generation field study

    RiverWatch provides a seamless opportunity to infuse technology into an engaging and hands-on science program! The use of a website before and after a field study has now become the new standard for the next-generation of field science.

    Real Life

    A day on the river with RiverWatch provides active, first-hand experience with the science curriculum. Once back at school, textbook information makes more sense because it is grounded in real places, real experiences and real life.

    Rafting engages the whole student

    Professional-sized rafts serve as rubber buses to transport students between river monitoring sites. There are no by-standers in this program  everyone gets a paddle and everyone is part of a team. Once aboard and paddling as a team, everyone is off to a real life adventure!

    A great way to fully experience a river

    A river raft float trip is a great way view wildlife up close and see towns and cities from a whole new perspective. In the course of maneuvering their rafts, students learn to paddle with and against a river. This is not just a field trip  RiverWatch is a complete learning adventure!

    A continuous portrait of river health

    During land-based aquatic studies, students are not able to observe what happens along the length of a river between each study site. RiverWatch has forever changed the "one-stop, snapshot" type of field trip! Every use and change in the river is observed from the comfort of a floating classroom.

    A positive and emotional experience with issues

    A day of living and learning on a river involves students in issues surrounding science, technology, society and environment (STSE). Students observe ugly effluent pipes and tour smelly treatment plants and realize that these are all created to meet the demands of urban living.

    Interactive Website

    The RiverWatch website provides on-line data entry and on-line charting. This truly interactive website means that students are no longer just technicians merey collecting data. Students are now empowered through on-line charting to select and use data as they see fit.  Using on-line technology to assist with data collection, data manipulation and communicating findings will become a fundamental feature inherent in all "next-generation" field science.  The RiverWatch website is a seamless opportunity to infuse collaboration and technology into a science program! It's just the right thing to do!

    Mandated Use

    The use of information and communication technology (ICT) is now mandated in Alberta schools and teachers are very much interested in collaborative Internet projects. The most desirable Internet projects are those that engage students in the collection, analysis, comparison and use of original data.

    Locally Relevant Monitoring Site

    The RiverWatch website is target-specific for Alberta schools investigating Alberta rivers. This focus keeps the program simple, friendly and a manageable size. The website is a great telecommunications resource for classroom use within and between schools across central and southern Alberta.

    A Growing Database

    Each season, RiverWatch students generate tremendous volumes of data sheets. The website now provides a secure home for this data and makes it available to students in other schools in other years.


    The RiverWatch website has corrected many of the problems encountered with traditional ecology field trips. Ecology field trips are no longer isolated technique labs; they are now studies of environmental trends over space and time.

    Where students once could only get a small snapshot of river health, RiverWatch now makes it possible to collect information gathered at many sample sites over many days and many years. Information that was often not shared between classes, between years or between schools, is now accessible by all students through this collaborative medium.

    Valid Conclusions

    The RiverWatch website makes much more data available for students and allows them to draw more valid conclusions. Trends become more apparent with more data.

    Researchers vs. Technicians

    The RiverWatch website promotes the sharing of long-term information and contributes to higher levels of learning involving synthesis, analysis and hypothesizing. Students are no longer technicians just gathering data, but rather, they are now researchers that chart data, analyze data and draw conclusions.

    What They're Saying About RiverWatch!

    Over the years, we've either asked for feedback or people have spontaneously told us what they think about RiverWatch.

    As well, the RiverWatch Science Program has been reviewed in various teacher professional journals. The printed feedback has been great and we're obviously very proud of our report cards!

    Feedback Comments

    Here's a selection of feedback comments that we've received about RiverWatch from students, parents and teachers. We hope that you find them as inspirational as we do!

    • The River Watch Trip was a great idea and I'd love to do it again. Other students from other schools should go on this trip. It was awesome and extremely fun as well as very educational!
    • My son went on the river Watch trip last year and my daughter is looking forward to going this year. This is one of those trips where kids actually come back and have learned something as opposed to just being a day out of school.
    • Great program. Glad to hear that you're in business for yet another year! My students will talk forever about this trip. I couldn't do this in a classroom.
    • My students loved the River Watch Field Trip - we learned so much. This was probably the best experience I've ever had with students! Everything we learned was relevant.
    • It was good to be on the river instead of just talking about it. A great experience!
    • Every teacher and supervisor that has gone on the trip has only positive comments. Thanks a lot!
    • A truly terrific trip. What a lot of work you folks do to get this program organized. Great results. Thanks.
    • It was an incredible field trip. Everyone loved it. The students learned tons from it - it was really informative.
    • We're very pleased with the program. It's an excellent extension of the science curriculum and fulfills the academic requirements.
    • Without exception, students found this to be one of the best experiences they have had in science. The practical application of the curriculum was apparent to all.
    • It was a great day, very educational and interesting, and with such great feedback, we can't afford not to do it again.
    • This trip was so exciting for students - most haven't done anything even close to this type of adventure. They get right into it with their testing and the tour of the sewage treatment plant was great.
    • I'd like to let you know that the trip was awesome. It is definitely a project that should be continued on. I know our school will participate again. Thanks again for offering a terrific program for our students.
    • I have done this field trip three times now and each time it has been excellent for teachers and students. It is well organized and the guides are well informed, share great science information and are very enthusiastic.
    • Thank you for creating a fabulous field trip for my students. The curriculum fit was excellent, kids loved it and the guides were terrific educators. It was the highlight of the semester. We'll look forward to future trips on the river.
    • We loved the River Watch Trip and I speak for students and volunteers as well as myself as the teacher. Pre and post surveys revealed a major shift in attitude and understanding. This is the type of active learning that makes the most difference. Huge thanks!

    Please send us your own teacher feedback!

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    Curriculum Fit

    RiverWatch was designed by Alberta teachers for use in secondary classrooms around the province. RiverWatch is based on the very real need to take students outdoors for the best and most relevant ecology studies.

    RiverWatch assists with river ecology studies undertaken by 10,000 students each year across Alberta. The environmental data collected by these students is used in several Alberta secondary science courses, including Science 8, 9, 10, 20 and Biology 20.  

    Teachers don't have to "make a reach" to justify involvement with the RiverWatch Science Program. The Alberta Science curriculum and associated textbook resources were the starting inspiration for RiverWatch. The curriculum came first and was subsequently followed by the design of the field study to meet specific learner objectives.

    A Time Saver

    Many teachers have stated that - not only does RiverWatch match the curriculum very closely  it is the curriculum in their school and it saves a considerable amount of teaching time!

    Environmental Chemistry Unit

    The Science Nine "Environmental Chemistry Unit" has a social and environmental context that examines human-produced chemicals and their impact environments. That describes RiverWatch perfectly!

    STS and Knowledge Outcomes

    RiverWatch conveniently delivers several of the STS and Knowledge Outcomes for the Science Nine "Environmental Chemistry" Unit in the areas where students will:

    • describe and illustrate processes by which chemicals are introduced to the environment or their concentration is changed (e.g. dilution in streams)

    • describe and illustrate the use of biological monitoring as one method for determining environmental quality (e.g. assess water quality by observing the relative abundance of various vertebrate and invertebrate species)

    • comprehend and interpret information on the biological impacts of hazardous chemicals on local and global environments ( e.g. interpret evidence for environmental changes in the vicinity of a substance release)

    The existing Biology 20 curriculum will be around for some time to come! RiverWatch is, and remains, an excellent resource for Biology 20.

    A "Next Generation" Teaching Resource

    RiverWatch is meant to pioneer a next generation teacher-friendly and Internet-based resource for Biology 20. Teachers are now supported…

    • in the field with professional RiverWatch staff and all equipment
    • in the classroom with an interactive web site

    Curriculum Fit

    A RiverWatch field trip serves to highlight several of the major concepts for the units…

    • Energy and Matter Exchange in Ecosystems
    • The Biosphere

    RiverWatch is an especially good match for the "Skills" components where students are to demonstrate skills and thinking processes associated with the practice of science by:

    • performing a field study and measuring, quantitatively, appropriate abiotic factors, such as temperature, light intensity, pH, hardness and oxygen content in an aquatic ecosystem (Biology 20/Unit3/Concept 1/Skills)
    • performing a field study and gathering and analyzing both quantitative and qualitative data on the diversity of plant, animal and decomposer species in the ecosystem chosen; and presenting the data in a form that describes, in general terms, the biotic structure of the ecosystem chosen (Biology 20/Unit3/Concept 1/Skills)
    • analyzing data on the diversity of plants, animals and decomposers that make up the biotic component of a specific endangered ecosystem; and predicting the future outcome of that ecosystem (Biology 20/Unit 3/Concept 2/Skills)
    • predicting disruptions in nitrogen and phosphorous cycles caused by human activities (Biology 20/Unit 1/ Concept 2/Skills)

    The Alberta Science curriculum examines environmental issues through a focus on "Science, Technology, Society and the Environment" (STSE). RiverWatch is an excellent vehicle for raising awareness of real-world STSE issues.

    In Our Own Backyards

    The best environmental education doesn't always take people to pristine and protected parks. RiverWatch shows people the real world of human impact, waste management and engineering technology right in their own backyards.

    • Wastewater management is introduced through facility tours in a way that is fun, convenient and relevant.
    • Students observe effluent discharges from industrial, storm water and domestic sources.
    • Students float past a variety of land uses including industry, parks, roadways, railways, golf courses, residential areas, abandoned dumps and water treatment.

    Community Impact

    Municipal wastewater has been a large polluter of Alberta rivers for many years. Through RiverWatch, students are confronted first-hand by the impact of their own lifestyles. Rather than looking for environmental "bad guys", RiverWatch encourages communities to identify their collective impact and together, seek better environmental solutions.

    A 1999 Nationwide Science Assessment by Canadian Ministers of Education showed that Alberta students outperformed all of their peers across Canada! This successful showing by Alberta students has been partly attributed to the hands-on and active nature of science education in this province.

    Achievement Test Results

    Over the years of offering RiverWatch, we've had teachers tell us that their grade nine students scored 10-15% higher than average on Alberta Provincial Achievement Tests on questions related to "Environmental Quality". That's very good news!

    Involved Students

    Here at RiverWatch, we'd like to think that we've played a role in helping Alberta students become so successful in science! We're convinced that hands-on and relevant experiences in the real world help build a science program that engages students in meaningful inquiry. Involved students can go on to become successful students, sought-after employees, valued citizens and responsible stewards of the environment.


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