Rocking Through the Rock Cycle

Mary Ann Mutrux, Missouri State University - West Plains
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Initial Publication Date: April 5, 2016 | Reviewed: November 25, 2019


The students will participate as matter traveling through the rock cycle while drawing cards from 4 rock matter stations (magma, igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic). Afterwards, the student will demonstrate their path using a laser pointer in a projected large the rock cycle diagram.

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Learning Goals

The students are presented with an activity that models the possible pathways that matter may travel through the rock cycle. The activity is a very simplified representation of a complex process that takes millions and billions of years and countless physical and chemical changes. The students get a randomized version of examples in the process that they can compare with other classmates.

Context for Use

This lesson should be taught after the students have learned about all three rock types, weathering and have been introduced to the rock cycle. The lesson takes about 50 minutes, however it can be adapted for less time by shortening the number of cards students draw or decreasing the number of laser tracing rock cycle trips the students share. This lesson requires cut out Rock Station Cards (3 copies of each station sheet), a laser pointer, a projected picture of the rock cycle(s) and 4 small containers (baskets or boxes for cards). If possible, sample rocks from each rock group can be set around the card station for each of the three rock groups for students to observe while they wait to draw cards. If setting out rock samples then provide hand lenses at each station so the students can observe the rocks samples closely. Optional materials include a red lava lamp for the magma station and a microscope with sediment sides at the sedimentary station.

Description and Teaching Materials

Warm Up: Have students make a brainstorm list of things that they know go through a cycle. Facilitate a group discussion of their lists. Tell students that rocks also go through a cycle and that they are going to be matter traveling through the rock cycle. Inform them that they will be traveling through the rock cycle activity very quickly, but in reality this cycle takes thousands, millions and even billions of years to occur. Explain that they will change as they travel through the rock cycle as a result of internal forces in the Earth (heat and / or pressure) and external forces outside the Earth in the atmosphere and hydrosphere (weathering agents: frost wedging, wind and water abrasion, expansion/ contraction, action of gravity, chemical decomposition, glaciers, and root wedging). If students have covered physical and chemical changes of matter, explain that these processes are occurring as well as matter moves through the rock cycle. Include review of the following terms: igneous rocks, sediments, sedimentary rocks, metamorphic rocks, magma, lava and weathering.

Main Lesson / Activity Steps:

1. Have the students count off from one to four.
2. Tell the ones that they will start at the magma station, the number two will start at the sedimentary station, the threes will start at the metamorphic station and the fours will start at the igneous station.
3. Tell students to number a sheet of paper from 1 to 25 and write Rocking Through the Rock Cycle at the top.
4. Have them number their paper from 1 to 25 before hand. Tell them that they are going to draw a total of 25 cards during the entire activity. Each number on the paper should correspond with the location that they draw the card. If they draw a "stay" card they need to record the name of the station they are at and then draw again. Explain that rocks spend a lot of time "staying" in one place for many many years! Therefore, they may have to stay and draw at the same station several times, before they can move on! Explain that they need to take their paper and a pencil with them as they travel through the rock cycle to record their rocking journey as they go from station to station. Each person goes on their own journey!
5. Tell the students to draw a card read and record what happens to them and then and do what the card tells them to do. After they draw a card the card should be placed at the bottom of the pile in the basket or box. Each time they draw they need to record the location designated on the card and follow the directions (stay or go to...)
6. Let the students travel through the rock cycle and record their journey for 25 trips.
7. Have students share their trip by using the laser pointer and showing the path of their rocking journey on the overhead of the rock cycle. Discuss the processes involved with each step.
8. Have students count the number of times they were in each station. Embed the terms, frequency, and quantitative data into instruction.

Wrap Up: Have the students share what they learned in the activity and what things surprised them. Ask the students if they went to all stations or just some. Have them speculate as to why they may or may not have traveled to all stations. Emphasize that the rock cycle is a very slow process that occurs over thousands and even millions of years between the geosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere. Have students identify areas of the hydrosphere and atmosphere that were involved in the rock cycle. Be sure students comprehend the difference between internal forces (heat, pressure and mantle convection currents inside the Earth) and external forces outside the Earth (weathering) are both rock cycle forces of change. Embed the term extrapolate and scenario during the wrap up by noting that they can extrapolate how matter moves through the rock cycle based on the scenario they each encountered during the activity.


Rock Cycle Station Cards (Acrobat (PDF) 80kB Mar29 16)
Rocking Through the Rock Cycle Lesson Plan (Acrobat (PDF) 120kB Mar29 16)

Modifications on this activity from the community

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Contributed by Stephanie DeVries

I used this activity in my face-to-face classroom in spring 2020 and it went really well except that I had a bottleneck at the sedimentary station which prevented some students from completing 25 stations in the time allowed.

This summer, in the time of COVID-19, I modified this activity into an online discussion assignment and created an excel spreadsheet that students can download and use at home to digitally pull cards from each station. The spreadsheet is protected and I recorded macros onto buttons so it is easy for students to navigate without having to actually deal with the inner workings of the spreadsheet. I can provide a password to remove sheet protections if it is desired. Here is the spreadsheet: Rocking the Rock Cycle - Virtual Index Cards (Excel 2007 macro-enabled (.xlsm) 64kB May26 20).

Teaching Notes and Tips

Possible Misconceptions: Students will have difficult conceptualizing the vast amount of time that this activity represents. Students need to understand that this lesson is a random presentation of complex processes that occur between the Earth's geosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere over millions of years. In addition, the rock cycle occurs over a vast area both on and under the Earth's surface.

Safety Considerations: The students need ample room to move about in the activity. In addition, students need to be directed on how to use the laser and NOT to point that laser at anyone at any time. If using a lava lamp tell students not to touch and have a sign next to the lamp to remind them.


The students can be assessed by asking them questions about pathways matter travels through the rock cycle with a provided diagram.

References and Resources

This activity can be simplified or advanced by using different diagrams of the rock cycle with varying complexities. Google images provides a wide example of rock cycle diagrams