Dunes, Boxcars, and Ball Jars: Mining the Great Lakes Shores

Module by: Tiffany Roberts, University of South Florida

Cover Page by: Len Vacher and Denise Davis, University of South Florida

This material was originally developed by Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum as part of its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


In this Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum activity, students do an estimation problem that illustrates the magnitude of sand quantities that were removed from the south shore of Lake Michigan in the early 20th century. Hoosier Slide, in what is now Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, was once the largest sand dune on Indiana's lakeshore. It was completely gone by the 1920's after about 20 years of sand mining for glass to make Ball jars. Using the formula for volume of a circular dome, students estimate the sand in Hoosier Slide from its approximate height and circumference in units of boxcars that could carry the sand away. From the volume and density, they calculate the number of Ball jars. In addition to the calculations, the module discusses the geologic setting of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, shows aerial photographs of the shoreline before and after the sand mining, introduces the basics of dune morphology, and gives contextual information on the famous "Ball blue" glass jars. The intent of the module is to introduce Geology of National Parks students to the nature of an estimation calculation within the context of the morphology of coastal dunes.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number NSF DUE-0836566. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Learning Goals

SSACgnp.TN950.TMR1.1-Slide 4
Slide 4 of the module.

Students will:

  • Read explanatory slides on the geologic setting of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, why sand-mining companies were removing sand, and news articles related to Hoosier Slide.

  • View air photos of the shoreline of Indiana Dunes Lakeshore in 1926, after the sand was mined, and Hoosier Slide before it was quarried away.

  • Use a spreadsheet to estimate the volume of Hoosier Slide from its height and circumference and the formula of volume of a circular dome.

  • Use a spreadsheet to estimate the number or boxcars from the estimated volume of Hoosier Slide; the length, width, and height of a boxcar, and the formula for volume of a rectangular prism.

  • Use a spreadsheet to estimate the number of Ball jars from the volume of Hoosier Slide, the density of quartz, the porosity of sand, the mass of a Ball jar, and the assumption that the Ball jar is made of pure quartz.

In the process the students will:

  • Consider the distinction between a precise answer and an estimate.

  • Get practice converting units.

  • Calculate volumes and use mass and density in a back-of-the envelope type calculation.

  • Apply consideration of dune shapes to decide what formula from geometry to use to estimate the volume.

  • Be introduced to dune morphology, various uses of silica, and how trace elements affect the color of glass.

Context for Use

SSACgnp.TN950.TMR1.1-Slide 7
Slide 7 of the module.
This module is designed for potential use in the Geology of National Parks service course at USF. The course is offered as an online course every semester. It includes readings from Parks and Plates, weekly quizzes based on that textbook, and weekly student activities designed to align the course with the University's general education requirements. This module is intended to be one of those activities, with the specific goal of meeting the gen-ed quantitative literacy dimension.

Description and Teaching Materials

SSACgnp.TN950.TMR1.1-Slide 10
Slide 10 of the module.

The module is a PowerPoint presentation with embedded spreadsheets. Click on the link below to download a copy of the module.

Optimal results are achieved with Microsoft Office 2007 or later; the module will function in earlier versions with slight cosmetic compromises. If the embedded spreadsheets are not visible, save the PowerPoint file to disk and open it from there.

The above PowerPoint presentation file is the student version of the module. It includes a template for students to use to complete the spreadsheet(s) and answer the end-of-module questions, and then turn in for grading.

An instructor version is available by request. The instructor version includes the completed spreadsheet. Send your request to Len Vacher (vacher@usf.edu) by filling out and submitting the Instructor Module Request Form.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The module is constructed to be a stand-alone resource. It can be used as a homework assignment, lab activity, or as the basis of an interactive classroom activity. It was used as an out-of-class activity in a senior-elective course, Environmental Geology of the National Parks (for geology majors and nonmajors), during development of the module in Spring 2010, and as an out-of-class activity in Computational Geology (a QL course for geology majors) in Fall 2010 and Fall 2011. In general, the students considered this module to be one of the more elementary modules in the collection. It has not been implemented yet in the introductory-level Geology of National Parks course.


There is a slide at the end of the presentation that contains end-of-module questions. The end-of-module questions can be used to examine student understanding and learning gains from the module. Pre/post test, pre/post test answer key, and answer key for end-of-module questions are at the end of the instructor version of the module.

References and Resources

US National Park Service (NPS)

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: Field Notes

The Portable LaPorte County: Being a history of the County (published c1978)

Ball Brothers: Glass Facts

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: Mt. Baldy

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore: Park Statistics

Slope Defined