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  • Subject:
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: One to two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. How to design an experiment and how to control different variables in an experiment.
2. How different soil materials can produce varying types of landslides.
3. How scientists can predict where landslides could occur.


For this lesson, you will need:
Stream table or a container to act as a stream table (milk carton with one side cut away)
Materials to line stream table: sand, soil, pebbles, diatomaceous earth, clay, mixture of material
Graduated cylinder
Watering can (soda bottle)
Plastic sheeting or newspaper to cover lab tables or floor
Scale or balance to measure amount of material in landslide (optional)


1. Introduce the different types of landslides that occur. Discuss the different conditions that trigger each type and the resulting damage wrought by each type.
2. Tell students they will be designing their own lab to test different types of landslides. Review the materials they'll be using to simulate a small-scale landslide.
3. Ask the class to then brainstorm a list of the different variables that trigger landslides, such as slope, material, and amount of water.
4. Divide the class into small groups and have them describe how they will simulate different types of landslides. Remind students that they should test only one variable at a time—and carefully record the variable each time (for example, the angle of the slope, the amount of each material added, or the exact amount of water added). They will need to repeat their experiment three times, then average the results of each to obtain more accurate data.
5. To construct their stream tables, students should begin by filling their container halfway with material (soil, rocks, etc.). To vary the angle of the slope, have students raise one end of their stream table with a book or two. (They may need to place another book at the opposite end of the stream table to keep it from sliding.) Students should measure this angle using a protractor or clinometer.
6. Next, have students slowly pour a measured amount of water on the higher end of the stream table until all the material is soaked. The water should be added gently with a sprinkling can or small rubber hose. Have students observe and illustrate the patterns formed in the stream table.
7. Once the material has been soaked with water—without the material moving—students can create a "landslide" in their stream table. To do this, they need to slowly add a measured amount of water over a period of time. Students should be carefully measuring the total amount of water they add to the stream table—and observing the exact amount that has been added to instigate the landslide. Once the landslide has occurred, they should measure the amount of material involved in the slide by volume or weight.
8. Students should repeat their experiment twice and average their results between the three trials. Encourage students to experiment with increased water amounts, materials, or slope angles.
9. Have each group share its results with the class.

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Adaptation for older students:
As students conduct the experiment, have them record specific variables, such as amount of water, material type, length of slide, amount of material involved in the slide, and degree of slope. Encourage students to use a timer to determine the number of seconds it takes for a landslide to occur in different conditions. Once the experiment is complete, have students combine their results and develop a way to show the class data with a graph. After reviewing the graphs, discuss which conditions most influenced the occurrence of a landslide.

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Discussion Questions

1. Discuss possible causes of landslides. Provide some examples of areas that have experienced either recent or frequent landslides.
2. Debate whether landslide areas should be developed. What should be done for areas already developed that could help people survive a potential landslide?
3. Compare and contrast debris slides and rock slides. How should a community respond to each potential slide?
4. Explain how avalanches and volcanoes relate to landslides. Discuss which would be the most destructive.
5. Observe your community for evidence of landslides, rock slides, or debris slides. Is this a threat to your area? Are there other natural disasters that pose more of a threat?
6. Find the most recent news story about a landslide and explain its causes and effects. Debate whether the community responded well. How were citizens informed ahead of time?

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Have students write a lab report for the experiment they designed. Give points for each section of their lab. Students should include some background information on landslides, a data graph, and a well-written conclusion.

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Barricade Plans
Have students design barricade canyons for landslides. Vary their size, shape, and structure. Test each barricade using a stream table to determine which design held the most types of landslide debris.

Are You Landslide Prone?
Research to find areas near you that are prone to landslides. Determine some characteristics that may affect landslide potential. Find a United States Geological Survey map of landslides or make a map of areas where the potential is great.

Be Prepared!
Design a public service radio announcement for area residents living in a potential landslide area. How can a community prepare for a landslide? How will residents know when a landslide is likely to occur? What should they do in the event of a landslide?

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Suggested Readings

Devastation! The World's Worst Natural Disasters
Newson, Lesley, New York: DK Publishing, 1998
Devastation gives accounts of recorded natural disasters worldwide. It is illustrated with interesting photos and drawings that give accountability to frightening events.

The White Death: Tragedy and Heroism in an Avalanche Zone
Jenkins, McKay, New York: Random House, 2000
A gripping natural disaster story, that educates the reader about the tremendous power behind an avalanche.

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USGS (United States Geological Survey)
Major landslide damage sites in California related to El Nino.

LEERIC (Louisiana Energy & Environmental Resource & Information Center)
Includes lesson plans on erosion ("Louisiana Coastal Erosion", "Beach Erosion Investigation"), Internet Education Resources, Resource Directory.

Erosion and Giant Landslides
Information about erosion, caused by a variety of forces.

Landslide and Snow Avalanches
Internet resources re: Earth Sciences and natural hazards.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    avalanche
Definition: A fall or slide of a large mass of snow or rock down a mountainside.
Context: Snow-covered volcanoes or excessive snow accumulation can cause a landslide of snow commonly called an avalanche.

speaker    El Ni—o
Definition: The warming of the ocean surface every 4 to 12 years that affects weather over most of the Pacific region.
Context: The warming of the surface of the Pacific Ocean during El Ni—o created many heavy storms along the coast of California.

speaker    erosion
Definition: The process whereby the Earth's materials are carried away and redeposited by wind, water, ice, or gravity.
Context: Over many years, erosion changed the landscape of the beach community.

speaker    glacier
Definition: A huge, powerful mass of ice that moves slowly over a landmass, picking up large amounts of debris as it moves.
Context: Glaciers gradually melt over a long period of time.

speaker    gravity
Definition: The force of attraction exerted by a celestial body on objects at its surface; the force that pulls material on the Earth's surface toward the center of the Earth.
Context: Due to the force of gravity, material will always flow down a slope.

speaker    groundwater
Definition: Water beneath the Earth's surface, found between saturated soil and rock.
Context: After periods of heavy rain, groundwater can build up under sandy or loosely packed soil creating an unstable surface with a potential for a landslide.

speaker    tectonic plates
Definition: The pieces of the Earth's crust that float on the Earth's mantle.
Context: The Pacific and the North American tectonic plates continually move against each other. This plate movement can form uplifted mountains and earthquakes.

speaker    uplift
Definition: To raise or elevate.
Context: Some mountains are formed when pieces of the Earth's crust are uplifted against the force of gravity.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: Science
Understands basic Earth processes.
Knows how landforms are created through a combination of constructive and destructive forces (e.g., constructive forces such as crustal deformation, volcanic eruptions, and deposition of sediment; destructive forces such as weathering and erosion).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: Science
Understands basic Earth processes.
Knows components of soil and other factors that influence soil texture, fertility, and resistance to erosion (e.g., plant roots and debris, bacteria, fungi, worms, rodents).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: Science
Understands the nature of scientific inquiry.
Designs and conducts a scientific investigation (e.g., formulates questions, designs and executes investigations, interprets data, synthesizes evidence into explanations, proposes alternative explanations for observations, critiques explanations and procedures).

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Mary C. Cahill, middle school science coordinator, Potomac School, McLean, Virginia.

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