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Mountains and Sedimentary Rock

Published on


Explore how moving continental plates can form mountains using a simple experiment with sand and flour.

Why do mountains and some hills have layered rocks in them?


K-12 Earthquake Activity Teaching Modules

A Joint Project of the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) and the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC)

In the spring of 2011, NEES at the University of California Santa Barbara (NEES@UCSB) embarked on a project to develop a comprehensive set of teaching modules for K-12 students that would cover the basics of plate tectonics and earthquake dynamics. The idea for the project grew from the success of the “Make Your Own Earthquake” outreach activity developed by NEES@UCSB, which recently has included the use of the Quake Catcher Network MEMS accelerometer.

The UCSB site received a supplemental grant for Education, Outreach, and Training from NEES that provided funds for an undergraduate student to work on this project. Two NEES REU interns and a SCEC intern were also recruited, for a total of four students working cooperatively on the project over the summer of 2011. NEES@UCSB personnel served as mentors to the students and a Santa Barbara GATE science teacher was hired, through the NEES EOT grant, as a consultant to review the work. The students were asked to incorporate, as appropriate, the use of the QCN accelerometer and real earthquake data in the teaching modules. They were also asked to do a comprehensive survey of earthquake-related teaching materials currently available and to incorporate, with proper references, any of these materials into the new modules.

Over the course of the summer of 2011, the students met weekly with their mentor and the science teacher. In August, a group of local 4th – 6th grade students came to the UCSB campus and tested several of the earthquake activities. The summer interns presented their work at the NEES REU Young Researchers Symposium at UCSB in August and at the annual SCEC meeting in Palm Springs in September.

The 12 earthquake activity modules are summarized below:


Jamison Steidl, Ph.D., Principal Investigator, NEES@UCSB

Sandra Seale, Ph.D., Project Scientist and Outreach Coordinator, NEES@UCSB

Carrie Garner, M.A., Gifted and Talented Education Teacher and Coordinator, Hope School District

Summer Undergraduate Interns:

Sean Allen, Civil Engineering, University of Nevada, Reno

Heidi Pence, Civil Engineering, University of Michigan

Joseph Trudeau, Geology, University of Wisconsin

Hanna Vincent, Mechanical Engineering and Materials, MIT

Earthquake Activity Modules:

K – 3rd Grade: Mountains and Sedimentary Rock, Hanna Vincent

[Be sure to click the "Docs and Attachments" tab to view and download attachments for this lesson such as handouts and worksheets.]

Earthquake Engineering Component

Learning Objectives and Standards

Links to the National Science Standards and to individual State Science Standards are available by using this link:

National Science Standards: K-4

Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry

  • Ask a question about objects, organisms and events in the environment


    • Use reliable sources and information from their own observations
  • Employ simple equipment and tools to gather data and extend the senses
  • Use data to construct a reasonable explanation


    • Check explanations against … the observations of others
  • Communicated investigations and explanations


    • May be spoken, drawn or written
  • Understanding about scientific inquiry

Content Standard B: Physical Science

  • Properties of objects and materials


    • Objects have many observable properties that can be measured
  • Position and motion of objects


    • Position can be described by locating it relative to another object
    • Position and motion of objects can be changed by pushing or pulling

Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science

  • Properties of Earth materials


    • Earth materials are solid rocks and soils (and water and gas)
  • Changes in the Earth and Sky


    • The surface of the earth changes, due slow and fast processes.  (erosion vs earthquake)

Content Standard E: Science and Technology

  • Identify a simple problem
  • Propose a solution
  • Implementing proposed solutions
  • Evaluate a product or design
  • Communicate a problem, design, and solution
  • Understanding about science and technology
  • Abilities to distinguish between natural objects and objects made by humans

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

  • Personal Health (don't eat the materials!)

Content  Standard G: History and Nature of Science

  • Science as a human endeavor
    • An ongoing and never ending process

California Science Standards


Science Standard 1: Physical Sciences

  1. Objects can be described in terms of the materials they are made of and their physical properties

Science Standard 3: Earth Science

  1. Earth is composed of land, air, and water.  Includes characteristics of mountains, rivers, oceans, valleys, deserts, and local landforms

Science Standard 4: Investigation and Experimentation

  1. Observe common objects by using the five senses
  2. Describe the properties of common objects
  3. Describe the relative position of objects using one reference (above, below etc)
  4. Compare and sort common objects by one physical attribute
  5. Communicate observations orally and through drawings

First Grade

Science Standard 4: Investigation and Experimentation

  1. Draw pictures that portray some features of the thing being described
  2. Record observations and data with pictures, numbers, or written statements
  1. Describe the relative position of objects by using two references
  2. Make new observations when discrepancies exist between two descriptions of the same object or phenomenon. 

Second Grade

Science Standard 1: Physical Science

  1. The motion of objects can be observed and measured.  The position of an object can be described by locating it in relation to another object or to the background.
  2. An object's motion can be described by recording the change in position of the object over time
  3. The way to change how something is moving (or not) is by giving it a push or pull. The size of the change is related to the strength, or the amount of force, of the push or pull
  4. Tools and machines are used to apply pushes and pulls (forces) to make things move
  5. Objects fall (gravity) unless something holds them up.

Science Standard 3: Earth Science

  1. Earth is made of materials that have distinct properties and provide resources for human activities. Compare the physical properties of different kinds of rocks and know that rock is composed of different combinations of materials.
  2. Smaller rocks come from the breakage and weathering of larger rocks

Science Standard 4: Investigation and Experimentation

  1. Make predictions based on observed patterns and not random guessing

c. Compare and sort common objects according to two or more physical attributes

d. Write or draw descriptions of a sequence of steps, events, and observations

e. Construct bar graphs to record data, using appropriately labeled axes. 

g. Follow oral instructions for a scientific investigation

Third Grade

Science Standard 5: Investigation and Experimentation

  1. Repeat observations to improve accuracy and know that the results of similar scientific investigations seldom turn out exactly the same because of differences in the things being investigated, methods being used, or uncertainty in the observation
  1. Use numerical data in describing and comparing objects, events, and measurements
  2. Predict the outcome of a simple investigation and compare the result with the prediction
  3. Collect data in an investigation and analyze those data to develop a logical conclusion

Material List

Materials Needed:

  1. Plastic container, roughly 4" x 4" x 8".
  2. 1 piece of cardboard, 2 x taller and slightly less wide than the plastic container.
  3. Sand, about 4 cups.
  4. Flour, about 1 cup.
  5. 1 spoon.
  6. Crayons, colored pencils, markers etc.



  1. Hold cardboard "continental plate" vertically along the side or shorter edge of the container (see Figure 1).
  2. Spread a layer of sand approximately 1/2" thick in the container.
  3. Using a spoon, spread a spoonful of flour over the sand, along one long edge of the container. Tap down the flour with the spoon so it lies flat.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until container is slightly under halfway full.
  5. Using the "plate", slowly push the sand/flour layers toward the other end of the container.
  6. Observe the folds formed.



The folded lines in the rocks you can see come from the formation of mountains. Different types of rock (our flour and sand) show up as different colors.

Questions and Discussions:

How would your mountain look different if there were more kinds of "rock?" Try these experiments, and see what happens!

Links and Resources

Additional Resources:


  1. Mountain: Land that is pushed above the surrounding area to a single peak.
  2. Continental Plates: Large pieces of the Earth's crust that are always moving and forming geological formations such as mountains, valleys, volcanoes, and oceans.
  3. Sediment: Small particles of soil and rock that have been eroded and deposited elsewhere, usually by water.
  4. Sedimentary Rock: Rock that was formed when sediment was put under extreme pressure for prolonged periods of time.  The varying layers of sediment solidify into different colored rock.
  5. Folds: The shapes of lines in the layers of sedimentary rock.


Material Notes:

  1. If you have problems with the cardboard bending, make sure that the ridges go up and down (if they go side to side it will just bend along those ridges). If that isn't sufficient, glue or staple two pieces together and try again.
  2. If your sand and flour layers are very deep, it may be easier to find another stiff flat surface as an alternative to the cardboard.
  3. Any type of flour and sand works, and it is always possible to replace the sand with a loose fine-grained dirt, or even with a different color of flour.
  4. The containers dimensions are extremely flexible, and any type of container will work. It is helpful if the corners are square, as rounded edges make fitting the cardboard more difficult.


Activity Notes:

  1. The cardboard should be slightly less wide than the container and roughly two times taller than the level of sand/flour.
  2. It isn't essential to place the cardboard at the extreme edge of the container.
  3. Always keep pressure on the cardboard, or the mountain that you made will not hold its shape. For a more hands-off approach, have another object ready to place behind the cardboard in order to keep it from falling over.
  4. It is unnecessary to have complete layers of both flour and sand. Make full layers out of whichever material you have the most of and merely sprinkle a thin line of the other along the visible edge of the container. The edges are the only visible area anyway. A spoon or funnel may make this easier.
  5. Here is an example of how the activity will look:




Figure 1. Demonstration Set Up

The Science:

Sedimentary rock is formed when layers and layers of sediment and eroded rocks build up and become compacted. The pressure can come from being underwater, when sediment is deposited along rivers or in lakes. It can also come from the additional layers of sediment that have been laid on top. The process takes thousands of years; and intact animal and plant remains are sometimes trapped in the layers, which gives scientists information on the evolution of these species. For the preservation of plant and animal evidence, there has to be unusual circumstances such as the rapid deposition of new sediments. Evidence of ancient human civilizations can also be preserved in sediment; these finds are important because they are protected from the wears of time. Archaeological finds often include the well-preserved foundations of buildings, ceramic items, and bones, although organic materials have usually decayed.

Older evidence can be found in sediments, such as the fossils of dinosaurs or the fossils of ancient marine creatures found on mountaintops hundreds of miles away from an ocean. When these sediments formed, they covered the remains of marine life on the sea floor. Over time, the sediment hardened and was pushed to form mountains, taking the fossils along. Marine fossils are found in the Himalayan mountain range, the tallest mountains in the world.

Learning modules in this series:




Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Sandra Seale; Hanna Vincent; NEES EOT (2011), "Mountains and Sedimentary Rock,"

    BibTex | EndNote