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Hands-on Activity: Rocks, Rocks, Rocks: Test, Identify Properties & Classify

Quick Look

Grade Level: 7 (6-8)

Time Required: 2 hours 15 minutes

(90 minutes for rock testing; 45 minutes to answer worksheet questions 2-7)

Expendable Cost/Group: US $0.00

Also requires some non-expendable (reusable) items; see the Materials List for details.

Group Size: 3

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Earth and Space, Physical Science, Problem Solving

Two images: A photo shows large boulders in a foreground valley with a mountain backdrop. A color-coded map key shows which colors indicate which of eight rock types: basalt, sandstone, limestone, sand/gravel, granite, gneiss, slate, pumice, obsidian.
Students learn all about rocks.
Copyright © (rock photo) Utah Geological Society, (map key) Adventure Engineering, Colorado School of Mines http://geology.utah.gov/surveynotes/gladasked/landscape_rocks/muskratstation.htm


Continuing the Asteroid Impact challenge, student teams test rocks to identify their physical properties such as luster, hardness, color, etc., and classify them as igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary. They complete a data 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 aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Civil and geological engineers, for example, design tunnels through rock, build roads on the sides of mountains, and construct skyscrapers rooted in soil and rock. It is imperative for these engineers to thoroughly understand the natural characteristics and properties of all types of rocks.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • 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 the relevance of each tested/observed rock characteristic to designing/building caverns.

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.

NGSS Performance Expectation

MS-ESS2-2. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time and spatial scales. (Grades 6 - 8)

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Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Construct a scientific explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from sources (including the students' own experiments) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Alignment agreement:

The planet's systems interact over scales that range from microscopic to global in size, and they operate over fractions of a second to billions of years. These interactions have shaped Earth's history and will determine its future.

Alignment agreement:

Water's movements—both on the land and underground—cause weathering and erosion, which change the land's surface features and create underground formations.

Alignment agreement:

Time, space, and energy phenomena can be observed at various scales using models to study systems that are too large or too small.

Alignment agreement:

  • The process of designing involves presenting some possible solutions in visual form and then selecting the best solution(s) from many. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

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  • Modeling, testing, evaluating, and modifying are used to transform ideas into practical solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) More Details

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  • Established design principles are used to evaluate existing designs, to collect data, and to guide the design process. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Develop and communicate an evidence based scientific explanation around one or more factors that change Earth's surface (Grade 5) More Details

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  • 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) More Details

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  • Gather, analyze, and communicate data that explains Earth's plates, plate motions, and the results of plate motions (Grade 7) More Details

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Materials List

Each group needs:

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)
  • steel nail
  • copper penny
  • streak plate, stuch as an unglazed porcelain tile
  • magnet
  • hydrochloric acid; alternatively, use vinegar
  • magnifying glass
  • small piece of glass
  • small steel plate
  • piece of quartz
  • cup of water

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/csm_asteroid_lesson5_activity1_tg] to print or download.

Pre-Req Knowledge

A general familiarity with rocks and minerals.


Some rocks are not suitable for caverns. So, to determine the best place to locate your cavern, you need to get an understanding of the types of rocks and their properties throughout the varied terrain of the state of Alabraska.

Different rock types vary by region, so today you will be performing some rock tests so you can learn their properties, identify them and classify them as sedimentary, igneous or metamorphic.

  • Igneous rocks are formed directly from the cooling of magma and make up the majority of the Earth's crust.
  • Sedimentary rocks are often called "secondary" rocks, because they form from small pieces of other types of rocks, or from minerals that were previously dissolved in water (like the silt in lakes, rivers and seas). These are commonly found in dry areas.
  • Metamorphic rocks are those that have been changed over time due to different chemical surroundings, heat and pressure.


Background Information

As necessary, supplement students' understanding of basic rock/mineral testing, rock identification, and rock classification (sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic).

The basic explanation of the rock cycle follows: Rocks are pushed deep into the Earth's surface, usually by tectonic motion, where they melt into magma. At a volcano, or anywhere magma is exposed to become lava (such as at divergent tectonic plates), the magma/lava cools to become igneous rock. Several processes may occur after this, for example kaolinization, which generates granite and other common igneous rocks. Metamorphic rocks are created in a different process than igneous rocks, a process that is characterized by high temperatures and pressures, changing the physical and chemical properties. These high temperatures and pressures are found in mountain-building events or through close proximity to igneous intrusions, where high temperatures exist from the cooling magma. Rocks exposed to the atmosphere suffer weathering and erosion, breaking into smaller fragments. The fragments accumulate, compress, and fuse to generate sedimentary rocks, such as limestone.

Before the Activity

Gather materials and make copies of the handouts.

With the Students

  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 (refer to 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.

A circular line drawing shows the rock cycle. Igneous rocks are formed from the cooling and crystallization of magma or volcanic eruptions (lava). Igneous rocks wear down from weathering and erosion into sediments that become sedimentary rocks through deposition and lithification. Through heat, pressure and stress, sedimentary rocks become metamorphic rocks. Metamorphic rocks may either melt into magma or break down into sediments from weathering and erosion. So the cycling of material continues between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks.
An illustration of the rock cycle.
Copyright © U.S. Geological Survey http://www.usgs.gov/visitors/images/rockcycl.gif

  1. Distribute rock testing kits and handouts to each team. Three possible ways to distribute the rocks and conduct testing:
    • Quickest and most suitable for a mature class: 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. 
    • 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. After 5 minutes, ask questions from the flow chart to guide students to the correct rock name and chart the results.

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.
Students record rock characteristics in the data table.
Copyright © (table headers) 2005 Adventure Engineering, Colorado School of Mines, (rock photos) US Geological Survey http://geomaps.wr.usgs.gov/sfgeo/geologic/stories/geologic_materials.html

  1. Provide students with some information to classify the rocks as sedimentary, igneous or metamorphic, such as a textbook, website material or verbal explanation.
  2. 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' data and answers on the Rock Test Data Table and Rocks, Rocks, Rocks Worksheet to gauge their mastery of the concepts. Refer to the Asteroid Impact Student Workbook Example Answers provided in the unit document for example data table and worksheet answers.

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 students:

  • Why is it important to know rock properties 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 in which igneous rocks form?
  • What is one way in which sedimentary rocks form?
  • 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. Applying 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: July 17, 2019

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