Hands-on Activity: Glaciers, Water and Wind, Oh My!

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Photograph of gully erosion. Shown is a landscape that would normally be flat, but is instead intertwined with several deep gullies, cutting deep channels into the land.
Figure 1. Gully erosion
Copyright © Department of Primary Industries, The State of Victoria http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/


This hands-on activity explores five different forms of erosion (chemical, water, wind, glacier and temperature). Students rotate through stations and model each type of erosion on rocks, soils and minerals. The students record their observations and discuss the effects of erosion on the Earth's landscape. Students learn about how engineers are involved in the protection of landscapes and structures from erosion. Math problems are included to help students think about the effects of erosion in real-world scenarios.

Engineering Connection

Civil engineers need to carefully study the surrounding environment and soil type in order to safely build any sort of structure. Buildings, roads and bridges need to be built on a solid foundation and, if possible, in an area that is not prone to erosion (e.g., a flood plane). Engineers can also use materials that can resist the type of erosion that a particular area is exposed to (e.g., water-proof materials or materials that are not affected by acid rain). Environmental engineers plant trees and other vegetation in order to help prevent wind and water erosion (the roots make the land more stable and less exposed). Vegetation can also help neutralize acid rain. Engineers also design roads, bridges, and sidewalks in a way that allows them to expand and contract with temperature changes so that they will not crack too much (e.g., the grooves in the sidewalk and bridge expansion joints).

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 Standard Network (ASN), a project of JES & Co. (www.jesandco.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.

  • Make observations and/or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation. (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding. (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Apply and extend previous understandings of division to divide unit fractions by whole numbers and whole numbers by unit fractions. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Fluently multiply multi-digit whole numbers using the standard algorithm. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Use the four operations with whole numbers to solve problems. (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Formulate, represent, and use algorithms to add and subtract fractions with flexibility, accuracy, and efficiency (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?
  • 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?

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • List several different types of erosion.
  • Compare and contrast the effects of various types of erosion.
  • Discuss how engineers work to prevent erosion.

Materials List

To share with the entire class:

Chemical Erosion Station

  • Glass tray or Petri dish
  • Rock samples that contain mineral calcite (calcium carbonate); e.g., limestone, marble, certain cement/mortar
  • Other rock samples (brick, granite, most gravel)
  • Weak acid (e.g., lemon juice or vinegar)
  • Eyedropper
  • Magnifying glass
  • Paper towels

Water Erosion Station

  • Large container (e.g., a deep plastic bin at least 18 inches x 9 inches)
  • Moist soil
  • 12 coins or poker chips
  • Paper towels
  • Watering can (one with several holes in the spout)
  • Water
  • Ruler

Wind Erosion Station

  • Sand
  • Small-size motorized fan (handheld if possible)
  • Large bin or box with no top

Glacier Erosion Station

  • Ice cubes (enough for one for each group)
  • Modeling clay (do NOT use Play-Doh®)
  • Tray
  • Sand
  • Paper towels

Temperature Erosion Station

  • Heat source (e.g., burner or hot plate) • 3 glass beakers
  • Ice
  • Water
  • Plastic tongs
  • Goggles
  • Marbles (one for each group)

Each group should have:

  • Two copies of the Erosion Worksheet (or, one per student).

The teacher should have:

  • One stopwatch, clock or wristwatch to time 7-8 minute rotation intervals.


Photograph of a large landslide caused by water erosion. Shown is town at the base of a mountain that has partially collapsed. Many of the town's structures are completely or partially covered by dirt from the mountain landslide.
Figure 2. A landslide caused by water erosion.
Copyright © U.S Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, http://landslides.usgs.gov/
What is erosion? Have you heard that word before? Erosion is the process of wearing away the surface of the Earth in different ways. Erosion can happen from wind, water, ice, temperature and even chemicals found in nature. Erosion is all around us. You have probably seen some type of erosion without even realizing it. Have you noticed bits of sand and dirt being carried away by water after a rainfall? How about the side of a building or a statue that has become smooth or worn down as it gets old? How about a crack in the sidewalk or road that was not there before? Or a sidewalk crack that you have noticed getting larger by the week? All of these things can happen from erosion. Wind and water can carry away dirt, sand and soil from one area, rub it against an object (similar to the effects of sandpaper) that it moves over, and deposit it somewhere entirely different. Temperature changes can cause different things to contract (shrink) and expand, allowing them to crack over time. Acid rain from pollution causes chemicals in the air to slowly break down buildings, trees and statues. Even ice in the form of huge glaciers can drag away piece of land as they move downhill from gravity.

Erosion is constantly shaping the Earth's surface. Our Earth looks different than it did 100 years ago and will look even more different 100 years in the future. Erosion has built mountains and carved out deep valleys. All this erosion takes a toll on man-made structures as well. Significant landmarks, like the Sphinx in Egypt or pyramids in South America, can be destroyed if not properly protected. Damage caused by erosion can cost a lot of money to repair. Large-scale erosion is often dangerous and can cause landslides and flooding.

Engineers study erosion so that they can protect the environment, structures, landmarks and people's lives. Engineers design and build structures such as houses, buildings and roads for people to live and work in and, of course, on which to drive their automobiles. They develop designs that will help protect people from landslides and flooding, like levees and barriers. Engineers are also involved in protecting existing land formations and landmarks that people want to keep around, such as ancient pyramids and national monuments.

Today, we are going to look at five types of weathering. We are going to learn about the effects of each type on our surroundings on Earth. Then, we will be one step closer to working out problems like engineers, who need to know about erosion for so many things!


Acid Rain: Rain containing acids that form in the atmosphere when industrial gas emissions (especially sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) combine with water.

Deposition: The act or process by which an agent of erosion, such as wind or water, lays down matter (sediment).

Erosion: The wearing away of the surface of the Earth by natural processes (weathering, dissolution, abrasion, corrosion, etc.).

Geology: The scientific study of the origin, history and structure of the Earth.

Glacier: A huge mass of ice slowly flowing over a land mass, formed from compacted snow in an area where snow accumulation exceeds melting.

Limestone: A type of sedimentary rock consisting of the mineral calcium carbonate.

Sediment: Material that settles to the bottom of a liquid.

Weathering: Gradual physical and chemical wearing away of rocks.


Before the Activity

  1. Gather materials and make copies of the Erosion Worksheet.
  2. Set up five stations, and disperse the materials to the correct station.
  • Make sure to label the rock samples for the chemical erosion station.
  • Make sure to place soil in the container for the water erosion station.
  • Make sure to set up a pile of sand in the large box or outside for the sand erosion station. Note: Place the fan far enough away from the sand so that it will not blow it all over the place. (The idea is to move a layer of sand from the center, to the another side of the box; gradually moving the entire "sand dune.")

With the Students

Station 1: Chemical Erosion Station

  1. Take one of the rocks and place it in the glass tray.
  2. Slowly add drops of lemon juice/vinegar to the rock using the eye dropper.
  3. Observe the rock with the magnifying glass.
  4. Record your observations on your Erosion Worksheet. (Specifically, did the rock bubble when you placed the weak acid on it?)
  5. Discuss with your partners why you think such a reaction occurred.
  6. Remove the rock, dry it off, and set it off to the side of the rest of the rocks.
  7. Pour out any liquid from the glass tray into the sink.
  8. Repeat steps 1-7 with all the remaining rocks.

Station 2: Water Erosion Station

  1. In a large container, form a mountain of soil about 3 inches across (wide at the top) and about 5 or 6 inches tall in the container.
  2. Press the coins/chips into the surface of the dirt/clay. (Place them at different angles with the edge protruding out; leave about half the coin showing.)
  3. Create a rainstorm by pouring water on the mountain with the watering can.
  4. Record your observations. (Are the coins sticking out more or less? What does the bottom of the mountain look like?)
  5. Remove the coins and put them back onto a paper towel to dry.
  6. Drain the water into a sink.

Station 3: Wind Erosion Station

  1. Form a pile of sand in the center of the box (approximately 5 or 6 inches tall).
  2. Using the fan, blow air lightly over the sand from one end of the box to the other.
  3. Record your observations. (Did the pile of sand move?)

Station 4: Glacier Erosion Station

  1. Take a ball of clay from the container (approximately 1-2 inches in diameter).
  2. Flatten the clay onto the surface on the tray.
  3. Press an ice cube against the flattened clay and move it back and forth several times.
  4. Record your observations. (Does anything happen to the clay when you rub the ice cube on it?)
  5. Place a small pile of sand on the clay and then place the ice cube on top of the sand for 1-2 minutes.
  6. Pick up the ice cube and observe the surface of the cube that was touching the sand and record your observations. (What does the bottom of the ice cube look like?)
  7. Place the same side of the ice cube on the sandy part of the clay and move it back and forth several times.
  8. Remove the ice cube and wipe away the sand from the surface of the clay.
  9. Record your observations. (What does the texture of the surface of the clay feel like?)
  10. Place the clay back where it came from and throw away the remaining ice and sand.

Station 5: Temperature Erosion Station (this station should be used as a demonstration or done with an adult helper)

  2. Use the tongs to place the marble into the beaker.
  3. Turn the burner on about ¾ of the way.
  4. Leave the marble in the beaker for 5 minutes.
  5. While you are waiting, make sure you have enough water in one beaker and ice in the other beaker.
  6. After 5 minutes have passed, turn off the burner.
  7. Use the tongs to place the marble briefly into the water and then into the beaker of ice.
  8. Look at the marble and record your observations.
  9. You may now take off your safety goggles.


Safety Issues

Use eye protection (goggles or safety glasses) during the Temperature Erosion Station.

It is advised if students are not accustomed to using hot plates/burners that an adult supervise the Temperature Erosion Station or conduct this station as a class demonstration.

Troubleshooting Tips

Some of the stations can be messy; therefore, clean up might be easier if this activity is done outside.

It is recommended that the temperature erosion station be conducted as demonstration for the whole class or done with an adult helper or teacher supervising the station.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Questions: Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses.

  • Do you know what erosion is?
  • What is an example of erosion that you have seen in nature?

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have the students record their observations on the Erosion Worksheet; review their answers to gauge their mastery of the subject.

Post-Activity Assessment

Problem Solving: Present the class with the Erosion Math Worksheet and ask the students to calculate the effect of erosion in each of the scenarios. Discuss how engineers might need to solve similar problems when working to protect the environment, structures, landmarks and people's lives.

Define It! Drawing: Have students draw pictures of each of the five types of erosion that were discussed and write their own definition of erosion (and its effects) at the bottom of the page.

Activity Extensions

Try another activity from www.teachengineering.org called Acid Rain Effects to look at how acid rain (Chemical erosion) can affect living and non-living things.

Have students become "erosion detectives" and develop a list of things in their area (school, home, park) that show erosion at work.

Have students design a way to show the effects of multiple types of erosion on one piece of land (or pile of soil). Does adding more types of erosion (wind and water) to the land increase the changes in landscape? Next, have the students draw designs of how to protect their land (or pile of soil) from the different types of erosion. This is something an engineer might design.

Activity Scaling

For upper grades: Have students complete the Erosion Math Worksheet when they finish the stations.

For lower grades: These stations can be done as demonstrations for the entire class. Have student volunteers help with each demonstration. Discuss observations as group.


Cavers, Curtis. Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, Crops, "Soil Management on Potato Land," March 2006, accessed August 1, 2006. http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/potatoes/bda01s30.html
The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, Education and Manpower Bureau, Science Education Section, Science (S1-3), Unit 5: The Wonderful Solvent: Water, Articles, "Acid Rain," accessed July 25, 2006. http://resources.ed.gov.hk/~s1sci/R_S1Science /sp/en/syllabus/unit5/article-ar.htm
National Geophysical Data Center, NOAA Satellite and Information Service, Natural Hazards, "Erosional Landforms," May 3, 2005, accessed August 1, 2006. http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/seg/hazard/slideset/24/24_slides.shtml
United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Erosion, accessed August 1, 2006. http://www.mo.nrcs.usda.gov/news/MOphotogallery/erosion.html
United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Erosion. http://www.ctenvirothon.org/studyguides/soil_docs/wind_water_erosion_pics.pdf Accessed August 1, 2006.
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Landslide Hazards Program, "USGS Landslide Hazards," November 28, 2005, accessed August 1, 2006. http://landslides.usgs.gov/
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Activities to Explore Acid Rain and Building Stones: Activity 9, "Does This Material React With Acid?" July 3, 2001, accessed August 1, 2006. http://geology.er.usgs.gov/eastern/acid9.html


Teresa Ellis; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell


© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


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