Hands-on Activity: Incoming Asteroid! What's the Problem?

Contributed by: Adventure Engineering, Colorado School of Mines

An artists' illustration shows an asteroid moving through the Earth's atmosphere toward the planet. Words over the image: Situation Critical.
A critical situation requires engineers to first understand the problem and then learn more about topics related to the problem.
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Students are introduced to the Asteroid Impact unit and its engineering challenge: An asteroid is on course to impact the Earth and we must design the location and size of underground caverns to shelter the people from an uninhabitable Earth for one year. Students read the president's memo to receive their "marching orders." They form teams and begin to study the situation in depth. A simple in-class simulation shows them the potential for destruction and disaster. They complete worksheets and look at maps to help them define and understand the problem: What is the needed cavern size and depth? What are the geographical areas and natural features? A homework measurement assignment prepares them for the next activity.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineering teams begin the design process by defining the problem, which may include identifying, through group brainstorming, discussion and research, the technical, financial and social criteria for successful solution design.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Fifth-grade reading level, familiarity with the inquiry-based learning process.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Brainstorm, voice and write down potential solutions and questions.
  • Read, understand and identify a problem.
  • Hypothesize, through group discussion, what information might be required to solve the problem.
  • List design constraints (social, environmental, financial, etc.) that must be considered to adequately design a functional solution to the asteroid problem.
  • Exhibit basic map-reading skills, such as understanding a legend/key and using a map scale to determine distances.

More Curriculum Like This

Adventure Engineering Challenge: Asteroid Impact

Through this earth science curricular unit composed of eight activities, student teams are presented with the scenario that an asteroid will impact the Earth. In response, their challenge is to design the location and size of underground caverns to shelter the people from an uninhabitable Earth for ...

How Big? Necessary Area & Volume for Shelter

Student teams determine the size of the caverns needed to house the population of the state of Alabraska from the impending asteroid impact. They make measurements and calculate area and volume from individual bedroom size to classroom size to large enough to house all Alabraskans. They convert betw...

Identifying Possible Underground Cavern Locations

Students apply their knowledge of scales and areas to determine the best locations in Alabraska for the underground caverns. They cut out rectangular paper pieces to represent caverns to scale with the maps and place the cutouts on the maps to determine possible locations.

What Is GIS?

In this lesson, students learn the value of maps, how to use maps, and the basic components of a GIS. They are also introduced to numerous GIS applications.

Middle School Lesson

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Brainstorming is a group problem-solving design process in which each person in the group presents his or her ideas in an open forum. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Design is a creative planning process that leads to useful products and systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop and communicate an evidence based scientific explanation around one or more factors that change Earth's surface (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Construct a scale model of the solar system, and use it to explain the motion of objects in the system such a planets, Sun, Moons, asteroids, comets, and dwarf planets (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • There are different forms of energy, and those forms of energy can be changed from one form to another – but total energy is conserved (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The solar system is comprised of various objects that orbit the Sun and are classified based on their characteristics (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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Materials List


(Kick off the unit by showing students the great 10-minute Asteroid Impact Simulation video by Miracle Planet. The narrated simulation dramatically shows what happens when a big asteroid hits the Earth. In this case, besides a big crater, it shows and describes the resulting heat damage to the atmosphere and life on Earth [vaporization of everything] from a 300-mile-wide asteroid striking the Earth.)

Today we're starting a new adventure engineering unit and you will be in engineering teams. This is your engineering challenge: An asteroid is on course to impact the Earth and we must design the location and size of underground caverns to shelter the people from an uninhabitable Earth for one year. Let's start by watching this video.

(Next, students read the president's memo to receive their "marching orders"—students are called by the president of Alabraska to design underground caverns to save the state's population from the asteroid impact. Then they form teams, become familiar with the maps, and complete investigative worksheets.)


Before the Activity

  • Gather materials and make copies of the handouts. Alternatively, make copies of the entire student workbook, which is a PDF of all worksheets for the Asteroid Impact unit, found as an attachment to the unit document.
  • Refer to basic information about asteroids (and additional web links) in the CRFAO Briefing.
  • Prepare to show the online asteroid impact simulation video to the class.
  • Decide if you want to conduct a simple demo by dropping golf balls into a bucket of flour or a bowling ball into a big tub of sand; prepare accordingly. 

With the Students

  1. Grab students' attention by showing them the online video simulation of a big asteroid impact on the Earth.
  2. (optional) Conduct a classroom demo that simulates the destruction caused by an asteroid impact.
  3. Divide the class into teams of three or four students each.
  4. Encourage all students to get involved by assigning team roles, for example, a discussion leader, timekeeper for questions, and a scribe or recorder.
  5. Give students a few minutes to decide on names for their engineering teams.
  6. Read the President's Memo to the class. (Alternatively, have a student read it to the class, or have each student read it to themselves. If the latter, provide a copy of the memo for each student.)
  7. Hand out the worksheet and two maps to each student (or the entire student workbook, if desired).
  8. Give groups a defined amount of time to discuss and record answers to the worksheet questions.
  9. Have students generate a list of design constraints that are given or implied in the memo, graphic organizer and maps. If students have already generated the list of constraints, have review it and decide as a class if anything needs to be added.
  10. Come together as a class and have each team share its answers. This "idea sharing" helps get the class involved. Tip: Moderate this activity by having the teams report back after each question or at the end.
  11. (optional) Assign students the homework to each measure his/her bedroom dimensions, as described in the Assessment section.



Worksheets: Have students work in their groups to complete the What's the Problem? Worksheet. As necessary, help them generate a list of design constraints, such as the number of people, asteroid size, expected length of stay in the caverns, and environmental considerations. Prompt them to find clues about constraints on their graphic organizer. Students will refer back to this list to complete the activity, so displaying a collaborative list at the front of the classroom may be helpful. Review students' worksheet answers to gauge their comprehension of the material, concepts and engineering challenge. Refer to the Asteroid Impact Student Workbook Example Answers provided in the unit document for example worksheet and homework assignment answers.

Quiz: Verbally quiz students on the content of the President's Memo to check their comprension.

(optional) Homework: Assign students to each measure the dimensions (length, width, height) of his/her bedroom. Doing this makes the next activity go more smoothly. When turned in, review the measurements to see if they seem reasonable.

Activity Extensions

Have students read the CRFAO Briefing and:

  • Look up one of the provided websites and write a recap report.
  • Construct a model of the solar system that includes an asteroid belt.
  • Write a paragraph about the importance of studying asteroids.

Additional Multimedia Support

Online videos and simulations to show the class:

  • Simulated Asteroid Strike (52-second video); slo-mo footage shows small metallic ball bearing fired into sand and ice at 3 miles per second, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmKWYPWTo9o
  • Asteroid Impact Simulation by Miracle Planet (10-minute video); a great visual simulation shows the resulting crater and vaporization damage life from a 300-mile-wide asteroid striking the Earth, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc4HL_-VT2Y
  • Discovery Channel three-episode mini-series called "Hyperspace," hosted by Sam Neill (3 hours total); DVD for $10 at Amazon 


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2005 Colorado School of Mines

Supporting Program

Adventure Engineering, Colorado School of Mines


Adventure Engineering was supported by National Science Foundation grant nos. DUE 9950660 and GK-12 0086457. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: April 2, 2018