Mark Schroepfer

SOST 200

Lesson Plan 1: Forming the Dead Zone with the Minnesota River


I.          Standard Addressed: People, Places, and Environments

            Performance Expectation Addressed: examine, interpret, and analyze physical and cultural patterns and their interactions, such as land use, settlement patterns, cultural transmission of customs and ideas, and ecosystem changes


II.        Results/Expected Learning Outcome:

            The student will understand why the Gulf's Dead Zone formed, recognize environmental concerns created by an expanding Dead Zone, analyze the Mississippi River Basin's and the Minnesota River Basin's contributions to the Dead Zone, discover why the Dead Zone's size fluctuates daily and annually, and evaluate solutions to the Dead Zone problem.


III.       Evaluation:

            Students will demonstrate proficiency in this case study by making a tag board flow chart on day two of two.  Flow charts meeting the standards will explain how the Dead Zoneforms and the problems it creates, starting with the Minnesota River Basin's role.  Flow charts meeting the standards will also review why the Dead Zone's size fluctuates daily and annually and present a solution for reducing and/or eliminating the Dead Zone.


IV.       Curriculum:

This 100-minute activity (two 50-minute class periods) belongs in the high school geography course.  Since this case study highlights the human-environmental interaction theme of geography, it might serve as an introductory activity to the human-environmental aspect of geography. 


            Otherwise, this case study might fit neatly into the first chapter of many high school cultural geography texts: the five themes of cultural geography.  The theme of cultural geography examined here is cultural ecology.  Although not the aim of this lesson plan, this lesson may merit a third day of study to debate the four schools of thought surrounding cultural ecology (environmental determinism, possibilism, environmental perception, and humans as modifiers of Earth) and their relevance to the Dead Zone.


V.        Instruction:


A.        Preliminary questions to probe student knowledge:

            1.         Propose a long-term solution that will reduce the Dead Zone's magnitude.

            2.         Describe how the Minnesota River Basin affects the Dead Zone.

            3.         Where is the Dead Zone?

            4.         What is the Dead Zone?

            5.         Where is the Mississippi River?

            6.         Where is the Minnesota River?


B.        Introduce students to the Gulf's Dead Zone by having them independently read an overview of the Dead Zone by the Gulf Coast Preservation Society (


            After students finish reading the aforementioned article, enter a large group discussion.

            Ask students these questions:

            1.         Where is the Mississippi River Basin?

            2.         What word did the authors use to describe oxygen-deprived water?

            3.         How does hypoxia affect marine life?

            4.         What causes the Dead Zone's hypoxia?


Display an image of the Mississippi River Basin ( on the document camera.  Ask students to disregard the numbers on the

map and instead focus on the extent of the Mississippi River Basin.  Since this image

does not include the Minnesota River, ask students where it should be drawn on the map.


Explain that the Minnesota River is a tributary of the Mississippi River.  Ask students to

identify more tributaries of the Mississippi River.


Ask students to guess what percentage of the Mississippi River's nitrogen load traces to

Minnesota.  Use the correct answer, seven percent, to highlight that "most of the seven

percent of nitrogen comes from the Minnesota River basin, which drains the state's main

corn growing area in the southern half of the state."  Ask students to reiterate activities

that contribute to nitrogen and phosphorus contributions to the Mississippi River

(answers might include heavy rains increase farm run-off; fertilizer run-off).


C.        Ask students to examine the varying size of the Dead Zone.  Introduce this concept

            and the variables that affect it by showing a 30-second video clip from the Gulf Coast

            Preservation Society (


D.        Have students independently read an article ( display/web/2007/07/17/deadzonesize) explaining why the Dead Zone's magnitude of 2007 almost surpassed 1999's (refer to 30-second video clip for 1999 statistic).  Ask students to find the variable that made 2007's Dead Zone larger than usual.


            Initiate a discussion after students recognize the variable.  Ethanol production

            requires corn, and demand for ethanol is climbing.  Therefore, corn producers have a

            financial incentive to plant, fertilize, and harvest more corn.  Heightened corn production increases run-off from commercial fertilizers.  Additional run-off increases nitrogen in the Mississippi River and Dead Zone.  To quantify this assumption, inform students that farmers planted 20% more corn in 2007, compared to 2006.






E.         Find solutions to the Dead Zone problem. 


            First, display a timeline of EPA inaction ( deadzone_factsheet_08_000.pdf).  Ask students to explain why the EPA has failed to eliminate the Dead Zone. 


            Second, use the same document to read the solution, presented by Iowa's Environmental Council.


            Third, ask students to refer to their Gulf Coast Preservation Society hand-out to find

            three more solutions.  Ask students to evaluate all solutions.  Include the following

            questions into the discussion: 

            1.         Categorize each solution's merit using the SMART goal method (specific,                                      measurable, attainable, realistic, timely).

                        i.e.       Which solution(s) are Specific?

                                    Which solution(s) are Measurable?  How is the success of each solution                                                      measured?

                                    Which solution(s) are Attainable?  How is each solution attained?

                                    Which solution(s) are Realistic?  What factors increase or decrease                                                  pragmatism? 

                                    Which solution(s) are Timely?  Is the current economic and political

                                                climate conducive to reform?

            2.         How will farmers react to each proposal?

            3.         How will Gulf fisheries react to each proposal?


F.         Assessment on Day Two


            Ask students to create a tag board flow chart of the Minnesota River Basin Data Center's Dead Zone explanation (  Since the aforementioned site mentions Lake Pepin, ask students to identify it on the Mississippi River Basin map before dispersing into groups.  In groups of three, have one student write short captions for each step, one student make simple illustrations of eachstep and select the best Dead Zone solution, and one student visit             deadzone/causes/weather.html to research the influence of daily weather on the size and shape of the Dead Zone.  The third student should summarize his/her findings on the tag board, also.  The second student should write a brief on the tag board, explaining why his/her solution will reduce and/or eliminate the Dead Zone.  When students are finished, post each tag board on the classroom wall.









VI.       Bloom's Taxonomical Questions


A.        Knowledge Question:

            Where is the Dead Zone?


B.        Comprehension Question:

            Describe how the Minnesota River Basin affects the Dead Zone.


C.        Application Question:

            Select long-term solutions that will reduce the Dead Zone's magnitude.


D.        Analysis Question:

            Analyze solutions presented by Iowa's Environmental Council and the Gulf Coast

            Preservation Society.  Determine why each organization offers different solutions.


E.         Synthesis Question:

            Propose a long-term solution to reduce the Minnesota River Basin's contribution to the

            Dead Zone.


F.         Evaluation Question:

            Evaluate each solution.  Consider how each solution impacts farmers, ethanol supplies, Gulf fisheries, economical goals, and environmental goals.