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Flood Science with Elementary Students

February 28, 2024 by Addie Hedges

A local after-school program, Wilder Arts, recently completed a class where they learned about the history of Montpelier, both geological and human. They created a replica of the city using multi-media materials and learning as they built.

When we joined the class for an afternoon, it was a blank slate depicting Montpelier before humans built in the valley. We discussed what happened when the area flooded 2,000 years ago. Their responses were quick: “Nothing!”, “It would be a lake!”, “The animals would have just left!”. 

Then we told them to build the town with Legos. What happens now? The kids put Lego structures throughout the floodplain. Our theoretical “flood” destroyed their Lego bridges, buildings, and other infrastructure. They were no strangers to the reality of flooding and its impact on poorly placed human development. They also quickly understood that a natural disaster is only a disaster when it impacts built infrastructure. 

With the understanding of flooding in their minds, we started thinking about why these extreme flood events happened over the summer and how we might have influenced them with our actions. We brought out potted plants with different levels of moisture in their soil. The students poured water into each and observed how the soil and plant itself reacted depending on how dry they were. 

They could see that wet soil can’t hold much more moisture, and the water floats on top. They also saw that dry soil wicks the moisture, causing runoff. These two extremes can influence how water flows and how much the land can hold. Both extremes can cause flooding, and this understanding gave the students peace of mind and helped them understand that a combination of factors is in play when a flood happens, not just one summer rainstorm. 

Then, we discussed how the flooding this past December was possible. We collected jars full of snow and had the students pour four additional cups of water into the jars. As water was poured in, the snow melted, and the jar was getting fuller. We then put four cups of water into an empty jar, and it was less than half way full. This showed the students that these rain on snow events lead to more water in the watershed and can raise our rivers, causing flooding. 

After these activities, it was time to go outside. We had the kids run across the yard as fast as they could- 3 seconds. Then, we set out cones so they had to zig-zag like a winding river. We told them to go as fast as they could around the cones, and when all of them got to the other side, we would stop the timer. With this obstacle course, it took 10 seconds. 

We asked them what each scenario was similar to in relation to our rivers. The first situation was like a channelized river, similar to what rivers look like in Vermont’s downtowns. The second was like a meandering river, one that has room to make turns across the landscape. 

We thought about how the water moves like a group of kids in each situation; straighter, narrower rivers are way faster and have much more energy than those that go around bends. 

Back inside, we asked the kids what other factors increase of decrease the speed of a river. We had teams of two hold tubes at different angles and send marbles down them. The marbles sent down from the higher angle reached the bottom the fastest. We concluded that straight, steeply angled streams are really fast! 

With all of these stream dynamics clear to the students, we showed them photos of rivers and asked how they’d redesign the places for healthier waters. They envisioned lawns converted to wildflowers, straight banks with restored bends and curves, and riverfront parking lots converted to “Just trees! Huge trees all along the river!”

Visit Kellogg-Hubbard library to view the sculpture these students created, as well as flood photos taken by a middle school Wilder Arts class.

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