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A Tough Choice in Watershed Management

Author(s): Ann E Russell

Iowa State University

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In this Team-based activity, students work in teams, playing the role of natural resource managers who must decide in which region to invest limited funding for nutrient reduction in streams. Students base their decision on data analyses, other info.


Note: The “Ecological Content” and “What Students Do” is the same as in the original publication.


Organic nutrients, land cover, biological indicators, macroinvertebrate index, stream ecosystem structure and function


  • Explore maps of streams and land use in the US
  • Analyze national water quality data sets from the US Environmental Protection Agency at regional and national scales
  • Perform basic calculations from data set and generate graphs
  • Relate water quality with land use
  • Relate water quality with stream ecology


Adaptations for Inclusivity:

  • This activity will take place during Module 5 out of 6 in the course, so that students will have had lots of practice with using Excel spreadsheets, calculating basic statistics and interpreting data by that point. The idea is that students who did not enter the course with those skills will have had time to catch up.
  • This adaptation, i.e., the activity, can be used in a course that is set up in a Team-Based Learning (TBL) format in which students stay in the same teams for the whole semester. I use the CATME Team-Maker, a tool that allows the instructor to assign students to teams based on criteria that the instructor chooses ( In TBL, the goal is for each team of 5-7 members to encompass a range of skills, e.g., writing, software, type of thinking (big picture or detail-oriented). The criteria can also include gender and race/ethnicity. As such, instructors can set teams up to be diverse, but also keep minority students from feeling isolated, i.e., having at least 2 per team. The team-based activities are designed to require multiple types of skills, with the goal that students realize that their differences serve as a strength when it comes to completing the activities successfully. They do the activities during class time, so they don't have to deal with arranging meeting times outside of class.  
  • Modification of Learning Goals: None


Teaching Notes

  • What did you change and why?

      This Team-based activity is aligned it with the 4 S’s of TBL activities (Michaelsen et al. 2004, Michaelsen and Sweet 2008). That is, for each activity we 1) focus on a Significant problem, 2) give each team the Same problem, 3) devise their response so that they have to choose among four Specific choices for a solution, and 4) all teams report their choice Simultaneously. The idea is to set things up so that there is not a single correct answer, so that not all teams will have the same specific choice. Because all students/teams will have worked on the same problem and it is a significant one, they become invested enough in their specific choice. After all teams report their choice simultaneously, we have a class-wide discussion in which students will hear other viewpoints and get to work on their speaking skills when they explain their team’s choice. 


  • How did the activity go?

     I won’t get to use this until November 2020.

  • What was the prep like?

           No significant prep, except to make a hard copy of the activity for each team.

  • How does this activity fit in your overall course curriculum?

          This activity will be done late in the course, after we have covered N cycling and aquatic ecology, and students have gained skills in using spreadsheets.

  • In what ways, if any, did you modify your teaching practice with this activity?

     No big modification

References Cited

  • Michaelsen, L.K., Knight, A.B. and Fink, L.D., 2004. Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching.
  • Michaelsen, L.K. and Sweet, M., 2008. The essential elements of team‐based learning. New directions for teaching and learning2008(116), pp.7-27.


This Team-based activity would replace the activity in the original publication, "Investigating Human Impacts on Stream Ecology: Locally and Nationally" by Nuding and Hampton (2012).

All of the instructions for the students are in the handout "Student Handout for Activity - A Tough Choice in Watershed Mgmt.docx" and an answer key, along with a schedule for conducting the activity are in "Student Handout Answer Key - A Tough Choice in Watershed Mgmt.docx" and "Schedule for Activity - A Tough Choice in Watershed Mgmt.docx."

This activity uses the original spreadsheets "students.xls" and "faculty.xls" and Supplements 1, 2, and 3.


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