Explaining Glaciers, Accurately

Mary Faw, Nancy Scott, and Mari Tate, Dr. Stephen J. Van Hook
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Demonstration , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Simulation
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.



Fourth grade lessons on glacial erosion demonstrate and explain the manner in which glaciers erode the earth. The mechanisms of plucking and abrasion are discussed. Activities (either whole-class or small group) include a teacher creation of a glacier model (using dirt and rocks to simulate a mountain, ice cubes and a small amount of water for glacier), then teacher demonstration of glacier "plucking" earth as it travels in a simulation activity. Students then experiment with rock samples, wood, sandpaper, and ice as they rub materials against each other to explore how glacial striations form and abrade other surfaces. In each simulation, students are asked to predict what would happen when glacial model water freezes, as they draw before and after pictures of the model. Students are also asked to predict how glacial striations were formed as they view photos, then record results of their abrasive materials activity. Students could benefit from the expertise of a mentoring geologist who shares illustrations and information with students and teachers.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 4
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

4-ESS2-1 Make observations and/or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation.

Clarification Statement: Examples of variables to test could include angle of slope in the downhill movement of water, amount of vegetation, speed of wind, relative rate of deposition, cycles of freezing and thawing of water, cycles of heating and cooling, and volume of water flow.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to a single form of weathering or erosion.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students could view maps demonstrating glacier flow in the United States and discuss ways life on earth was affected by glacial movement. ( Ex. creation of river valleys, lakes)

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
The teacher could begin the lesson by including a discussion about what models are and what they represent. The teacher could stress the purpose of the modeling of scientific phenomena during the lesson to keep students' focus on model development. Students could work in small groups to list suitable materials for the glacier model, illustrate how their model could be used, share details with the whole class, then determine which models would best represent glacier formation and movement. For the abrasion activity, they could work in the manner suggested above, with student groups brainstorming materials (Ex. types of local rocks) that might erode, then use the activity provided in the lesson to test their predictions. They could also use materials presented by the teachers, but first rate them from least to most abrasive, again creating predictions before testing tor results.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
In order to more fully address this DCI, students could observe rocks with smooth, rounded edges, as compared to those with sharp edges and discuss their differences, noting effects of water over time. Students could also observe effects of ice breaking rock by photographing/illustrating changes in school yard sidewalk/wall/parking areas during the school year, noting differences from fall to spring. These observations could also include plant root growth in school areas, noting root strength causing breaks in rock areas.

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
Slow motion videos/animations of glacial movement would elaborate on cross-cutting concept of cause and effect as well as emphasize the length of time required for changes in earth surface to occur.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Simulations provide students opportunity to engage in making sense of glacial erosion phenomena and weathering through freezing and thawing cycles. The cycles of thawing and freezing and water infiltration into mountains are explained and demonstrated in age appropriate ways. The lesson provides ample opportunity for teachers to observe and address misconceptions such as "glaciers weather rock by 'pushing' it."

  • Instructional Supports: NSTA Connection worksheet allows students to record abrasion activity results and predict changes in glacier simulation activity. Worksheets can be accessed at: www.nsta.org/sc0904 Internet resources listed for NSDIC , St. Charles Community College, and Yellowstone Park sites are no longer accessible.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Teacher can monitor student understanding of glacial movement and effects using the NSTA Connection worksheet. Students could also do a "quick write" before and after the activity, explaining sequence of weathering events that caused erosion. ELL students could match photos/pictures of activities with sentences that describe "First, then , next, and ongoing " steps in the erosion process, or use their own illustrations to create a "flip book" of glacial activity. Student understanding of glacial vocabulary could be assessed with student's labeling the weathering process in their illustrations.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource does not include any technological interactivity for students.