Students explore how different materials (sand, gravel, lava rock) with different water contents on different slopes result in landslides of different severity. They measure the severity by how far the landslide debris extends into model houses placed in the flood plain. This activity is a small-scale model of a debris chute currently being used by engineers and scientists to study landslide characteristics. Much of this activity setup is the same as for the Survive That Tsunami activity in Lesson 5 of the Natural Disasters unit.
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- Colorado: Science
- a. 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)  ...show
- b. Develop and communicate an evidence based scientific explanation around one or more factors that change Earth's surface (Grade 5)  ...show
- International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
- Next Generation Science Standards: Science
- Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved. (Grades 3 - 5)  ...show
- Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans. (Grade 4)  ...show
- Define landslides as the result of gravity and friction acting on different types of earth (rock, soil, sand, gravel, etc.).
- Relate that different types of materials create different landslide dynamics.
- Explain that water adds weight to landslide materials and reduces friction, increasing landslide dangers.
- Describe that studying landslides allows engineers to determine where and how to construct buildings to protect people from landslides, and to develop structures for protecting buildings from landslides.
- Model House Template
- Cardstock, 1 sheet, for construction of model houses
- Transparent tape
- Markers, colored pencils, or crayons to decorate houses
- 2 small paper cups; one for water, one for test material
- Mini-Landslide Worksheet, one per student
- 2 ft (.6 m) section of plastic downspout (available at hardware stores; ~$5)
- 1 small bag of sand
- 1 small bag of gravel
- 1 small bag of volcanic (lava) potting rock (available at garden and landscaping stores)
- Plastic bins to hold, wet and store the sand, gravel and volcanic potting rock (optional, but helpful)
- 1 large, shallow, plastic waterproof tub (8-in x 14-in x 30-in or 20-cm x 36-cm x 76-cm, clear plastic is better but not necessary)
- Plastic scoop (optional, or use small paper cup)
- Duct tape
- Scissors (to cut downspout plastic)
- Ruler (or tape measure)
- Stack of books, stool or chair, to support downspout
|Debris:||The scattered remains of something broken or destroyed; rubble or wreckage.|
|Debris flow:||A churning, water-saturated mass of rock, soil and organic matter that rushes down mountain slopes, typically originating as a landslide. (Source: USGS)|
|Friction:||Force that resists the relative motion or tendency to such motion of two bodies in contact.|
|Gravity:||The natural force of attraction exerted by a celestial body, such as Earth, upon objects at or near its surface, tending to draw them toward the center of the body.|
|Landslide:||The downward sliding movement of a mass of earth, rock and/or other fill, under the influence of gravity.|
|Model:||(noun) A small object, usually built to scale, that represents in detail another, often larger object. (verb, as in computer modeling) To make a mathematical description of observed behavior (data, conditions, assumptions), for the purpose of predicting behavior.|
|Trigger:||An event that initiates a landslide.|
|Unstable vs. stable:||Whether or not a slope is prone to landslides.|
Before the Activity
- Gather materials and make copies of the Mini-Landslide Worksheet and Model House Template.
- Set up the mini-landslide model activity in advance by first cutting the downspout in half so that you have two equal sections. Tip: Cut through the narrow sides of the downspout to create the widest chutes possible.
- Duct tape one downspout chute section to the bottom of the plastic tub, approximately in the middle of the tub, to create a shallow angle without the downspout interfering with the tub wall (see Figure 2).
- Support the top end of the downspout by taping it to a stack of books, stool or chair.
With the Students
- Divide the class into three teams (approximately 8-10 students per team).
- Have each team use the Model House Template to construct three houses with the cardboard stock (for a total of nine houses) (see Figure 3). (This is a great time to point out to the students that they are working with geometric shapes.)
- Next, assign each team to test the properties of one of the following materials: sand, gravel or lava rock. Each group performs three trials, assisted by the instructor, while the rest of the teams watch and record measurements on their worksheets.
- Begin the experiment by cleaning off the flood plain and having students place their houses in three locations relative to the debris chute. During the experiment trials, students will predict whether or not certain locations are safe from the landslide. The suggested locations are 1) Two inches (5 cm) in front of and two inches (5 cm) to side of the chute path, 2) four inches (10 cm) in front of and two inches (5 cm) to the other side of the chute path, 3) six inches (15 cm) directly in front of chute path (see Figure 4). Label the houses (1, 2, 3) with numbers on the rooftops.
- Ask the students to make predictions. Which of the model buildings will be "damaged" (moved from their original location, or worse) during each landslide trial? Have students record their prediction on their worksheets.
- Note: For consistency throughout the experiment, make sure the sand and the chute are already damp before the first trial begins.
- Trial 1: Make sure the chute is at the shallowest angle allowed by the bin (see Figure 5). Using a small paper cup, place a one cup of sand at the top of the chute (see Figure 5). The material should not slide down the chute at this shallow angle.
- Next, increase the angle of the slope until the material is on the verge of sliding. Then, simulate an earthquake, a common trigger for landslides, by shaking the chute. The material is not expected to go very far on this trial. It may not even make it out of the chute.
- Secure the chute at this angle by placing books (or a stool or chair, as necessary) under it and taping it in place. Prepare for the next trial.
- Trial 2: This time, place the material in the chute and have a student bring you a paper cup one-quarter full of water. Pour the water into the chute above the material and observe what happens (see Figure 6). Have students record their observations on their worksheets.
- Trial 3: The third trial is similar to the second, except with more water. Use a paper cup half full of water. Pour the water into the chute above the material and observe what happens. Have students record their observations on their worksheets.
- Repeat this procedure with the other two teams for the other two materials.
- Conclude with a class discussion comparing results. How good were student predictions? What did you observe? How did the steepness of the chute make a difference in the damage caused by the landslides? How did the addition of water make a difference in the severity of the landslide damage? Which material caused the worst landslides? Which landslide scenario caused the most damage? What if we combined the materials? What were the best locations in the trials? Where would the safest location be on the flood plain? How would you change the design or construction of your model house to make it survive the landslide better? How can a mini-landslide model like this help us understand the many different conditions and results from real landslides? How would students apply what they've learned to real-world landslide situations? Conduct the activities described in the Assessment section.
- By mixing water with the sand, gravel and lava rocks, it can get messy and slippery. Conduct outside if possible.
- What would make a more dangerous landslide... one that is made of boulders or one made of sand, gravel and soil? (Answer: It depends on how far the landslide reaches. A single, heavy boulder sounds more destructive than sand and gravel, but sometimes landslides made of smaller materials can travel much further and affect more buildings and people.)
Activity Embedded Assessment
- Gather the following materials: topsoil, random objects (weed blocker, tulle, cotton balls, toothpicks, Popsicle sticks), LEGO® pieces (3-4 pieces per group), plastic bins (1 per group), and a "rain-maker" (a plastic cup with holes punched in the bottom).
- Have students brainstorm the things that make landslides happen.
- Natural causes: poor soil structure, vibrational force (earthquakes or volcanoes), groundwater pumping, heavy erosion from wind or water
- Human causes: deforestation (emphasize the impact of taking roots out of soil), construction
- Have students design their mountains. Each should include their material in their designs, which include a plastic bin with a soil/sand/gravel mixture, some LEGO pieces to build a house, and a cup of random materials (the fewer, the better – recommend 2 cotton balls, 1 Popsicle stick, 2 toothpicks, 1 piece of mesh or tulle – scale the amount of materials they get based on their ages).
- Tell students that they have two chances to build a mountain out of these materials. Explain the challenge and requirements:
- Make your mountain as tall as possible. (This keeps groups from settling for small mounds that will never erode.)
- The mountain may not be anchored by the sides of the plastic bin; it must be free-standing.
- No unrealistic designs. For example, do not permit students to drape a cloth over an entire mountain. To facilitate this, make the rule that in the second iteration, the additional materials should not be visible; in other words, all materials must be used to internally strengthen the mountain.
- Before building, give students the materials they have to work with (those materials in addition to the bins with soil mixture) and have them draw the mountain design with labels and details. Tell them they must get their design approved before building.
- Once approved, they can build, test, re-build, re-test. At the end, leave time for clean-up (there is lots!) and some time for them to each reflect (in writing) what worked and what they would do differently next time.
Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed February 15, 2006. (Source of some vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation)
Lesson 5 – Landslides. Environmental Geology, Geology Education, Mansfield University, Mansfield, PA. Accessed February 15, 2006. http://www.geologyeducation.com/blackboard/lan/lanlessonsummer.html
Landslide Simulation. Environmental Geology, Geology Education, Mansfield University, Mansfield, PA. Accessed February 15, 2006. (Excellent video animation provides a realistic view of how landslide processes work and the damage that can be done by them; large, 2 MB file) http://www.geologyeducation.com/blackboard/lan/landsld.gif
Timothy S. Nicklas, Geoffrey Hill, Emily Gill, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise W. Carlson
© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado.
Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
Last modified: May 21, 2015