Learning Resource Type

Lesson Plan

Lava Layering: Constructive Forces

Subject Area





The goal of this activity is for students to simulate the constructive forces of a volcanic eruption, observe how lava flows build up layers of a landform, study the stratigraphy of the new landform, and connect the simulation to events in the natural world.

This lesson was created as part of the 2016 NASA STEM Standards of Practice Project, a collaboration between the Alabama State Department of Education and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

    Science (2015) Grade(s): 4


    Explore information to support the claim that landforms are the result of a combination of constructive forces, including crustal deformation, volcanic eruptions, and sediment deposition as well as a result of destructive forces, including erosion and weathering.

    Unpacked Content



    • landform
    • crustal deformation
    • sediment
    • deposition
    • erosion
    • weathering
    • topography
    • volcanoes
    • earthquakes
    • continental boundaries
    • trenches
    • ocean floor structures
    • constructive forces
    • destructive forces
    • eruption
    • geological processes


    Students know:
    • Continents and other landforms are continually being shaped and reshaped by competing constructive and destructive geological processes.


    Students are able to:
    • Compare and/or combine information across complex texts and/or other reliable sources to support the claim that landforms are the result of both constructive and destructive forces.


    Students understand that:
    • Changes in Earth's surface are caused by both constructive and destructive forces.

    Scientific and Engineering Practices

    Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

    Crosscutting Concepts

    Cause and Effect

    Primary Learning Objectives

    Students will simulate multiple volcanic eruptions and observe how the flow of lava is influenced by the rock layers underneath.  Students will examine the strata of the new landform produced by the multiple eruptions and lava flows.

    Students will be able to connect the events of the simulation to real events in the natural world and draw conclusions on how volcanic lava can create new landforms.



    Share the video When a Volcano Erupts Underwater from PBS. Begin the video at the 2:34 mark to show students a pillow lava eruption. This video illustrates how lava cools into rock and how new land formations develop as the lava continually cycles through flow, cooling, hardening, and fracturing.

    As students watch and discuss the video, introduce the term volatile as the lava flow paths changing rapidly and unpredictably.  Have students record what they notice as the lava pushes through the crust.

    Following the short video, discuss what students observed and how the underwater landscape has changed as a result of the volcanic eruption.  Ask students to think about and predict what will happen once the pile of new rock reaches the surface of the water. 


    Introduce the NASA Lava Layering activity as a way for students to simulate the results of multiple lava flows, occurring in the same area over an extended period of time.

    The procedure for the simulation can be found on page 79 of the NASA Educator's Guide.  Students should complete the simulation in groups no larger than four.


    Once teams have completed four eruption simulations, students should answer the questions on page 80 of the NASA Educator's Guide.  The questions on page 81 can then be used for whole class discussion, relating the simulation in the classroom to the geological processes that occurred on the moon.  

    Following the discussion, watch the YouTube clip Underwater Volcano Erupts Giving Birth to an Island.  This news clip shows the creation of a new island off the coast of Japan, formed from the eruption of an underwater volcano.  This video is a real-world illustration of the constructive force of a volcanic eruption.

    Once students have watched the video, have individuals or teams create a Venn diagram that compares the geologic processes they observed in the video to the simulation they completed in class.

    Assessment Strategies

    Students could be assessed by their written responses to the questions from page 80 of the NASA Educator's Guide and the Venn diagram created as an end-of-activity reflection.

    Alternate Assessment:

    Ask each team to create a colored, cross-section diagram of their lava strata without any labels.  Collect the diagrams and redistribute the diagrams to a different team.  

    Students then recreate the diagram on their own paper, adding in labels, titles, and a color key, indicating relative age of the rock strata.


    Additional equipment needed:

    • digital camera (could be an iPad or other tablet camera)
    • color printer

    **As teams complete the final lava eruption, take an overhead digital picture of their landform.**

    Following the simulation, print out a picture of their landform (in color, if possible).  Ask students to trace the outline of each layer in black marker.  

    Then have each member of the team place a white sheet of paper over their landform picture and trace the back lines with a pencil.  They have now each created a topographical contour map of their newly created landform.


    Students who need extra support should be placed in groups with teammates sensitive to the needs of that student.

    The teacher may need to more closely supervise groups that contain students who are struggling with the concept.

    Approximate Duration

    Total Duration

    31 to 60 Minutes

    Background and Preparation


    Landforms on Earth can be created in many ways. One way is through the depositing and cooling of lava following a volcanic eruption. As lava flows and cools, new rock is formed, changing the landscape of the area. Geologists can then study the different layers or strata of the rock to examine the differences among various eruptions over time. The study of rock layering is called stratigraphy.

    Our moon also contains areas of multiple volcanic lava flows which has changed its geography over time. Refer to the NASA guide on pages 3, 4, 12, 13, and 77 for additional background information on how our moon was formed and how scientists and astronauts use geographic clues to infer the relative age of landforms on our moon.

    Materials and Resources

    Materials and Resources

    This activity comes from the NASA Education guide Exploring the Moon: Lava Layering found on page 77.

    Material preparation prior to lesson:

    • Each group of students needs 4 colors of modeling dough for this simulation.  The NASA activity plan contains a recipe for homemade dough.  
    • This recipe contains flour and food coloring, which may impact students with a contact allergy.  If this is an issue, substitute the modeling dough with clay or allow the student to wear latex-free gloves.
    • Cover student work areas and have cleaning supplies available for each team (paper towels, wipes, etc.).  This simulation has the potential to be messy.

    Student materials (1 set per team):

    • 1 tray or large aluminum baking pan
    • 4 oz paper cups (5)
    • 5 tablespoons of baking soda
    • 1/2 cup of vinegar
    • food coloring (4 colors per team)
    • Modeling dough or clay (4 colors per team)
    • 1/8 cup measuring cup
    • plastic spoon
    • plastic knife, string, or dental floss
    • paper towels


    Technology Resources Needed

    OPTIONAL: One digital recording device per team. Digital camera is preferred.