Simulating a Watershed

Approximately 70 middle-school students from eastern and northern Maine worked with a University of Maine engineering professor and two UMaine students during the recent Northern Maine Children’s Water Festival, held at UMaine, to learn about how different factors can inhibit or promote water movement through the environment.

Shaleen Jain, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, UMaine graduate student Tim Baker and undergraduate Regina Smith guided students through a program called SimStream, which allows students to explore the relationships between a stream, its ecosystem and a neighboring city. The program was built using Scratch, a programming environment that was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory. Sam Foster, another UMaine undergraduate, has also been involved in the development of the SimStream program, which is called “Journey of a Droplet.”

The middle-school students explored the journey of water within the Scratch environment to create a working computer model. They manipulated the trees, slope, soil and a factory to analyze how different elements in an environment help or hinder the movement of water. In doing so, students learned about the principles that undergird water movement, and at the same time gained hands-on experience with computer-based programming and modeling.

The project is the educational and K-12 outreach component of a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award that Jain received in 2011. The five-year, $406,551 award helps support his research into developing models to understand the impact of climate change on freshwater resources and the role of water allocation in both ensuring reliable water supplies for communities and balancing the health of the ecosystem.

Travis Hall, a 2010 UMaine graduate who teaches science, social studies and math at Holbrook Middle School in Holden, Maine, brought his class of sixth-grade students to the festival, where they participated in the 35-minute SimStream demonstration.

“These kids link into computers well, so this is a phenomenal situation for them to use computers in a real-world sense,” says Hall, who majored in elementary education. “It takes these kids to places they can’t be. You can’t go stand on a hill and watch a factory absorb water. And I love the hands-on quality of this program. The kids are totally manipulating every factor.”