Critical Task



            The over-arching content area that will be discussed in this lesson is geology/earth science at the seventh grade level.  As often is the case, however, the specific curricula will make connections to multiple aspects of science as it explores the individual topic of volcanoes.  This topic has the great attributes of being first and foremost very fun, but at the same time filled with multiple educational opportunities for the students.  At the broadest levels, volcanoes have connections to earth science, geology, states of matter, interactions of liquids and gasses, temperature and heat energy, ecology, and much more.  It is easy to see how an investigation into the workings of volcanoes can quickly become a driving question for units that tie together multiple different subject maters. 

            While broad themes are clearly visible, this type of lesson has clear connections to the National Science Education Standards.  Specifically, in the geological sciences, the standards list Earth and Space Science in which students study the structure of the earth system, earth’s history, and earth in the solar system.  The content standards continue by listing specifics in each subcategory such as the movement of tectonic plates, the different layers of the earth, formation and movement of land masses, and the events associated with these topics.  In the Physical Sciences section, the standards list topics such as properties and changes in properties of matter, and transfer of energy


            Along with making connections across the curriculum as well as to the National Science Education Standards, this subject matter has a unique ability to encourage the students to act like scientists and use the scientific method.  The topic of volcanoes awakens feelings of awe in students of all ages.  This is because volcanoes are foreign enough to most students not to be understood, but presented with enough regularity in popular media as to display their visual magic.  This slight taste of visual wonder leaves the students wanting more.  This is their observation and they are left with many questions that must be explored about volcanoes.  This sense of wonder will create a need for further explanation.  This unit allows them to make many hypotheses about what is going on and to explore those hypotheses through inquiry and discovery learning. 

            This is the method in which science should be approached.  Students should be allowed to explore topics which interest them by questioning the world around them.  Within the specific realm of this topic, students will be able to explore volcanoes from multiple perspectives.  In this lesson grouping, students will address four different concepts: they will look at tectonic plates and volcano formation, take a virtual tour of an actual active volcano, explore gaseous interactions that cause volcanic eruptions, and look at the states of matter when super heated and cooled through a lava lab.  Each of these separate scientific subjects comes together in the form of a volcano.  By addressing the overall issue from different points, the teacher allows students to see the separate subjects as part of an overall theme and make connections to a bigger picture.  Making these connections allows students to construct their own knowledge of the scientific material and develop skills necessary in the scientific world around them.

            While the curriculum presented is important from both an educational and real world standpoint, and while multiple learning connections can readily be made, there is still ample opportunity for misconceptions from the students.  With the fact that most of students exposure to volcanoes comes from popular media, there are going to be a lot of flaws in their understanding.  They may have misconceptions about why or how volcanoes erupt, and even may have the extreme idea that a volcano can simply rise out of the ground in the middle of their city as was portrayed in a movie.  These preconceptions are not always a bad thing, however.  Many students often learn and retain more when confronted with their own misconceptions within the context of a more correct way of thinking.  By going through the entire process of recognizing what they once thought and why, and then seeing the more correct method in action, the students are left with a meaningful learning experience that they will not soon forget.  These misconceptions cannot go unnoticed or unchecked by the teacher for this greater learning to occur.  We know that students build their new knowledge on the foundations of prior learning and if this foundation is flawed, all the structures built upon it will be flawed as well.  To effectively reach the students in any subject matter, a teacher must start where they are in terms of comprehension of the material.  To do this, he or she must accurately gauge what the students know, do not know, and think they know but may be wrong about (misconceptions).  For this specific curriculum, there are multiple laboratory sessions that allow for predictions to be made.  Specifically, the students create their own working volcano as well as create lava-like rock candy.  These lab periods offer great opportunities for students to make predictions about what is happening within the system and what will happen with the interaction of certain components.  Common misconceptions that students might have about these lab periods and volcanoes in general are:

  • Volcanoes can occur anywhere, or volcanoes only occur in the tropics (Hawaii)
  • All volcanoes involves explosions of lava in huge bursts
  • Lava comes from the center of the earth
  • Lava from the core of the earth boils up into volcanoes and when they get too full they erupt
  • Lava is always hot liquid

By asking students to voice their predictions with reasoning (a guess is not a prediction and gives very little insight into student understanding) the teacher can identify these and other misconceptions that the students may have.  Once misconceptions are identified, there are a couple of options for the teacher.  He or she can choose to address them at the time they are brought up.  This indicates to the student that there is a problem with their understanding, but often does not give them any greater insight.  With the hands on application of the labs, students get to see the information in action.  This is a far better way to address misconceptions.  Students can see what is actually happening and recognize how it is different from what they thought and the reasons for it.  For example, the volcano lab allows students to see that the ingredients themselves are not too much for the volcano to handle (it is not getting “too full”) and that it is there interaction in a chemical reaction and the gasses formed that create the “explosion.”  The lava lab allows students to see that lava does not simply boiling liquid; that it was once rock that was simply super heated until it melted.   By seeing the process in action, the students can correct their thinking about the process and build a firmer understanding of the material.  This struggle with the material often leads to higher retention rates among students.  It is important for the teacher to review the process, however, to ensure students grasp the importance of the concept.  Once the labs are complete the teacher should review by asking a few questions:

  1. What did we think would happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. Why did the lab work out the way it did, and how is that different than what we thought?

Going through this analysis highlights where students were having problems, and allows them to recognize the thinking that led to the misconceptions and also the proper way of thinking about the situation.  This process should result in a greater understanding of the material and strong foundations for future lessons to build upon. 


            The first lesson students will encounter is a virtual tour of the volcano Kilauea, Hawaii.  This tour can be found here:  The teacher should introduce the topic with a short discussion with the students attempting to ascertain what they know about volcanoes.  This will allow the teacher to meet students where they are and assess possible misconceptions in their understanding of the basic principles of volcanoes.  Once the topic has been adequately introduced through discussion, the teacher should inform the students that they are going to explore a real volcano.  Students can move to personal computers (in a lab perhaps) or follow along with the teacher on a class overhead connected to a computer.  (Both of these options have been seen in MPS).  The students can proceed individually, in groups, or as an entire class as the teacher desires.  They should make careful note of each stop on the tour and be sure to read each caption aloud.  Once the students have completed the tour, the teacher should give them some time to write in their science journals.  They should address the following questions:  What was your favorite stop (picture) on the tour and why?  What is one thing that you learned about volcanoes that you did not know before taking this tour?  This practice will allow the teachers a form of assessment so they can be sure students are taking something away from the visual display.  As a whole, this lesson plan is good for the students because it offers them an authentic way to explore the material.  By using the virtual tour online, the teacher brings technology into the classroom which many researchers have shown to increase student learning.  The lesson allows students who learn visually explore the material in a way that is beneficial to them and allows the teacher easy means of judging whether or not they understand it.

            In the second lesson, the students will be taking ownership for their own learning.  The teacher will split the class into appropriately sized groups such that there are a multiple of three groups i.e. three, six, or nine groups.  He or she will then assign one type of volcano to each of the groups.  These types are Cinder Cones, Composite or Stratovolvanoes, and Shield.  Each group will be responsible for researching, displaying, and presenting information on their specific type of volcano.  These “presentations” will be short, 5 minutes at most, readings of information the students have complied onto a poster board.  The teacher should provide the students with supplies such as construction paper, markers, poster board, scissors and glue.  The students will be given instructional handouts with the following information:

Please create a poster for your assigned volcano type which includes the following information-

·         Name of volcano type

·         Characteristics of volcano type

o   What does it look like? Why?

o   What makes this volcano type different than others?

o   How does it erupt?

·         Names and locations of some real world examples

·         Pictures

o   One real world

o   One hand made

The teacher should give the students access to classroom computers (and printers) and the school library or individually compiled books for research.  One great resource for this would be the use of a trade book on volcanoes.  Eyewitness Books have a Volcanoes and Earthquakes book that has wonderful information in it and is presented in a way that is visually stimulating and interesting to the student.  A Webquest can also be compiled with the following websites, all of which detail each different volcano type:

    • This site gives examples and explanations of different types of volcanoes including cinder cones, composite volcanoes, shield volcanoes, and lava domes.  The examples are real world pictures that lend authenticity to the lesson.
    • This site gives explanations of different volcano types including composite, shield, cinder, spatter, and complex.  The examples given are hand drawn representations and this site could be very helpful to the students when creating their own representations. 
    • This site lists and explains the examples of composite, cinder cone, shield, fissure, and Giant Caldera.  It also has links showing different kinds of lava as well as animations and real world video of different kinds of eruptions.
    • This site explains the examples of cinder cones, composite, shield, and lava domes.  It also includes a virtual field trip that explains many different components of volcanoes.


If the teacher has long periods of time designated for science, this can be done in one class period or spread out among a few as needed.  Much of the timing will depend on the number of students.  Ideally there would be 4-5 in a group meaning at most probably 6 groups (2 for each Volcano type) giving around 35-40 minutes for all the groups to present their posters.  The research and construction sections will be the hardest to judge timing-wise.  Some students will be very adept at finding the information and displaying it visually, others may struggle.  It is for this reason that the teacher should split students into heterogeneous groups.  The teacher should do his or her best to ensure there is a range of ability levels in each group.  By creating a cooperative learning assignment, the teacher is ensuring that each member has a role to play, whether it is researcher, presenter, drawer/producer, etc.  This type of learning style really plays to lesser achievers by allowing them to feel part of a group and make their own contributions.  It raises self esteem and increases learning for these students who commonly struggle in a more traditional setting.  This type of project also allows students to become experts in one subject of the lesson and teach it to others.  As assessment, the teacher should have the students write one thing they learned from another group’s presentations in their science journals. 

            The next lesson will explore some hands on, authentic applications of the student’s knowledge of volcanoes.  No volcano lesson would be complete without actually building one.  Before construction, however, the teacher should lead a short discussion on properties of gasses.  Specifically, students should understand what happens when gasses are heated (expansion) and how expanding gasses lead to explosive results.  Once this short introductory lecture has been completed students can break into groups and report to lab desks where materials and this procedure are set up:


Build a Real Working Volcano

Now we’re going to get a little messy. In this experiment we build a real working volcano. After mixing just the right amount of ingredients together, we’ll add the final item to make our volcano ‘blow its top’ spewing red lava down the sides.

  1. First we need to create the ‘salt dough’. Mix 6 cups flour, 2 cups salt, 4 tablespoons cooking oil, and 2 cups of water in a large bowl. Work the ingredients with your hands until smooth and firm. Add more water to the mixture if needed.
  2. Stand the soda bottle in the baking pan. Mold the salt dough around the bottle making sure you don’t cover up the bottle mouth or drop any dough into the bottle. Take your time on this step and build your volcano with as much detail as you like.
  3. Fill the bottle most of the way with warm water mixed with a little of the red food coloring.
  4. Put 6 drops of the liquid detergent into the bottle.
  5. Add 2 tablespoons of baking soda.
  6. Slowly pour vinegar into the bottle and jump back quick!

Notice the red ‘lava’ that flows out of your volcano. This happens because of the baking soda and vinegar mixture. Mixing baking soda and vinegar produces a chemical reaction (a chemical reaction is a process in which one substance is chemically converted to another – all chemical reactions involve the formation or destruction of bonds between atoms) in which carbon dioxide gas is created – the same gas that bubbles in a real volcano. The gas bubbles build in the bottle, forcing the liquid ‘lava’ mixture of the bottle and down the sides of your volcano.


This type of lesson applies most directly to the hands on learners in the class.  They get to see the value of what they are learning because they authentically experience it in the classroom.  The lesson also has real value because the kids construct the whole project by themselves.  This gives them ownership of the project and the knowledge it creates.  The students should close the lesson by writing about what they learned in their science journals.  They should use this opportunity to address any possible misconceptions they may have had about the volcanoes before the lab.  The students should answer these questions when addressing the lesson:  Before this lab, why did you think lava erupted from volcanoes?  What did you think would happen in the volcano we made?  What actually happened?  Was this different from what you thought and why?  These questions together should allow the students to recognize the full process from original ideas and possible misconceptions to final knowledge and firm foundations for future work.

            A final project that brings another concept involved in volcanoes is that of rock candy.  The teacher can give a short discussion on properties of matter and what happens to those properties when different temperatures are applied.  Students can be involved in this discussion by providing examples from their daily lives (ice is a common one).  Students should eventually come to the conclusion that when things get hot enough they melt, and when they then cool off again they become solid.  It should not be a stretch for the students to imagine this happening with rock and magma/lava formation.  Once this discussion is over, the teacher should lead the demonstration (because of safety concerns).  The teacher should bring a mixture of sugar and water to a light boil to create sugar lava.  The students can observe what happens to rocks and other materials (the sugar) when it is super heated and then what happens after it cools.  Once heated, the teacher should pour individual servings of the lava into Dixie cups with toothpicks in them.  After a few days of cooling the students have some new igneous rock and a delicious treat.  This demonstration is good for the students because it shows authentic versions of what is happening in the lesson.  By tying the concepts of matter changes through temperature to a candy treat, the teacher has in a sense built a reward system right into the lesson.  Students are rewarded for their interest in the subject by a treat made using the very science they are studying.  For assessment, students can answer the question of why the rock candy formed and how this is a connection to lava and new landmasses. 


            These separate lessons all fit together to form a short unit on volcanoes.  While the topic may seem narrow, as is seen in the lessons, there are many different tie-ins from different science areas.  Because each lesson is presented in a different way, it allows for multiple learner types to still feel as if they have a connection to the material.  By integrating direct instruction, inquiry learning, and cooperative learning strategies, these lessons ensure that each student will find a way to become involved in their own learning that suits their desires and needs.  Science is a great subject to be able to address the needs of diverse learners.  Because of the interconnectedness of the topics, there are always applicable ways to portray the material in a new fashion.  This is because science is a fluid subject.  With each new discovery, we are able to further explain and delve deeper into past discoveries and as such there are always new representations of the subject.  Both teacher and student share a unique opportunity to find what works best in the classroom and because of the dynamic nature of the subject, they can both find different learning styles to suite their desires and needs.

            Specifically within this lesson, the different materials used allow different learners to make connections in their own way.  The first lesson allows students to become involved by using authentic imagery as the students explore a virtual, but real world, volcano.  This provides an authentic learning environment and engages the students in the visual wonder of the subject.  The second lesson allows students to use cooperative learning to achieve their group goals of learning about specific kinds of volcanoes.  It also employs the use of outside materials such as the webquest and the tradebooks.  These resources allow the students to become engaged in the material and are directed more towards their learning styles.  They present the information in ways that seems more fun than educational.  Both these methods, webquests and trade books, engage science students in ways that a normal textbook never can.  By incorporating technology into the classroom, the teacher moves away from the simplicity of a normal lecture and adds a level of authenticity to the students’ learning.  Science trade books engage students who have multiple learning perspectives by presenting the material in ways different than the textbook.  They engage the learner visually and provide real world examples. 

In this lesson students also gain ownership over the material as they present it to their classmates.  In the third and fourth lessons, students gain hands on, authentic experience by working through a lab.  Because the introductions to these lessons are direct instruction, those learners who need the structure of a traditional classroom have their needs met as a bridge to activities that provide fun, memorable, and useful information.  Each of the lessons presents the material in different ways, and while they are all informative, they do not often completely give the answers.  The students still must question what is in front of them, and make the connections to their prior knowledge to build new understanding about the material.  The virtual tour, presentations, and labs all present the material in different ways and it is up to the students to recognize and realize the connections by once again acting like a scientist and questioning the world around them. 

The importance of using different methods to teach this and all overall curricula is to get the students to see the material from multiple perspectives.  Simply reading the text book only gives student one perspective on the topic.  That is not to say that the students’ textbook does not have reliable information on volcanoes and should not be used when appropriate, but overdependence on such a book will result in the students formulating a “one track mind” when it comes to critical thinking.  The lessons presented here, especially the virtual tour, webquest, and tradebooks, give the students different ways of looking at the same topic.  By engaging these different perspectives, the students have a much more well rounded view of the material.  While there is not much debate in this lesson, this type of teaching strategy is especially helpful when discussing controversial science topics such as stem cell research.  By getting at different perspectives of the issue, the students can think critically about all the different factors that make a topic controversial and can eventually (hopefully) come to an informed decision on their own.  If they are only presented with the textbook, they only have one outlet of information and their decisions will likely be based as such. 

This questioning mentality is at the heart of the scientific method.  Each of the lessons presented as a part of an overall unit allow the students to work their way through this process and become scientists themselves.  At the overview of the unit students are confronted with their own (possibly limited) knowledge of volcanoes.  They will have questions like what makes volcanoes erupt; what is lava; where are volcanoes located; is every volcano the same?  Each of these questions is addressed in various ways through the different lessons presented.  The questions are not simply answered by the teacher, however.  The students themselves act as scientists to figure out the answers.  The first lesson allows the students to create hypotheses about what they think actual volcanoes might look like and how they might form and act.  They investigate these hypotheses by going on the virtual tour where they make observations and collect visual and informative data to shape their understanding.  They then come to some conclusions about what they have learned.  The second lesson acts in much the same way.  The students are presented with the question of explaining the differences between different types of volcanoes.  They again investigate these differences by researching the different volcanoes through various media: trade books, websites, and textbooks.  As they gather this informational data, they see whether their original thoughts or hypotheses were confirmed and come to conclusions about the different volcanoes.  By researching and presenting the information in this lesson, they gain ownership of the material and of the entire connected process of scientific inquiry and the scientific method.  The final two lessons are especially rooted in the scientific method because they involve hands on application of the material.  In the first, students must hypothesize just exactly how a volcano works.  This hypothesis is put to words when the teacher asks for predictions from the students about what will happen.  The students must then investigate this hypothesis as they create their own volcano and test out their predictions.  They once again make observations about what is happening, collect informative data and come to some conclusions about whether their predictions were right or not.  In each lesson, the students are internalizing the scientific method without even realizing it.  They are learning to think and act like scientists and as such are setting themselves up for success in future science classes and in other courses where critical thinking is a must.




NSES Standards:

Virtual Tour:



Volcano Lab:

Published on November 23, 2008 at 4:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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