Slush Rush

What You Need


  • Computer and projector
  • Paper and pencil
Slush Rush


To introduce students to how computer models can help people make decisions or learn about real-world events.


In this activity, students will discover how computer models are used to help make decisions and predictions in science, business, and other fields. Students at this level are familiar with models and may have made their own models of objects such as airplanes or houses. They are beginning to understand how models can be used and manipulated to test ideas. For example, what happens to the airplane if you use a different material or change the shape of its wings?

This activity explores computer models. Like any model, a computer model can help people understand how things work and test ideas. Students at this age have experience with computers and interactive tools. This activity will help them see that computers can also be used as tools—like a thermometer or a seismograph—to help scientists investigate questions. A computer model can help scientists propose solutions and determine the effects of solutions to help avoid new problems. (National Science Education Standards, pp. 135-138.)

Students may think of models only as physical objects, such as a model of an airplane or volcano. This lesson will help them understand that a model also can recreate events or situations—like earthquakes and tsunamis, traffic patterns, or customer buying habits. 


Begin the lesson with a general discussion about models, computer models, and how scientists use computer models to solve problems.

Write the word "model" on the board. Ask:

  • What is a model?
  • What models have you made?
  • How can a model help you understand how something works?

(Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Explain that a model is a representation of something, such as an airplane or a volcano. Models can help you learn how things work. They also can help you test ideas and find solutions to a problem. For example, you might try and find out what happens to a model airplane if you use different materials or change the shape of its wings.

Next, ask:

  • What is a computer model?
  • What are some examples of computer models you've seen?
  • Think about a TV weather report. How does a meteorologist use computer models?
  • What are some other ways that scientists might use computer models?

(Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Tell students that some people use computers to make models and test their ideas. A computer model makes it easy to add or change information and see what happens. Computer models also allow people to simulate, or replicate, complex events. Some computer models use information from past events to predict what will happen in the future.

A meteorologist uses computer models to predict how various conditions like air pressure, temperature, and humidity will affect the weather. A weather map uses a computer model to show where rain clouds have been—and where they might be moving.

Explain that scientists use computer models in many ways. You could share these examples. Scientists use computer models to study:

  • How changes in the atmosphere will affect climate change.
  • How a disease will spread through populations over time.
  • How changing environmental conditions will affect plant and animal populations.
  • How different building designs and materials will respond to earthquakes.


To begin this part of the lesson, open up the discussion to talk about other fields that use computer models. Ask the class to share examples, or share some of these with the class:

  • A pilot uses flight simulators to train in different conditions.
  • A decorator could use a computer model to see how different fabrics or paint colors change the look of a room.
  • A downhill skier uses a computer simulation to figure out the best strategies and body positions. 

Explain that computer models also are used in business. For example, a business owner might use computer models to decide what to sell, how much inventory to purchase, or even predict the company's success or failure.

Tell students that they will do an activity that puts them in the role of the business owner—in this case, the owner of a slush stand in outer space. Students should use their Slush Rush student esheet to go to Slush Rush, an interactive activity that lets them choose the number and kinds of drinks to satisfy their thirsty "alien" customers. As they do the activity, have them use the Slush Rush student sheet to record facts about their customers and their results for each round. It will take about 10 minutes for students to go through all five rounds of the interactive.

After they have finished the interactive, discuss these questions:

  • How did the model change from round to round? How did your recipe change in each round?
  • Did changes in the model make it more useful?   
  • Were there times when it was difficult to make every customer happy? How did you decide what to do?
  • If you could open a "Slush Rush" stand, would this computer model tell you exactly how many customers would purchase your slushes? Is it still helpful? Why or why not?
  • Are there ways that this activity is like real life? In what ways could businesses use models like these?

(Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Next, have students revisit their esheet to explore a different way that computer models are used—to study, predict, and prepare for earthquakes. In Part 2, students will visit two websites from PBS: Savage Earth that use computer models to show the effects of earthquakes. Before they begin the activity, you may want to review some vocabulary with your students, such as: seismic waves, focus, and tsunami.

The first site, Earthquake Animation, shows how an earthquake spreads from its focus or epicenter. Have students read and click through the three-part animation and discuss these questions:

  • What does this computer model show? (It shows a 1994 earthquake in Bolivia, South America.)
  • What information was used to make this computer model? (Information about seismic waves from recording stations around the world, including one in Puerto Rico, was used to make this model.)
  • Based on the computer model, how long did it take the first seismic waves to reach San Juan? (It took about five minutes.)
  • Why would scientists make a computer model of a 1994 earthquake? How could it help people now? (Scientists study how the seismic waves traveled to help them understand other earthquakes. The more scientists know about earthquakes, the better they can predict and respond to earthquakes today. Seismic waves from the quake were recorded around the world, including at a recording station in San Juan, Puerto Rico.)

Then have students visit Catching a Tsunami in the Act. Remind students that tsunamis are large destructive waves set off by earthquakes on the ocean floor. Have students read the article and watch the Tsunami Animation at the bottom of the page. Then ask them to discuss these questions:

  • Based on the computer model, how long would it take the tsunami off the coast of South America to reach Hawaii? (It would take about 10 hours.)
  • How can computer models like this one help people living along coastlines? (If scientists understand how tsunamis travel, they can better warn people about approaching tsunamis.)
  • Read the last paragraph. What other kind of computer model do scientists use to study the effects of tsunamis? How are these computer models used? (Scientists produce computer models of tsunamis along specific coastlines. This helps them understand when and where tsunamis will reach, how to evacuate people, and where hospitals, police, and fire stations should be located along coastlines.)

If time permits, you also could have students visit this Interactive Weather Map to discuss another way that computer models are used. Explain that this weather map shows real-time data collected from satellites and weather stations. Have students zoom into your region and view the "Radar," "Clouds," and "Temperature" maps. Talk about how people depend on this type of computer model everyday.


To assess student understanding, ask students to work with a partner and write a conversation between two people who use computer models to solve problems. They can choose from any of these people or come up with their own ideas:

  • A car designer
  • A professional biker
  • An astronomer
  • A farmer
  • A novice pilot
  • A new business owner
  • A meteorologist

Their conversations should answer these questions:

  • Describe one computer model that you use in your work.
  • How does this computer model help you solve a problem?
  • What information do you need to make your models?

Have students perform their conversations for the class.


These Science NetLinks lessons can be used to extend students' understanding of models:

Students could use these online tools to see how computer models allow them to simulate complex events or situations. Give them the opportunity to manipulate information, see the effects, and explain what they learned from the computer model.

Here are some additional websites about how computer models can help people make decisions. Note: Some of the information at these websites is at a higher level and may be too advanced for some students. The first two provide more advanced examples of earthquake and tsunami computer models. These sites may benefit from you presenting and explaining each model.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards