Riparian Review

    Riparian Review

    PDF of This Lesson


    To observe and list biotic factors that affect a given ecosystem.


    In this lesson, students will identify and observe biotic factors in a riparian ecosystem (the green strip of vegetation alongside a waterbody); specifically they will count the types of vegetation at the water’s edge, measure percent ground cover and canopy cover, and observe the wildlife in the area.

    See discussion questions that provide some additional background information and some leading questions to help guide classroom discussions. 

    The lesson is designed in four parts:

    1. A classroom activity to familiarize students with riparian systems;
    2. a field activity where the students explore a riparian system, collect data and make observations about the riparian ecosystem (see tips on preparing for a water related activity to have a safe and meaningful experience);
    3. follow up STEM activities, data analysis and presentation of results;
    4. and watershed connections.

    Materials Needed:

    *Click here for information on purchasing equipment or supplies or creating your own equipment.  Contact USU Water Quality Extension ( or 435-797-2580) for information on borrowing equipment.

    Classroom Activity: 

    activity  1.  Define the term "riparian zone.The riparian   zone is the green ribbon of vegetation along a     stream, and incorporates the associated animals that live in or use this area. Talk about why these zones are important to the health of aquatic ecosystems. Discuss natural changes, and what humans do to alter the riparian zone.  See discussion question #3.

      2.  Ask the students to list all the biotic (living) factors they can think of in a riparian system (e.g., types of plants, specific plants, and animals).  Ask them how this community of plants and animals might be different from those found in a deep forest, in open range land, or in their backyards. How might they be similar? Learn about plant identification.

    3.  Explain to the students that they will be going out to a stream site to evaluate the structure and function of the riparian area. These functions include both the riparian vegetation and wildlife. They will also use techniques to observe or find evidence of animal activity.

    4.   Explain to the students what measurements they will be taking and why. 

    Greenline - they will record the type of vegetation that grows closest to the water’s edge. This is an indication of bank stability. See discussion question number 1 for more information.
    Ground Cover - they will measure types of ground cover in the riparian zone.
    Canopy Cover - they will measure the amount of shade the riparian plants provide.
    Wildlife Signs - they will identify animals and signs of animal activity.


    For background information on why it is important to take these measurements, click here.


     NOTE:  We strongly recommend reviewing the actual measuring procedures with the class before going into the field. The following links provide a photo tour of measuring greenline, ground cover, canopy cover, and wildlife signs.

    Prepare for Field Activity:

    Proper preparation, before entering the field, is important to class safety. Follow the links below for tips for thorough preparation.

    Field Activity:field activity

    1. Divide your students into groups of no more than six students.

    2. Assign each group with a measurement and provide them with the appropriate materials.

         1. Greenline Group supplies:

         2. Ground Cover Group supplies:

    field activity

         3. Canopy Cover Group supplies:

         4. Wildlife Signs Group supplies:


    3. Explain to the students that each group will take a different measurement and will share their data with each other back in the classroom. Review the sampling instructions for each particular measurement.

    4.  Have the students fill out the site observations section of the student worksheets and then begin their measurements. 

    5. Have the students record their results onto the student worksheets. You can choose to have one record keeper per group, or have each student record all the information. You may suggest to your students that they take turns conducting the measurements throughout the process.

    NOTE: If time allows, you can have each group do more than one measurement.

    STEM Activity:


    After sampling, it is beneficial for the students to visualize their data in order to understand the activity they have just completed.  Some helpful ways to assist students in a better understanding are: 

    1.  Use and create maps from your observations:

    • Use maps (paper or online) to identify the different areas that you observed.  What is different or similar about their locations?
    • Draw a map of the water body and riparian areas that you observed - e.g., width of riparian zone, areas with canopy cover, different types of plants.

    2.  Use your data to create graphs or other visuals and make comparisons.  You can view examples of some graphed data here.

    • Compare (graphically) different reaches of a river - e.g., a more developed area versus a pristine one, such as a city site versus the headwaters.
    • Compare different rivers (e.g. big rivers versus small streams).  How do the functions of riparian zones differ?

    3.  Have the student's enter their observations onto a national citizen science website.  The following sites record observations that people report from areas around them.

    4.  Discuss what the results mean.  (See the discussion questions for this exercise).

    Watershed Connections

    Watersheds are natural outdoor laboratories. Use the map below to find the watershed you teach in. Use the watershed connections in the Stream Side Science lessons to learn how you can use specific stream locations, local data sources, local contact and other information in your area to make the Stream Side Science experience more relevant to your students.   
    What watershed do you live in?
    If you live in Utah, the map below shows all of the watersheds that either drain into or out of Utah.
    OR go to Surf Your Watershed to locate you watershed anywhere in the U.S.

    Utah Watersheds


    Curriculum and Teacher Materials 

    Core Alignments by Grade:

    6th Grade:

    7th Grade:

    8th Grade:

    High School: