Cupcake Geology: Interpreting Core Samples

Bonnie Magura (Portland Public Schools)


This activity helps students understand how geoscientists study the Earth below our feet through drilling. Using a large straw as a "drill", students collect samples through different parts of the specially layered cupcake and keep a "log" of the drill core. By defining different colored cake and filling, they can reconstruct what the interior of the cupcake may look like. Students gain an appreciation for the challenges of determining a plausible geologic interpretation with limited data.

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Appropriate for secondary school classrooms.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

It is best if students have learned about some aspect of geology for which coring is important--such as ocean bottom sediments, tsunami deposits, lake sediments, or bedrock.

How the activity is situated in the course

Most likely this would be used at least midway through a geoscience unit or course, after students have learned about different geologic environments or research methods.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students will be able to:

  • Describe some real world geoscience applications of coring and related techniques
  • Explain differences in scientific interpretations based on limited or more complete geologic information
  • Compare and contrast cupcake geology with real world coring situations

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Hypothesize the outcome of an investigation, plan a sampling strategy, and test their hypothesis

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Working in groups
  • Using physical models

Description and Teaching Materials

See attached file for educator notes, NGSS alignment, and student exercise.
Cupcake Geology: Interpreting Core Samples Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 3.9MB May20 18) 

Teaching Notes and Tips

See above educator notes.


The student exercise serves as the summative assessment for the activity. The answers are short but open ended so the instructor should develop a simple couple-point scale for evaluating the completeness of each answer. Alternatively, if the activity is being used for a demonstration or informal interactive activity, questions and discussions with learners can help the presenter gauge the level of understanding and to address misconceptions.

References and Resources