Get your hands wet!: Engaging elementary students in large-scale processes with hands-on models

Tuesday 1:30pm-2:40pm
Share-a-thon Part of Tuesday


Leah Youngquist, Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus
Elizabeth Hajek, Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus


At the Rendezvous, I will present the worksheets developed for this activity, images of the stream table experimental set up, and the models and cross sections used in the sea level activity.


This activity is a set of interactive demonstrations about large-scale geologic processes. In the first demonstration, students conduct guided experiments using a stream table to discover how material is moved across Earth's surface via erosion and sedimentation. These experiments allow students to observe and predict patterns of deposition, erosion, and fossilization and how they change over time in response to changes in sea level and river discharge. In the second demonstration, students investigate changing sea level and plate tectonics throughout Earth's history. Students are first introduced to a cross section of their local region and discuss how scientists get information about the past from rocks and fossils. Then, a video is played of a global plate reconstruction, during which students make observations of continent configuration and global ice volume. Finally, students are shown interactive models of continents and discuss how plate tectonics works and how tectonics and climate affect relative sea level. After completion of these activities, students are able to articulate specific mechanisms of sea level change, tectonic plate motion, and sedimentation. These activities are paired with a visit to a museum where students observed fossils and learned about regional geologic history.


This activity is the curriculum for a field trip designed for 4th grade students. We have conducted 22 sessions, reaching over 400 elementary students. However, this could also be easily modified for an in-class or lab activity without a field trip component.

Why It Works

This activity is particularly effective because it provides students with tangible, interactive models of large-scale, complex geologic processes that are otherwise difficult to visualize and understand. The activities directly address concepts of scale and scientific models for understanding different aspects of the Earth system. This is a worthwhile exercise because it deepens the students' understanding of the natural world and reinforces the concepts they were introduced to in their classrooms prior to the field trips. Additionally, the 4th graders had the opportunity to learn from a diverse group of graduate students and PhD geoscientists, providing them new connections with career pathways and broadening their perspective of the range of people involved in Earth science.