Hands-on Activity: Rocks, Rocks, Rocks

Contributed by: Adventure Engineering, Colorado School of Mines

The header row of a table with these captions: ID#, hardness, brightness, granular, holes, luster, reactivity, buoyancy, rock name, classification. Four photos of different rock types (l to r): granite, obsidian, slate and sandstone.
Copyright © (table headers) Adventure Engineering, Colorado School of Mines, (rock photos) US Geological Survey http://geomaps.wr.usgs.gov/sfgeo/geologic/stories/geologic_materials.html


Students test rocks to identify their physical properties (such as luster, hardness, color, etc.) and classify them as igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary. They complete a worksheet table to record all of the rock properties, and then answer worksheet questions to deepen their understanding of rock properties and relate them to the cavern design problem.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Civil and geological engineers, for example, design tunnels through rock, build roads on the side of mountains, and construct skyscrapers rooted in soil and rock. These engineers must thoroughly understand the properties of rocks.

Learning Objectives

  • Gather data by performing scientific observation and testing of rocks.
  • Use the data and a flowchart to determine rock types and rock classification.
  • Identify rock types by distinguishing features.
  • Relate rocks-in-hand to geological formations on maps.
  • Relate tested/observed rock characteristics to designing and building caverns.

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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.

  • Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time and spatial scales. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The process of designing involves presenting some possible solutions in visual form and then selecting the best solution(s) from many. (Grades 3 - 5) 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?
  • Analyze and interpret data identifying ways Earth's surface is constantly changing through a variety of processes and forces such as plate tectonics, erosion, deposition, solar influences, climate, and human activity (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Gather, analyze, and communicate data that explains Earth's plates, plate motions, and the results of plate motions (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • rock testing kit (see list of components, below) (Note: A mineral testing kit can be purchased for $7.10 at http://www.hometrainingtools.com/mineral-test-kit)
  • textbook or reference to classify the rocks (igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic)\
  • 3 attached handouts: Rocks, Rocks, Rocks Worksheet, Rock Test Data Table, Rock Identification Flow Chart

Each rock testing kit needs:

  • 8 rock samples of the rocks listed on the Alabraska Geology Map: basalt, sandstone, limestone, granite, gneiss, slate, pumice, obsidian (not sand/gravel). Note: a rock study kit conaining these rocks can be purchased for $13.90 at http://www.hometrainingtools.com/rock-study-kit?fee=2&fep=2249&gclid=CPL-qq3_6MoCFZOCaQod2F0Bcg
  • steel nail
  • copper penny
  • streak plate (an unglazed porcelain tile)
  • magnet
  • hydrochloric acid (alternative: vinegar)
  • magnifying glass
  • small piece of glass
  • small steel plate
  • piece of quartz
  • cup of water


Some rocks are not suitable for caverns. To best determine where to locate their cavern(s), the students determine the rock properties throughout the state of Alabraska.

Different rock types vary on region.

Igneous rocks are formed directly from the cooling of magma, and actually make up the majority of earth's crust!

Sedimentary rocks are often called "secondary" rocks, because they form from small pieces of other types of rocks, or from minerals which were previously dissolved in water. These are common in dry areas.

Metamorphic rocks are those which have been changed over time, due to different chemical surroundings, heat, and pressure.


1. Start with a class discussion about rock properties and rock classification:

  • Describe the various rock characteristics: luster, hardness, granular, porous, color.
  • Describe the various rock names (see the Alabraska Geology Map) and the three rock classifications: sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic.
  • Illustrate the rock cycle, and emphasize the different formation routes of the three main rock types. The following diagram is useful.
    The Rock Cycle.
    Copyright © http://www.usgs.gov/visitors/images/rockcycl.gif

2. Distribute rock testing kits and handouts to each team. The distribution of rocks and testing can be done in several ways:

  • Give each team all the rocks to test and discuss the results as a class after all testing and identification has been performed and recorded. This option is the quickest and is most suitable for a mature class.
  • Give each group a different rock and after 5 minutes of testing, stop the class. Discuss the results using the flow chart and have the class chart each group's result.
  • Pass out one rock at a time to each group and allot 5 minutes to test, discuss and decide on its rock name. At the end of 5 minutes, ask questions from the flow chart to guide students to the correct rock name and chart the results.

3. Provide students with some information to classify the rocks as sedimentary, igneous or metamorphic, such as a textbook, website material, or verbal explanation.

4. Lead a concluding class discussion to review students' answers to the the worksheet questions, as described in the Assessment section.



Worksheet & Data Table: Review students' worksheet answers and table data to gauge their comprehension of the subject matter.

Concluding Class Discussion: After testing and recording is done and students have completed the worksheet questions, which are intended to give meaning and context to the rock properties, lead a class discussion to review those answers. Discussing the answers is beneficial to the overall project and to students' retention of rock property descriptions. Also ask the students:

  • Why is it important to know what a rock is like before you build in it?
  • How might these characteristics affect your cavern? (Possible answers: A soft rock might cave in, an extremely hard rock might be too difficult to drill through, a porous rock might let water flood the caverns, etc.)
  • What is one way which igneous rock forms?
  • What is one which sedimentary rock forms?
  • What does metamorphic mean?

Activity Extensions

Have students find geology maps for their state and determine the most common rock types present in their state or region. Based on their findings in this activity, have them determine the best locations to build caverns in their state.

Activity Scaling

For younger students, have the teacher do the testing in the front of the classroom (more of a class demo), asking questions from the flow chart. Then talk students through charting the results.


© 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: May 25, 2017