Teach the Earth > Geomorphology > Teaching Activities > Red Beans and Rice: Slope failure experimental modeling

Red Beans and Rice: Slope failure experimental modeling

Thomas Hickson
University of St. Thomas
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

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This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Jun 6, 2008


Students replicate a slope failure experiment published in Science (Densmore et al., 1997) using a simple, acrylic slope failure box in an effort to forge a link between autocyclic processes, long-term landscape evolution, and slope morphology. This exercise also conveys important concepts about landscape stability.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



I use the full-blown assignment in my sophomore level geomorphology course as a stand-alone lab. Typically, students have done some slope profiling the field before this lab.

I have a scaled-down version that I use in a large, introductory geology course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Essentially none. I use this exercise to MOTIVATE a lot of skill mastery and concepts in future class sessions (autocyclicity, equilibrium, dynamic equilibrium, slope failure dynamics, etc.)

How the activity is situated in the course

This exercise can be a stand-alone exercise, but it is very useful for illustrating very broad concepts in geomorphology and landscape evolution, so I tend to bring it in early. It also forges a link between experimentation, physical process, and actual landscape elements.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Modeling slope failure; collecting, analyzing, and interpreting experimental data; dimensional reasoning; replication of scientific results and the scientific method; explain the role of substrate in the nature of slope failure processes

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Observation and interpretation of data; hypothesis formulation; critical evaluation of the literature; the use of physical models to understand geomorphic processes

Other skills goals for this activity

Excel plotting

Description of the activity/assignment

In this activity, students replicate the slope failure experiment presented by Densmore et al. (1997) in the journal Science. They are given the original article and the slope failure apparatus (along with all associated materials) and then they need to figure out how to replicate the experiment. Once they have completed an experimental run of sufficient length, they compile and analyze their data and compare it to the article's results.

After completing this portion of the lab, the students read the discussion and reply (Aalto et al., 1998; Densmore et al., 1998) and critically evaluate they results of the experiment and its applicability to the real world and landscape evolution.</P>

Determining whether students have met the goals

The lab is graded on a fairly detailed rubric. Students are also tested on the material as part of midterm and final exams.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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