and by the
Walmart Foundation

Activity: Dam Design

This lesson plan can be adapted for students in grades 10-12. Students work in small groups to create solutions to a long-standing problem by designing and drawing a dam appropriate for the survival of salmon.



Students have a chance in this activity to create solutions to a long-standing salmon problem: Dams. Idaho is losing its salmon population because the fish migration is blocked by eight dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Biologists and engineers have tried a number of ways to help the salmon move through and around the dams, and for a while some of these methods seemed to work.

Unfortunately, salmon numbers continue to decline — a sure sign that the methods are not working and something new must be tried. Some people have proposed removing four of the dams. Even if this occurs, four more will remain. So we will still need new ideas to help the salmon around these dams. Who better to begin the work than tomorrow's biologists and engineers?


For each group of students:

  • paper
  • drafting equipment


The student will be able to:

  1. Identify problems experienced by salmon in migration.
  2. Identify mitigations that have worked and those that have not.
  3. Share conclusions and evaluate other group conclusions and project designs.


  1. Write the following topics on a board, large sheet of paper, or overhead transparency:

    • salmon migration, down and upstream
    • location of dams in the Columbia River System
    • designs of current dams, including turbines
    • purpose of dams in the Columbia River System, including the Snake River
    • problems that dams create for migrating salmon
    • modifications to help the fish, and their efficacy
  2. Divide students into small groups of three or four students; instruct the groups to decide which group will research which topic. To cover all topics, groups may need to choose more than one.
  3. Allow sufficient time for the groups to conduct their research and to present their information.
  4. Re-assign the students into new small groups so that each group contains an "expert" on each topic above. Instruct these new groups to design a dam that will produce electricity efficiently or store irrigation water, and provide safe passage for salmon.


  • Invite a panel of outside experts (fisheries biologist, engineer, etc.) to hear the presentations and discuss them with the students.
  • If you have more groups than topics, assign one group to research the amount of energy generated by one dam and what kinds of alternative energy could be substituted.
  • Ask each group to interview fisheries biologists and representatives from Bonneville Power Administration about their topic.

Back to Salmon Activities

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