Hands-on Activity: Testing the Caverns

Contributed by: Adventure Engineering, Colorado School of Mines

Three images: Two artists' drawings show an asteroid about to entering the Earth's atmosphere and about to impact a coastline. A photo shows a teenager on a step ladder holding a ball high overhead, about to drop it in a tray of sand below him on the floor.
Students build and test model caverns
Copyright © (drawings) Don Davis, NASA and (photo) NASA http://www.donaldedavis.com/PARTS/K-TNASA.jpg http://impact.arc.nasa.gov/images/mm_gallery/coastline_jpg.jpg http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/where-astronauts-come-from_prt.htm


Students build model caverns and bury them in a tray of sand. They test the models by dropping balls onto them to simulate an asteroid hitting the Earth. By molding papier-mâché or clay around balloons (to form domes), or around small cardboard boxes (to form rectangular structures), students create unique models of their cavern designs.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

A vital part of the engineering design process involves testing possible and final solutions. This often involves building scaled models of a design solution and testing it. Lessons learned from the testing informs further improvement in the design evolution.

Learning Objectives

  • Using pre-determined design constraints, create a model using papier-mâché.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of a structure against impact failure.
  • Continue an iterative design process.

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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.

  • Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Test and evaluate the design in relation to pre-established requirements, such as criteria and constraints, and refine as needed. (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?
  • 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

  • papier-mâché or clay (not modeling clay)
  • medium balloons
  • small cardboard boxes
  • large plastic tubs
  • sand
  • small bowling ball, or other ~5-7 pound object to simulate an asteroid
  • any additional materials (especially clean recycling-type containers) which could be used to form a model cavern.


Now that all your hard work is done, we are going to build model caverns and test them!


  1. Give students the choice of modeling their caverns as domes or as flat-roofed structures.
  2. Give them papier-mâché (or clay) and let them build their caverns.
  3. Allow the models to set up overnight. If clay is used, the drying time may need to be extended to two to three days.
  4. Once dry, have each student engineering team test its cavern design.
  5. Start by burying the cavern in the sand. Make sure that the cavern is about 6 inches under the surface of the sand.
  6. Drop the bowling ball (or other object) from a height of 2-3 feet onto the sand.
  7. Excavate the cavern and inspect the damage.
  8. Have students present their tested cavern to the class and identify the damage that was done, if any.
  9. Have students come up with at least 2 changes which could be made to improve the design. If the cavern was not damaged, facilitate a discussion of over-design and cost versus performance.
  10. Have students make a new cavern with the design changes discussed during their presentation. Repeat #3-#7 and then have students present their updated design and conclude if the changes resulted in better performance.
  11. As a class, discuss the results of the impact testing. Which team proposal will the governor choose?


Concluding Discussion: Lead a discussion to compare team results and conclusions. Evaluate student comprehension through their answers and contributions.

Activity Extensions

To more closely align this lesson/activity to the various rock types found in Alabraska, provide additional impact testing materials, in addition to sand. Use flour to represent a softer material, sand to represent a moderately strong material, and gravel to represent a harder material. Have students select an impact material based on what rock type they decided to build their cavern in, or each group could pick an impact material at random for the sake of experimentation.


© 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