CASE STUDY: California's delta (1 of 3)

Print Lesson


Students will be able to 1) define a delta and 2) explain the key features of California's delta through the lens of environmental protection.

Big Idea

Scientists use geographic information systems to develop maps of important features of physical geography. How might we use the California delta as a case study of how maps can be arguments for stakeholders’ ideas about how to use the environment?

FRAME: Environmental justice and global competence

What is place?  This is the essential question of the unit that students have thus far attempted to answer through exploration of environmental bias, maps as arguments, and geographic information systems technology.  In this CASE STUDY, students expand their understanding of place. California's water supply, and the networks that distribute it throughout the state, are the backbone of hotly contested geography.  California is a place, but one that defies easy definition.  Is this place the natural world? Is this place defined by business interests? Does this place serve the needs of fish or people?

Environmental justice issues are fundamental to defining California as place.  Organisms utilize California as place for a broad range of purposes. These purposes result in competition and complicated definitions of place.  What, then, is place?  This CASE STUDY suggests that any definition of place aligns with the needs of stakeholders.  Competing stakeholder needs lead to competing definitions of place.

This CASE STUDY pushes students to consider a spectrum of stakeholder interests.  Students first develop an understanding of context.  What is a delta? What is California's delta? In acquiring this context, students engage with a GIS "map lab" that will support understanding of the environmental fragility of the delta system. Students then investigate this question from a historical perspective through the cartographic lens. What do the claims that historical maps of California's delta system indicate about the changing definitions of California's delta? What does the data chosen for these maps indicate about the needs of the stakeholders that produced them?  Next, students define stakeholder interests in the California delta and develop ideas about how these stakeholder interest smight influence the future of California's water supply. Finally, students will connect the dots and develop evidence-based arguments about how stakeholder interests define California as place. In developing these arguments, students will also consider how the maps that result from stakeholder interests might be used as tools for or against environmental justice in the California delta. 

Of special note, this curriculum mostly maintains a focus on local, community-based conservation approaches to the study of environmental science. However this CASE STUDY, like the earlier exploration of environmental justice, pushes students to consider a narrative about place that is not local.  California's water crisis represents a set of ideas, perspectives, human needs, and environmental concerns that are foreign.  California as CASE STUDY, then, is an opportunity for students to develop global competence. World Savvy defines global competence as "the disposition and capacity to understand and act on issues of global significance."  (See the resources for additional reading about global competence.) Environmental health is certainly such an issue. While students will spend most of this course acting locally, I want them to have a global perspective as well, especially with respect to how systems designed by humans affect the environment.  This combination of the local and global will continue to play out in the remaining units of this course as students "think globally, act locally.

In this first lesson of the CASE STUDY, students will develop a baseline understanding of deltas and then learn about California's delta system though a short reading assignment.  Students will the complete a GIS "map lab" as a deep dive into California's delta system.  By the end of this lesson, students should be able to define a delta, describe key features of California's delta system, and cite THREE specific examples of threatened areas of the California delta system.

By the end of this CASE STUDY sequence, successful students will have met the following objectives:

  1. define a delta
  2. explain the key features of California's delta through the lens of environmental protection
  3. describe how historical maps of California's delta reveal competing ideas about its purpose
  4. define a stakeholder
  5. articulate competing stakeholder needs in the California delta
  6. evaluate a proposed plan to address California's water crisis
  7. develop an argument about how maps can be tools of environmental justice or injustice depending on the information they contain.


  • The included prototype activity guide is a basic template that might be differentiated for a a group of diverse learners.
  • The attached PROFESSIONAL READINGS provide a framework for the concept of global competence.

FLIPPED: Delta features

What is the purpose of this FLIPPED activity?

BEFORE this lesson, students define a delta from a picture of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California. This is a picture of a delta.  Based on this picture, define the term "delta."  In your definition, include at least ONE characteristic of a delta that you can observe from the picture.  Students publishe responses through an online Edmodo discussion and the teacher formatively assesses students' nascent understanding of the term "delta." 

By the end of this activity, students should be able to define "delta" using information from the picture below.  Of course, definitions may contain errors; however, all definition should provide appropriate evidence from the picture.  An example might be: "A delta is when water from a river spread out like capillaries."


ENGAGE: Students frame the lesson

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity? 

Students develop a personalized frame for the CASE STUDY sequence; they also share ideas developed during the FLIPPED activity.  The teacher pushes the cognitive load of framing the lesson onto students and assesses students' ability to accurately paraphrase ideas. By the end of this activity, students will have paraphrased the big idea and framing question in language that they actually use, shared and revised their definition of "delta," and electronically submitted the url for their work through a Google form.

What will students do?

Students have three tasks to accomplish:

  • TASK 1: Paraphrase the big idea and focus question in the space below.  What is your current understanding of each.
  • TASK 2: Share your definition of "delta" with a partner.  What is the same? What is the different? What definition would you share with the class?
  • TASK 3: Share the url to your Google doc with Mr. Babauta using the submission form.

If time permits, students can share their definitions of "delta" with another group.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will assist students primarily with paraphrasing. Some questions to pose to students might include:

  • What do you think are the most important words and phrases in the big idea? 
  • Do you know what this word means? 
  • How would you explain the purpose of this lesson to your younger sister?
  • Can you translate this sentence into your own words?
  • Can you use an example of this idea from your own life?
  • Can you draw me a picture or diagram?

Because of the frequent student sharing protocols used in this course, by this lesson students are generally able to regulate the idea exchange about the definition of "delta."

The teacher might assist with electronic document submission. If students are not familiar with how to use an electronic form or how to find a url, the teacher should model this process with the whole group.


EXPLORE (SHALLOW DIVE): California's delta

20 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students refine their definitions of "delta" with information from a KQED produced clip and an excerpt from an Atlantic article.  Students additionally begin to consider how humans might be adversely affected by the delta.  Finally, students peer review each other through shared electronic documents.  By the end of this activity, students should have described the general features of a delta, identified particular features of California's delta system, given and received feedback about this work, and identified a problem the delta presents to humans.

What will students do?

Students work on two tasks and record information in the Google docs that they have shared with the teacher during the ENGAGE activity.  

TASK 1 (INDIVIDUAL AND GROUP): What is California’s delta? First, in your own words, describe the key features of a delta?  Why is the delta presented important to California? Use the clip as your "text." Once you have answered both questions, share your Google doc with a partner and peer review responses.  What do you agree with? What do you disagree with?

TASK 2 (INDIVIDUAL AND GROUP): First, read the first three paragraphs of American Aqueduct: The Great California Water Saga from the Atlantic and answer the following three questions:

  • What is the central claim that Alexis C. Madrigal, the author, makes?  
  • What evidence does he use for this claim?  
  • What type of map would you want to see to tests Alexis’ claim?

Next, as with the KQED clip, share your document with a partner and conduct peer review.

What will the teacher do?

Students will need the most help with providing appropriate feedback to peers.  "Great job" and "I agree" are not sufficient comments.  Student feedback must address the claims made and provide evidence for agreement or disagreement. I agree BECAUSE is the essential sentence starter.

Otherwise, students may also need support with some of the language of the Atlantic text. This article contains sophisticated language and complex sentences that may not be appropriate to all readers.  Teachers will want to develop simplified versions of this text for some students or provide a focus question "What is one problem that this article describes?" is an example.


25 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students complete a self-paces GIS "map lab" as a deep dive exploration of the California delta system.  (The interface is the same as a previous SKILL BUILDER.) By the end of this activity, students will have developed a written summary of what GIS allows us to understand about the California delta.  Responses should include at least THREE examples from the "map lab" activity.


  • This activity is the work of a National Science Foundation funded collaboration between Foothill College and San Jose State University.
  • A framework for guiding questions for this activity is in the prototype activity guide as "activity 4."  The sequence of activities was revised based on student feedback during the CASE STUDY lesson sequence.

What will students do?

Student will access module 2: ​Sacramento delta​ on individual laptops. They may collaborate to make meaning of the activity, but will develop individual responses. How can gis help us understand the delta system and potential solutions to California’s problematic water future? Choose ONE topic from the IMPORTANCE tab, TWO topics from the PROBLEMS tab, and review all content in the CURRENT ISSUES tab.  Your response should be at least one paragraph.

What will the teacher do?

The key teacher move for this section is to support students' work through purposeful partnering. Students will want content clarification, but instead of directly answering questions, a better solution is to suggest that students seek out strategic partnerships.  I was just talking to Steven and he has a really well-developed understanding of how the delta might impact fish.  He even did some extra research about smelt.  Would you be willing to talk to him?  Framing the partnership as an invitation preserves students' agency while modeling effective collaborative behavior. Some students will need to be partnered.  However, at the high school level, a suggestion often works better with students because it maintains their autonomy and allows them to pursue a partnership that might better meet their needs.

ASYCHRONOUS EXIT: What is the California delta?

What is the purpose of this EXIT?

What is the California delta?  Explain with evidence from class.  Students from each class develop one original response and provide feedback to at least TWO other students in the class. This activity is asynchronous because is happens outside of class.  Students are able to share ideas and peer review.  The teacher is able to formatively assess students' proficiency with respect to objectives and note areas of student need before the next lesson.