Shape It Up

What You Need


  • 1 metal pie plate per student pair
  • 1 Styrofoam® cup per child
  • Source of water to fill each pie pan 1 inch deep
  • Two plates for you to use in demonstrating plate tectonics
Shape It Up


To understand that earth’s landscape features change and always have through forces of nature such as wind, water, glaciation, and volcanism.


This lesson is based on an extremely child-friendly, free online game called Shape It Up!. It helps students visualize and understand change in the landscape caused by geologic processes. It also helps convey a sense of the scale and rate of change. It does this by visualizing different amounts of elapsed time in the natural life cycle of four landscapes and the change agents that create them: wind, water, glaciers, and volcanoes.

Shape It Up quickly rewards correct answers and gently redirects erroneous answers to prompt students to try again. Because of the student-friendly interface, students of all abilities will feel gratified, comfortable, and confident as they learn to visually identify a landscape feature and match it with the force of nature that changes it at three different stages in its life cycle.

Research suggests there are three potential areas of misunderstanding for this age group. One misconception for children of this age is they may think evaporation means water ceases to exist. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p.68) In the glaciation cycle pictures, the final two-million year end point shows a valley carved by ice and water that is now empty of both. Where did the water go? Students will need to have this spelled out for them: some water flowed away downhill because the temperature permitted it to remain liquid water, not frozen ice. The temperature may even have been warm enough to have evaporated the water into the air. Even when water is invisible as vapor, it still has the potential to become water and rain if the temperature cools and changes it back to water. It condenses back into droplets. However, research shows this mechanism of condensation is not typically understood until high school.

Research also suggests children may have a tendency to think the earth is now today as it always has been. The very concept of a changing landscape is new. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p.72)

Finally, even middle-school students taught by traditional means are not able to construct coherent explanations about the causes of volcanoes and earthquakes. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p.72) To correct this misconception at this younger age, teachers need to present the concept of tectonic plates that underlie the oceans and continents, and occasionally shift in locations, for example in the Hawaiian islands and the Pacific plates; Haiti and the slippage between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates; and Chile.


In class, review small and big number notation: 100, 10,000, and 2,000,000 are the time increments of geologic changes that students will need to recognize in the interactive game. Review with a quick round of "Slap, Clap, and Dash Orchestra."

  1. Students should put their heads down on their desks, covering their eyes.
  2. You should write a number in one of the place values (100s, 10,000s, and 2,000,000s) on the board. Then signal to the class to look up at the board.
  3. Students should indicate recognition of 100s by slapping the top of their desks. They should clap their hands for 10,000s and they should "run" finger races over their desk tops—the 10 Digit Dash—for 2,000,000 and other million numbers.
  4. After a few rounds, when recognition seems proficient, you can make a "Slap, Clap, and Dash Orchestra" of the class by dividing them in sections, assigning them a value, and then "cueing" number groups to play together on a beat. Feel free to add other sounds, too.

At home, or in independent/small group initiative learning time in class, students should use the Shape It Up student esheet to visit these sites:

These sites reinforce identifying number units of 100, 10,000, and 2,000,000. Once students have looked at these sites, they should do the Place Value Activity on the Shape It Up student sheet.

Once students have done the place value exercise, they should continue on with the Geologic Changes Activity on the student sheet. This exercise helps them begin to recognize earth-changing geologic processes that they will learn about in the interactive activity, and to become familiar with the interactive screen. Answers for this activity can be found on the Shape It Up teacher sheet.


To conceptually prepare for going to the computers and doing the interactive activity, ask students: "Has the earth always looked like it does today?" "How do we know this?" 

Guide students to understand that no, it has not, and we know this because scientists conduct many different kinds of experiments and investigations to gather evidence of the change. In the 1800s, the discovery in Europe and America of fossilized bones of animals that no longer existed—such as dinosaurs—forced people to consider what happened to the animals, and why it happened. The answer is that geologic changes such as melting glaciers, erupting volcanoes, and violent earthquakes all change the habitat of animals. In some cases, this has led to the extinction if the animals could not adapt to new conditions.

Now students should prepare for an experiment that helps them explore geologic changes. First, explain to the class that changes to the earth can be fast or slow.

"The disruption of buildings and cities such as happened recently from earthquakes in Haiti and Chile was fast. But a glacially-carved valley is a slow change, taking millions of years."

Demonstrate motions of tectonic plates by holding dinner plates, one in each hand. Graze them past each other, bump them into each other, and pull them apart, as you explain:

"'Tectonic' means structure. Evidence from far below the surface of the earth shows that deep under all the land and water of the earth, there are about a dozen huge slabs of rock geologists call plates. The plates have names, based on their location—such as the Caribbean plate near Haiti. The tectonic plates provide structure for everything on the surface. They support us. We on the surface, and all the land and water, are riding around on these plates, but we can't feel it. And the plates themselves are sort of floating on the melted rock at the center of the earth called magma. Some people make this analogy: the tectonic plates float on magma like lily pads float on water.

There's more: these tectonic plates move in really tiny distances. And they interact. We can't feel the movement on the surface of the earth normally. But sometimes tectonic plates brush past against each other. Sometimes the tectonic plates bump right into each other. Sometimes they pull apart. What do you suppose happens on the earth's surface when tectonic plates move?

Let's do an experiment to predict what might change on the earth's surface when the tectonic plates miles and miles below us move."

Use the Plate Tectonics: Brush, Bump, and Pull Experiment teacher sheet to help guide students through the experiment.

Once students have finished this activity, they should apply this knowledge during computer time. Students should use their esheet to go to and play the interactive activity, Shape It Up!, to experience how mountains, rivers, and canyons were formed.

Prepare them for the four basic transformative processes they will encounter: glaciers, volcanoes, wind, and flooding/runoff of water. On screen, they will see a landscape feature at several points in the feature's life cycle. They should think of it as seeing a volcano, for example, as a "baby," a "teen," and a "grandparent."

After 10 minutes of play, ask questions to help them visually compare images, left to right for a "before" and "after " look at change. Ask questions such as:

  • Where does magma come from? What is magma? What happens when magma cools? Where on the earth might we find evidence for this?
  • How can wind and water be strong enough to move rock? How could water or wind make rock smaller? Would a sand grain be easier than a boulder to move by water or wind? How are wind and water important to the story of the changing land?
  • Do glaciers move while they are still ice? Or do they just melt into water and form a river of liquid? If they move up to 12 inches a year as ice, what kind of experiment could we devise to prove that they move? Think of the fact that glaciers often have those deep valleys called crevasses. What if we planted two ski poles into the ice on either side of the valley, exactly across from each other. In one year's time, where would you predict the ski poles to be? Would they still be exactly across from each other? Or would they be up to 12 inches apart, depending on the direction of flow of ice on the different sides of the crevasse?
  • What sort of footprints do glaciers leave on the land?
  • Why is desert wind especially good at scouring rocks and weathering them? Think of it as if the desert wind is armed with ammunition—little bits of _______ that increase its grinding power against other rocks. You tell me, what are they little bits of?

Now students should go back to the interactive and play for another 10-15 minutes. Encourage them to use the "Learn More" button to see how that information enhances the meaning of the image.


After doing the interactive activity, have students return to the student sheet writing assignment Question 2, where as a pre-test for knowledge, they offered explanations about the processes involved in changing the landscape. Now perform a retest, and compare the pre- and post-activity answers, looking for evidence of causal thinking based on evidence from the instruction provided in the online interactive and the Learn More section.


The Science NetLinks lesson, Model Volcanoes, provides an opportunity for students to learn more about volcanoes.

Students could design an aid program for Haitian children, schools, or families by making a fundraising paper chain as long as is possible—even down the school hall! For every link in the chain, students then respectfully ask families, friends, or local businesses to donate one cent. That money is then donated to Haitian schools and children to help restore their learning environments after the earthquake.

For more inspiration, students could read the News Bites, a kids' blog at National Geographic Kids. Have students take turns and read aloud in class to overcome constraints of below-grade readers; brainstorm the aid program aloud.

Students could go to Earthquake Project and take turns reading questions aloud that other kids asked a geologist—a scientist who studies earth processes—and the answers the geologist gave. At the link on the bottom of this page, have the students each email the geologist one question, and handwrite a duplicate of the question on a sheet of paper. If students show high interest in the topic, play "Know It All" in which they take turns being "the geologist" while their classmates read their questions aloud. Together, the group can discuss and formulate answers.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards