Hands-on Activity: Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's to the Mine We Go

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

Photo shows two students seated at a table, picking beans out of a bin of sand.
Students mine for bean "resources."
Copyright © 2011 Kristen Brown, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


This activity simulates the extraction of limited, nonrenewable resources from a "mine," so students can experience first-hand how resource extraction becomes more difficult over time. Students gather data and graph their results to determine the peak in resource extraction. They learn about the limitations of nonrenewable resources, and how these resources are currently used.

Engineering Connection

As resources diminish or become more difficult to find, engineers must figure out how to do more with less. For example, with the price of coal on the rise, communities depend on engineers to design and build more renewable electricity generators, such as wind turbines. In all designs, engineers must consider the tradeoffs of renewable vs. nonrenewable resources. Factors such as cost, practicality of long term use, availability of resources, and pollution generated are all design considerations. Engineers also design methods to harvest resources from the Earth, including drills to reach oil and natural gas, and mining equipment to extract oil.

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.

  • Represent real world and mathematical problems by graphing points in the first quadrant of the coordinate plane, and interpret coordinate values of points in the context of the situation. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
  • Use variables to represent two quantities in a real-world problem that change in relationship to one another; write an equation to express one quantity, thought of as the dependent variable, in terms of the other quantity, thought of as the independent variable. Analyze the relationship between the dependent and independent variables using graphs and tables, and relate these to the equation. (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Give feedback on this alignment...
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Pre-Req Knowledge

Ability to make line and bar graphs.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain why nonrenewable resource extraction becomes more difficult over time.
  • Find the peak of a graph.
  • Describe the production curve of nonrenewable resources.

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • plastic bin or disposable aluminum baking pan, ~8 ½-in x 11-in x 4-in deep (~22-cm x 28-cm x 10-cm deep)
  • 1 liter (4 cups) sand
  • 0.2 liters (3/4 cup) of dried white beans
  • Mining Worksheet, one per student
  • 1 piece scrap paper (same size or larger than bin area)
  • 2 paper towels

To share with the entire class:

  • stopwatch, timer or clock with a secondhand
  • (optional) projector to show the attached Hubbert Curve Peak Oil Graph (otherwise, print it out)


What do miners do? (Listen to student responses. Answer: They dig into the Earth to extract natural resources.) What are natural resources? (Something that produces a benefit and is created naturally by the Earth) Can anyone think of some examples of things that are mined? (Many correct answers, but expect coal or gold as the most common answer.) Mined resources are used for many things, such as building computers and televisions or generating electricity.

Today, you are going to be miners! This activity will help you discover some very important things about what we call renewable and nonrenewable resources. You will learn more about those words later. Let's get started!


conserve: When natural resources are used wisely, without wasting them. For example by turning off the water when brushing your teeth.

nonrenewable resource: Resources that are used faster than the Earth produces them, and will not regenerate within our lifetime (such as fossil fuels, which take centuries to form).

renewable resources: Resources that regenerate on short time-scales (such as water going through the water cycle).

reserves: Mineral resources that can be extracted. For example, in this activity, the number of beans originally in the mine represents the reserves.

resource: A supply that produces a benefit.

trade-offs: Advantages and disadvantages that must be weighed in order to make a decision.



This activity simulates the extraction of nonrenewable resources from a mine using a simple bean (mineral/resource) and sand (mine) mixture. Students extract beans from the sand in timed increments, and see that extraction is gradually more difficult as time passes. The students gather data, graph their results, and finally, discuss how their experience with the activity translates to the real world.

Before the Activity

  • Prepare the bean/sand mixture in bins for each group. The mixture should fill about 1 inch of the bin. Thoroughly mix the beans and sand so that some beans are visible, but others are buried.
  • Make copies of the attached Mining Worksheet, one per student
  • Prepare to project the attached Hubbert Curve Peak Oil Graph PowerPoint slide, or else print it out to how students.
  • Divide the class into groups of three or four students each.

With the Students

  1. Explain the activity rules.
  • The object of this game is to recover as many minerals/resources (beans) as possible each "work day" while keeping the sand in the mine.
  • You must mine within a set "work day" and only mine between your signal to start and stop. (To help students follow this rule) You will place a piece of scrap paper over your mines between work days. The miners need to sleep and spend time with their families outside of work!
  • You are only allowed to mine with a thumb and index finger on one hand, and you can only pick up one resource (bean) at a time.
  • Each group gets two paper towels. You retrieve minerals by extracting them from the "mine" and placing them in a pile on one paper towel. Then, count the number of beans on the paper towel, and record your data on your worksheets. After recording the data, move the beans to the second paper towel, which is the discard pile. Once a resource is extracted from the mine it cannot be returned to the mine and that the discard pile is for resources extracted during previous workdays.
  1. Pass out a bin to each group, and hand out one worksheet to each student. Explain that they will each be recording the data from the entire group, not just for themselves.
  2. For the first work day, have only one student from each group mine. Tell the students to get ready, and call out "start" as you start the stopwatch. After 30 seconds, instruct the miners to stop. Have them count and record the number of minerals (beans) their group retrieved under "Pieces Recovered" on their worksheets. Then, have students move these mined beans to a discard pile. Do not allow students to put the beans back in the mine. Repeat step 3 until each student has mined individually.
  3. For the next work day, repeat step 3, but let two students from each group mine. Have students record the total number of beans extracted from both miners during the work day.
  4. Continue repeating step 3 and adding one miner per workday until the entire group is participating.
  5. Continue with 30-second work days (with all students mine during each work day) until all groups have shown a decline in beans recovered. Walk around the classroom, checking student worksheets to see when this happens. Depending on the students, expect this decline take place after 10 to 20 work days. Make sure that students continue to use the correct procedure. After each work day, pause and allow students to count and record the number of minerals their group retrieved. After each workday, have students move the counted beans to the discard pile to clear the area for the next work day's pile.
  6. Expect some groups to start to run out of beans before others. Make sure these groups are still only using their thumbs and forefingers on one hand. If students complain that they do not have any more beans, explain that they still have to show up to work since mining is their job! You may want to write down some quotes from groups at this stage, such as "we ran out" or "there aren't any more" to draw comparisons between resource extraction and the activity.
  7. Have students graph their data on their worksheets, as either bar or line graphs. Expect graphs to look similar to the graph in Figure 1.
    A line graph shows "Pieces Recovered" on the y-axis and "Work Day" on the x-axis. The line gradually rises to a peak at day 8 and at 120 pieces recovered, and sharply declines to the end at day 11 and at 0 pieces recovered.
    Figure 1. Example graph using sample activity data.
    Copyright © 2011 Kristen Brown, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
  8. Expect an increase and subsequent decline in each group's mineral production over time. Explain to students that this mirrors production in real life. As uses for a mineral increase, the number of mines and miners increases because mining is more profitable. Production reaches a peak and then declines. The more minerals we take from the Earth, the harder it is to get more. This is because the minerals we recover are nonrenewable resources. Recall that as the resources declined, students may have commented that there were no more beans in their mines. Point out that a few beans still remained, but that it was much more difficult to find and extract the last beans. This is seen in real life at the point when even many natural resources remain in the Earth, some of them are very difficult to extract and use.
    A line graph shows "Production (10^9 bbls/yr)" on the y-axis and "Year" on the x-axis.
    Figure 2. A graph predicts the peak oil production in the early 21st century when we will be about halfway through the Earth's reserve of oil. (M. King Hubbert, 1956)
    Copyright © Hankwang, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hubbert_peak_oil_plot.svg
  9. Show students the Hubble Curve Peak Oil Graph, a PowerPoint slide (also shown in Figure 2), and explain that this is a measurement and prediction for world oil production. Point out that the graph shows the same peak behavior that they experienced in the mining activity. As more and more uses are found and discoveries of reserves are made, production increases. At some point, new discoveries stop and the resource becomes more difficult to recover because less is available. At this point, production begins to decline. Also, the resource is more expensive as the recovery declines. Explain that this prediction is idealized, and in real life (as students saw in their own graphs) it is not as smooth as pictured in the graph.
  10. Review all new vocabulary words with the students, and conclude the activity by presenting the following information:

While our planet is rich in resources, some of these resources can be used up. We call these nonrenewable resources. Initially, it is easy to recover these resources from the Earth. But, as time goes on and more resources are recovered, it becomes more difficult to extract them. The easily accessible resources are used first because they can be mined inexpensively and quickly. As mining continues, more effort is required, which makes the resource more expensive. Later mining can also be more disruptive to the environment, as land must be cleared and more extensive digging is required. Because of this problem, among others, scientists and engineers are looking for alternatives to fossil fuels (especially coal) for generating electricity. Even though large reserves of coal and other minerals still remain in the Earth, as it becomes harder and more destructive to mine, so we want to find other ways to generate electricity.

Mining is used to extract resources from the Earth. Mined resources are nonrenewable resources, which mean that they are used faster than the Earth produced them. Mined resources are used for many different things such as heating homes, generating electricity and building electronics. However, we want to conserve resources so that they last longer. We must think about the best ways to use our resources so that we do not run out before we have substitutes. Conserving nonrenewable resources through recycling and using less electricity helps. We can also substitute the burning of fossil fuels by the use of renewable resources such as the wind and sunshine to generate electricity. This means we can still have electricity, but we do not use as many nonrenewable resources.

In the activity, as in real mines, it is easy to extract resources at first. As the resources are used up, it is more difficult to get more. It becomes necessary to search out less accessible sources such as remote locations or deeper wells or mines. This means that the resource is recovered more slowly, and that it becomes more expensive to obtain. Think about your mining activity. Toward the end, even though some beans were still in your mines, it became very difficult to get them out because they were hard to find. The same is true in the real world. Resources are also much more expensive to obtain in the declining production period because they are more expensive to extract.

Mining can also disrupt the environment. All of the sand that ended up outside of your bins, representing material brought up from the mines and discarded, would be disruptive to the surrounding environment in an actual mine, destroying the natural ecosystems of plants, animals and terrain. The large equipment used for mining also usually destroys the surrounding land.

Nonrenewable resources are often used to create energy. Natural gas, coal and minerals for solar panels are all used to generate electricity. Oil is used make gasoline to power cars. Coal, oil and natural gas must be continually extracted to generate electricity. Other materials, such as the minerals used in solar panels can be mined just once to create the solar panels and then generate electricity for years.

Nonrenewable resources are also used to create other goods such as toys, computers and cell phones. Some products made from nonrenewable resources can be recycled, helping to use less of the resource. A good example of this is plastic containers. Plastics are made from oil, which is a nonrenewable resource, but by recycling the containers, less oil is required to produce the plastic products we use every day.

It is important to conserve nonrenewable resources so that we can delay the point at which resources become more expensive, more difficult to extract, or run out. Recycling and using less electricity help us conserve resources. We can also use different types of electricity that do not require nonrenewable resources. Wind energy and hydropower are both alternatives that can help us conserve our resources. Solar power can also help conserve resources, because even though it uses some nonrenewable resources, it does not require constant input of those resources so the resources last longer.


Troubleshooting Tips

  • Try to have a fairly even amount of sand and beans in each bin to prevent students with fewer beans from getting bored before the activity is over.
  • In choosing containers to hold the sand/bean mixture, the main requirement is that they are short, flat bins and not tall, thin ones. You may be able to use bins you already have in the classroom as long as the surface area is large enough for three to four students to mine at once and the bin is not so tall that it becomes difficult to reach the sand.
  • The bin, sand and beans can be reused for this activity indefinitely, and if you filter the sand bean mixture through a mesh screen you can use all the materials in another activity (but don't eat the beans).


Pre-Activity Assessment

In-Class Questions: Ask students the questions presented in the activity introduction. Listen to their answers to gain a sense of their familiarity with the topic. However, be careful not to give away too much about nonrenewable resources before the activity, as this is designed as a discovery activity.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: During the activity, have students fill in the chart on their worksheets and graph their data.

Post-Activity Assessment

Worksheet Questions: After graphing is done, have students answer the remaining questions on their worksheets. Review their answers to gauge their comprehension of the material.

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, graph one group's data in Excel or on a transparency and project it for the class so that students can see the results without having to create the graphs themselves.
  • For upper grades, use smaller "resources" such as rice, or have students use forceps or chopsticks to extract resources.


Kristen Brown; Marissa H. Forbes


© 2012 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

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


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.