Curricular Unit: Rock Cycle

Quick Look

Grade Level: 8 (7-9)

Choose From: 5 lessons and 6 activities

Subject Areas: Earth and Space

A yellow road sign: ROCKS - NEXT 4 MILES.
Students explore all facets of the rock cycle
Copyright © 2008 Denise W. Carlson. Used with permission.


Through five lessons, students are introduced to all facets of the rock cycle. Topics include rock and mineral types, material stresses and weathering, geologic time and fossil formation, the Earth's crust and tectonic plates, and soil formation and composition. Lessons are presented in the context of the related impact on humans in the form of roadway and tunnel design and construction, natural disasters, environmental site assessment for building structures, and measurement instrumentation and tools. Hands-on activities include experiencing tensional, compressional and shear material stress by using only hand force to break bars of soap; preparing Jeopardy-type trivia questions/answers for a class game that reinforces students' understanding of rocks and the rock cycle; creating "fossils" using melted chocolate; working within design constraints to design and build a model tunnel through a clay mountain; and soil sampling by creating tools, obtaining soil cores, documenting a soil profile log, and analyzing the findings to make engineering predictions.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers learn about the natural world in order to design the human-built environment. Rocks, soils, fossils and the Earth's crust make up the foundation of the world we depend upon. Engineers must understand the characteristics of these rocks and materials so that they can design big infrastructure projects—such as bridges, foundations, roads and tunnels—to be safe and long-lasting. Geotechnical engineers apply their understanding of rocks to environmental site investigations for the purposes of land development and environmental stewardship. To prevent and limit the destruction of communities and human life, engineers also develop technologies to assess and predict natural hazards caused by rock movement. Engineers apply their understanding of science and math to designing the tools and instrumentation for sampling, sensing, drilling, boring, analyzing and modeling—so we can learn more and predict better.

Unit Overview

Lesson 1 - Rock Solid: An introduction to the types of rocks and minerals, as well as material stresses and weathering

Lesson 2 - Making & Breaking: How natural weathering, erosion, pressure and heat are part of the rock cycle

Lesson 3 - Fantastic Fossils: Geoologic time and fossil formation

Lesson 4 - How Mountains Are Formed: The Earth's crust and tectonic plates as they impact roadways, tunnels, natural resource location and natural disaster prediction

Lesson 5 - Soil Investigations: Soil formation, composition and properties as seen in soil profiles and soil sampling for environmental site assessment

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 (

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-ESS2-1. Develop a model to describe the cycling of Earth's materials and the flow of energy that drives this process. (Grades 6 - 8)

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This unit focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Develop and use a model to describe phenomena.

Alignment agreement:

All Earth processes are the result of energy flowing and matter cycling within and among the planet's systems. This energy is derived from the sun and Earth's hot interior. The energy that flows and matter that cycles produce chemical and physical changes in Earth's materials and living organisms.

Alignment agreement:

Explanations of stability and change in natural or designed systems can be constructed by examining the changes over time and processes at different scales, including the atomic scale.

Alignment agreement:

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 unit 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:

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More Curriculum Like This

How Mountains are Formed

Students investigate how mountains are formed. Students learn that geotechnical engineers design technologies to measure movement of tectonic plates and mountain formation, as well as design to alter the mountain environment to create safe and dependable roadways and tunnels.

preview of 'How Mountains are Formed' Lesson
Middle School Lesson
Rock Solid

Students are introduced to three types of material stress related to rocks: compressional, torsional and shear. They learn about rock types (sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic), and about the occurrence of stresses and weathering in nature, including physical, chemical and biological weathering.

preview of 'Rock Solid' Lesson
Middle School Lesson
Soil Investigations

Students learn the basics about soil, including its formation through the cycling of the Earth's materials, as well as its characteristics and importance. They are also introduced to soil profiles and how engineers conduct site investigations to learn about soil quality for development, contaminatio...

preview of 'Soil Investigations' Lesson
Middle School Lesson
Carbon Cycles

Students are introduced to the concept of energy cycles by learning about the carbon cycle. They learn how carbon atoms travel through the geological (ancient) carbon cycle and the biological/physical carbon cycle.

preview of 'Carbon Cycles' Lesson
Middle School Lesson

Unit Schedule


© 2008 by Regents of the University of Colorado


See individual lessons and activities.

Supporting Program

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


This digital library content was developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. 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: January 15, 2020


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