Asteroid Impacts: The Debatable K-T Extinction

Tim Fennell
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Project , Student Guide , Instructor Guide/Manual , Lecture/Presentation , Activity , Rubric
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



The purpose of the activity is to encourage students to (1) engage in a scientific literature review, in this case the mass extinction event that marks the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods; (2) apply their understanding of that event to a current issue that requires policy action regarding a potentially costly engineering solution; and (3) formulate, present and defend evidence-based arguments in support of, or against, the proposed solution. Students are issued a challenge scenario. Students are given roles (Senators, lobbyists, expert witnesses, and reporters) to participate in a mock senate hearing and deliver their presentations in a debate format. The assessment and extension activities need a password to be accessible.


Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Limited free access - Some material is available for viewing and/or downloading but most material tends to be accessible through other means.

Performance Expectations

MS-ESS2-2 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time and spatial scales.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on how processes change Earth’s surface at time and spatial scales that can be large (such as slow plate motions or the uplift of large mountain ranges) or small (such as rapid landslides or microscopic geochemical reactions), and how many geoscience processes (such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and meteor impacts) usually behave gradually but are punctuated by catastrophic events. Examples of geoscience processes include surface weathering and deposition by the movements of water, ice, and wind. Emphasis is on geoscience processes that shape local geographic features, where appropriate.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
In reviewing the scientific literature that was suggested, learners consider evidence, construct explanations and create conceptual models put forward to explain the K-T mass extinction event. The existence of comets, meteors and asteroids and the bombardment of our planet provide fundamental information about Earth’s existence, development and how geoscience processes have changed Earth’s surface at varying time and special scales. Students will choose a role to play to teach themselves and the class about extinctions and geologic history through a group role-playing mock debate/senate hearing.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
For this project, many articles are available in the classroom to provide background information and research materials for the debate. Student groups should start by devising a strategy to sift all of the relevant information out of the classroom articles provided and then do further research through the Internet or a local library. This information will be used to support each “side” in the debate. Each side in the debate is given a set number of talking points they are responsible for arguing during the hearing. These talking points will help students determine the important information they need to identify from the available classroom resources. Players in the debate should be ready and have evidence to support their arguments for or against an asteroid defense system.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
In this debate the scenario is; a senate subcommittee is holding a public hearing to decide whether or not to fund a $50 billion planetary defense system. Are humans at risk of becoming extinct due to an asteroid or comet colliding with the Earth? Evidence suggests that such an event may have caused the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period. If so, can we prevent history from repeating itself? Students will need to provide evidence of these past interactions to support the side of the debate they have selected or been assigned.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The activity requires students to consider an engineered solution. Understanding the occurrence and outcome of an asteroid impact with Earth requires the understanding of space phenomena. Students will consider evidence and conceptual models to explain this event and to support their sides of the debate. Asteroid, meteor and comet impacts throughout time must be investigated to show plausible evidence of the geoscience processes that shaped our Earth.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The lesson contains multiple grade-appropriate elements of the Science and Engineering Practices, the Crosscutting Concepts, and the Disciplinary Core Ideas. The three dimensions support constructing explanations to make sense of evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth’s surface at varying time and spatial scales. Students will consider evidence and conceptual models to explain the geologic processes and to support both sides of the debate by understanding and interpreting the models and the scale and proportion to which these process have and will occur.

  • Instructional Supports: Students engage in a meaningful scenario based on a debate. They develop a deeper understanding of the Science and Engineering Practice of Constructing Explanations as they develop evidence based on research and defend a position during a debate. Understanding the occurrence and outcome of an asteroid impact with Earth requires the understanding of space phenomena. Scaffolds to support differentiated learning to have students practice their role with the teacher first before the debate and note cards can be used with talking points needed to support the research.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Students provide both oral and written claims supported by evidence. During the debate, the teacher and other students monitor use of the three dimensions. A student/teacher guide is provided with an outline for use in specific roles describing evidence and justification for reasoning. A rubric and self- assessment is provided in the student pages. Pre-debate questions are student created before the debate. The supporting evidence from the pre-debate questions and the content arguments of the debate could be used as assessment tools of individual understanding. The extensions and assessments are not accessible on this website, they will need to be teacher created.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Students will use technology to conduct scientific research and evidence to support their side of the debate.