Steward-shed Investigation



Class Periods




Subject Areas

Science, Math, Social Studies


To launch the Steward-shed Investigation, students examine NYC elevation maps to help them build a paper model of a neighborhood-as-watershed.  Meanwhile, students engage with the neighborhood map and propose a smaller part of it they would like to steward.  The teacher synthesizes student proposals to define a class steward-shed.  Students then predict how rain water and pollution travel over land from their steward-shed into nearby waterbodies.


  • Characterize the elevation or topography of a neighborhood that is significant to them -- probably the school neighborhood or the ORS neighborhood.

  • Model that topography with simple materials, and identify some strengths and weaknesses of the model.

  • Become familiar with the neighborhood map, and how it relates to students’ life experiences in the neighborhood.

  • Identify a smaller part of the neighborhood that students would like to steward -- i.e. the class steward-shed.

Materials and Resources


    • Small post-it notes

    • Colorful index cards or other sturdy cardstock

    • Tape

    • Washable markers, plus any markers or good colored pencils in red, green, orange, and blue -- one set for each group.

    • Highlighters or yellow markers.

    • Spray Bottles

    • Water

    • Eyedroppers

    • Cardboard or aluminum tray

    • Several pieces of paper (newspaper or scrap paper)

    • Tape

    • Plastic wrap

    • Small model pieces to represent buildings, cars, trees, etc. (optional)

    • Some colorful material that will run when it’s wet.  You can use washable markers and spray the paper, or you can cover the paper with plastic wrap (as in photos below), and use almost anything.  In the photos, we used soy sauce.

    Before you get started

    Tips for Teachers

    • BOP’s lesson “Watersheds Part 1 - Where Does the Rain Go?” is a good introduction to the idea of watersheds, and would work well prior to this one.

    • ArcGIS USA Topo Maps features detailed topographic maps of the United States at multiple scales, made by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a government science agency that is charged with mapping the landscape of the US and studying its resources.

      • The USGS produced printed paper versions of topographic maps until 2006, dividing the country into quadrants.  This digital map blends together all of these individual maps.  

      • The date on each individual map can vary, and you can assume that all of these maps are from 2006 or earlier.  The topography is likely still accurate, but named places on the map may have changed (for example, the US Coast Guard station on Governors Island, part of which is now BOP headquarters!).  Some of these maps may have been originally drawn in the 1960s, with small updates over time.

    • The USGS Historical Map Collection has a wonderful tool on their site called “topoView”.  You can check topographic maps that in some cases date back to the 1800s!  

      • Be aware: some maps use language that may impact you and your students profoundly.  For example, older maps of Jamaica Bay include a prominently-labeled place called “Nigger Point”.  Make sure you look at these maps carefully before giving them to your students, and think ahead about how you want to talk with them about what they will find there.


    • Get very familiar with the neighborhood, as detailed below.  The following resources are especially helpful:

      • Oasis -- you can find more details about this resource in “Our Steward-shed” Library of Resources

        • For this lesson, it’s especially worth looking at Oasis and clicking “Hide All” for all the layers, because then you can see topographic shading at a level of precision we haven’t found anywhere else.  

        • Oasis has nine levels of zoom, and this topographic shading is only visible for the five most zoomed-out views.  It can look fairly subtle, but once you’ve studied some of the other topographic / elevation maps and have an idea of what to look for, this shading becomes intuitive and very useful.  Here’s an example from Canarsie:

          • If this prints well for your neighborhood, you may want to use this as the basis for the whole lesson.  Below you will see examples based on a Google map printout, which can also work but requires your students to make a bigger conceptual leap.

      • Depending on your neighborhood, you may be able to read the local topographic map from ArcGIS.  For example, this topo view of Sunset Park and Greenwood Cemetery is rich and legible.  But in flatter areas, such as Canarsie, light brown contour lines on a dark pink background are basically illegible.  Pan around and find your neighborhood to see if you can use this in-depth resource.

      • Google maps, including satellite view, street view, etc.

      • Book: The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn, edited by Kenneth T. Jackson and John B. Manbeck.  Includes a 4-5 page summary of the history of every neighborhood in Brooklyn.

      • Book: The Neighborhoods of Queens, edited by Claudia Gryvatz Copquin and Kenneth T. Jackson. Includes a 4-5 page summary of the history of every neighborhood in Queens.

      • Book: Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan, by Phillip Lopate Written in 2004, this book describes some of the interesting sites and wonders of Manhattan’s waterfront.

    • Before teaching the “Engage” section, prepare a map on which you define the boundaries of a neighborhood that is easy for your class to get to several times throughout the Steward-shed Investigation.  Your students will help you narrow down this area later in the lesson, but they need a common starting point.  

      • For example, if your school is in Canarsie -- or perhaps if your ORS is at Sebago Canoe Club, and you visit the ORS frequently -- the Google Map of the neighborhood of Canarsie might be a reasonable starting point:  

    • If you think your students know this area very well and can discuss it from the map, you could leave it at that.  But if you think your students might need more prompting, prepare a series of photographs and artifacts (e.g. restaurant menus, supermarket flyers, religious service schedules, etc.) from the area.  During the lesson, students will use these images and artifacts as anchor-points, to help them understand and relate to the map.

    • Before teaching the “Explore” section, decide whether you want to teach your students to read topographic maps.  If so, allocate extra time for that learning process.

    • Before teaching the “Explain” section, prepare a set of area-limiting cutouts. These are paper cut-outs (one for each group) that represents a reasonable area for the class’ Steward-shed.  (It’s best to use colorful index cards or other sturdy cardstock.) This is the tool that students will use to identify a smaller area within the neighborhood that they care about and want to study in depth.  Coordinate the size of your cutouts with the scale of the map you are handing out, and choose an area-size that allows for:

      • some topography (slope) -- i.e. not completely flat like just a fixed pier

      • a range of different land uses -- so there are obviously permeable and impermeable surfaces, and there are obvious sources of pollution like cars or dumpsters

      • students to visit most of the area within a few field experiences

    Here’s a Canarsie example of what two cutouts might look like after students place them on top of a neighborhood map with some of their notes on it:

    Those would make two very good, very different steward-shed investigations -- one with the train station, stores, library, and playground, and the other with the skate park, ORS, boats, and large park!  

    Instruction Plan


    1. Students have copies of a neighborhood map, with boundaries drawn in by the teacher (see “Preparation” section above for details), and post-it notes.

    2. (Optional: students view photographs and artifacts from the neighborhood, and locate those on their maps.)

    3. Students make note of places on the map that are part of their lives - places they’ve been, school, home, things they care about, etc.

      • It’s helpful for students to be able to write some things directly on the map, and identify other things with post-it notes -- whichever is easier.

    4. Students share experiences they’ve had in different locations on the map, how they move through and travel through the space, etc.

    5. In small groups, students combine their annotations onto one group map.

    6. As students begin to raise questions, begin keeping track of those questions.

    This would be a good time to break until the next class.


    1. Discuss the slides in Five views of NYC Elevations.

    2. (Optional: students get USGS topographical maps of the neighborhood from ArcGIS USA Topo Maps -- see “Preparation” for details.)

    3. Zoom in on the view of NYC elevation that seems most useful for your neighborhood, and center on your neighborhood.  

      • Students share observations, inferences, and questions.

      • Leave this up on the screen for students to consult.

    4. In small groups, students get fresh photocopies of the map of the neighborhood with the teacher’s boundaries drawn in (see “Preparation” above for detail).

      • Groups use the map on the screen to identify the major topographical features in the neighborhood.  

      • Ideally, students label those according to the color scheme used in elevation maps:  

        1. Red for the highest areas

        2. Green for the lowest areas

        3. Orange for in-between.

        4. Blue for the water (not shown in photo below)

      • Here’s a Canarsie example:

        A flat cut-out map with major topographical features/areas labeled, except water.

    This would be a good time to break until the next class.


    1. Using crumpled bits of scrap paper to hold up the higher-elevation parts of the neighborhood, students turn their labeled flat map into an approximate three-dimensional elevation model.

      • To hold its shape, the model must be taped down at its lowest points to something sturdy like a piece of cardboard or an aluminum tray.

        The same map, manipulated to look more like the 3D topography of the neighborhood.  Also the water is now colored in blue.

    2. (Optional: students place a layer of plastic wrap over their models, so they can spray water on them and still keep them around for a few days.)

    3. Students predict:  what will happen to the water that we spray on the model?

    4. Students check their predictions.

    5. Students select a colorful material that will run, and place it in a location of interest on the model.

      The same model, plus plastic wrap and carefully placed soy sauce

    6. Students predict:  what will happen to the colorful material when we spray water on the model?

    7. Students check their predictions.

      After one big spritz

      Many spritzes later… notice the diluted soy sauce in puddles in “Paedergat Basin” (to the left) and “Jamaica Bay” (in the foreground).  It’s easier to see in real life than in the photo.

    8. Students write:  based on these results, if we were to make another draft of this model, we would like to revise ______________________________________________________ because _________________________________________________________________.

    This would be a good time to break until the next class.


    1. In small groups, students get their annotated neighborhood maps, from the “Engage” section.”

    2. Groups get area-limiting cutouts (see “Preparation” for detail).

    3. Groups move the cutout around, discussing what they know about different parts of the neighborhood, and thinking about:

      • The neighborhood’s topography, and where the rain goes, and where the rain carries pollution with it into the water.

      • The places they care about most, for any reason, within the neighborhood.

    4. Each group arrives at a proposed “Steward-shed” within the neighborhood, and tapes down their cutout to illustrate their proposal.  

    5. On the back of the map, they write down why this seems like an important area to steward.

    6. Before the next class period, synthesize students’ suggestions into a class steward-shed area that:

      • Is small enough for students to cover most of the terrain over a few field expeditions

      • Includes some obvious sources of pollution, like cars

      • Includes some obvious variations in permeability -- basically, some area with plants and soil, and some area that’s paved

      • You will be taking your students to multiple times during this Investigation

      • Is defined in a way that makes geographic sense.  You don’t need to stick with a rectangle, and you can avoid nonsensical borders that cut through the middle of buildings, for example.

    7. Before the next class period, prepare a copy of the class steward-shed map for each group.

    This is an important time to break until the next class.


    1. Students have the class steward-shed outlined on a larger map.

    2. Students predict:  eventually the rain that falls on our steward-shed drains into a nearby body of water.  What body of water is that?  Where along the waterfront does rain that falls on our steward-shed enter that body of water?

      • On their maps, students highlight that portion of the waterfront.

    3. Students predict:  Does all of the rain that falls on our steward-shed move directly over land to that part of the waterfront?  Why or why not?


    Students use “Our Steward-shed” Library of Resources and The Bonus Guide to the Wonders of Your Steward-shed to investigate the history of their steward-shed.


    NGSS - Cross-Cutting Concepts

    • Cause and Effect

      • Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.
      • Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural systems.
    • Influence of Engineering, Technology, and Science on Society and the Natural World

      • All human activity draws on natural resources and has both short and long-term consequences, positive as well as negative, for the health of people and the natural environment.
      • The uses of technologies and any limitation on their use are driven by individual or societal needs, desires, and values; by the findings of scientific research; and by differences in such factors as climate, natural resources, and economic conditions. Thus technology use varies from region to region and over time.
    • Scale, Proportion, and Quantity

      • Time, space, and energy phenomena can be observed at various scales using models to study systems that are too large or too small.
    • Science Addresses Questions About the Natural and Material World

      • Scientific knowledge can describe the consequences of actions but does not necessarily prescribe the decisions that society takes
    • Structure and Function

      • Complex and microscopic structures and systems can be visualized, modeled, and used to describe how their function depends on the relationships among its parts, therefore complex natural structures/systems can be analyzed to determine how they function.
      • Structures can be designed to serve particular functions by taking into account properties of different materials, and how materials can be shaped and used.
      • Structures can be designed to serve particular functions.
    • Systems and System Models

      • Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions.
      • Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy and matter flows within systems.
      • Systems may interact with other systems; they may have sub-systems and be a part of larger complex systems.

    NGSS - Disciplinary Core Ideas

    • ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes

      • Water continually cycles among land, ocean, and atmosphere via transpiration, evaporation, condensation and crystallization, and precipitation, as well as downhill flows on land.
      • Water’s movements—both on the land and underground—cause weathering and erosion, which change the land’s surface features and create underground formations.
    • ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems

      • Human activities have significantly altered the biosphere, sometimes damaging or destroying natural habitats and causing the extinction of other species. But changes to Earth’s environments can have different impacts (negative and positive) for different living things.
    • ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems

      • The more precisely a design task’s criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful. Specification of constraints includes consideration of scientific principles and other relevant knowledge that are likely to limit possible solutions.
    • ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions

      • A solution needs to be tested, and then modified on the basis of the test results, in order to improve it.
    • ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution

      • Although one design may not perform the best across all tests, identifying the characteristics of the design that performed the best in each test can provide useful information for the redesign process - that is, some of the characteristics may be incorporated into the new design. (secondary)
      • Although one design may not perform the best across all tests, identifying the characteristics of the design that performed the best in each test can provide useful information for the redesign process—that is, some of those characteristics may be incorporated into the new design.
    • LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

      • Organisms, and populations of organisms, are dependent on their environmental interactions both with other living things and with nonliving factors.

    NGSS - Science and Engineering Practices

    • Asking Questions and Defining Problems

      • Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the classroom, outdoor environment, and museums and other public facilities with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on observations and scientific principles.
      • Define a design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process or system and includes multiple criteria and constraints, including scientific knowledge that may limit possible solutions.
    • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

      • Undertake a design project, engaging in the design cycle, to construct and/or implement a solution that meets specific design criteria and constraints.
    • Developing and Using Models

      • Develop a model to describe unobservable mechanisms
      • Develop a model to generate data to test ideas about designed systems, including those representing inputs and outputs.
      • Develop a model to predict and/or describe phenomena
    • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

      • Gather, read, and synthesize information from multiple appropriate sources and assess the credibility, accuracy, and possible bias of each publication and methods used, and describe how they are supported or not supported by evidence.

    NYC Science Scope & Sequence - Units

    • Grade 6, Unit 2

      • Weather and Atmosphere
    • Grade 6, Unit 4

      • Interdependence
    • Grade 7, Unit 1

      • Geology
    • Grade 8, Unit 4

      • Humans and the Environment: Needs and Tradeoffs