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Fracture Fundamentals: A Cheesy Analog

Exercise and handout developed by Dave Bice (formerly Carleton, now at Penn State) - Starting Point Page by R. Teed and Jeff Crabaugh (SERC)

Mode 2 stress parallel to cut

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Oct 3, 2005

This material was originally developed as part of the Carleton College Teaching Activity Collection
through its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


This activity has students make small cuts (fracture nuclei) in processed cheese food and then apply stresses perpendicular or parallel to the cuts to see how fractures grow. Surprisingly (or not, depending on one's previous thoughts on cheese), processed cheese food fractures in much the same way as homogeneous rocks. The link below describes 8 short experiments to explore fracture propagation. Have the students make predictions before each experiment and, at the end, have each group explain their results to the rest of the class.

Learning Goals

Mode 3 stress vertical to bed

This exercise:

Context for Use

This activity was designed for a structural geology class, but is also suitable for plate tectonics classes since it simulated the formation of overlapping spreading centers such as those seen along the East Pacific Rise.

It takes about 20 minutes to do (less if you split the eight parts of the activity among the class) with ten minutes for introduction and another 15 to 30 minutes for discussion of the results. So it can be used as a lecture activity or as an introduction to lab.

Teaching Materials

In order to do this activity, each pair or group of students needs

making a hole at the tip of a cut in cheesy analog

The handout contains most of the details about the exercise:

Teaching Notes and Tips

You can introduce the lab by:

Mode 1 stress perpendicular to cut

Have the students work in groups of two, three or four.

Each group should write down their predictions for each step of the activity before they do it and their observations afterward.

Provide the students with an easy way to dispose of used cheese and wrappers. Some students may decide to throw these at one another.


At the end of the exercise, choose groups at random and have them present their results for one of the eight parts of the activity to the rest of the class.

References and Resources

More ideas on teaching structural geology will be posted on the site of the Cutting Edge Structural Geology Workshop.


Geoscience:Geology:Structural Geology:Microstructures, Deformation Mechanisms, Fabrics

Resource Type

Activities:Lab Activity, Classroom Activity:Short Activity:Demonstration

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Ready for Use

Ready to Use

Earth System Topics

Solid Earth:Deformation


Structural Geology:Joints/Fractures


Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Structural Geology

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