Hands-on Activity: 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.
Engineers first must fully understand the problem and then learn more about topics related to it.
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Students learn of the impending asteroid impact scenario, 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 lesson/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 design.

Learning Objectives

  • 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 a problem.
  • List design constraints which must be considered to design a functional solution to the asteroid problem.
  • Learn basic map reading skills, such as reading a legend and using a map scale to determine distances.

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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?
  • 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?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

  • 4 attached handouts: President's Memo, What's the Problem? Worksheet, Alabraska General Map, Alabraska Geology Map
  • (optional) video of asteroid impact (see Additional Multimedia Support section)
  • (optional) classroom demo of various balls (golf, bowling) dropped from heights into tubs of various materials (flour, sand)


Students are called by the president to design underground caverns to save the state's population from an asteroid impact. The motivation is provided in the President's Memo. See the Procedure section.


  1. (optional) Grab students' attention by showing them a video or simulation about asteroid impacts.
  2. (optional) Conduct a classroom demo that simulates the destruction caused by an asteroid impact . Drop golf ball into a bucket of flour, or a bowling ball into a tub of sand.
  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 President's Memo for each student.)
  7. Hand out the worksheet and two maps to each student. (Alternatively, you may want to hand out the entire student workbook, which is a PDF of all worksheets for the Asteroid Impact unit, found as an attachment to the unit document.)
  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 President's Memo, graphic organizer and maps. If students have already generated the list of constraints, have them go over it and decide as a class if anything needs to be added.
  10. Come together as a class and have each team share their 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) As homework, assign students to each measure the dimensions (length, width, height) of his/her bedroom. Doing this makes the next lesson/activity go more smoothly.



  • Review students' worksheet answers to gauge their comprehension of the material and concepts.
  • Quiz students on the content of the President's Memo.
  • Review students' answers to the homework measurement assignment.

Activity Extensions

  • Write a paragraph about the importance of studying asteroids.
  • Construct a model of the solar system with an asteroid belt .

Additional Multimedia Support

Example asteroid impact videos and simulations:

  • Simulated Asteroid Strike (52 seconds); high-speed footage shows small metallic ball bearing fired into sand and ice at 3 mps; see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmKWYPWTo9o
  • Asteroid Impact Simulation by Miracle Planet (10 minutes) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zc4HL_-VT2Y
  • Discovery Channel three-episode mini-series called "Hyperspace," hosted by Sam Neil (3 hours total), $15 DVD online


© 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: November 7, 2017