Lesson Plan

Shoebox Geologist

A ruler is used to measure the layers in a completed geology shoebox.
Build layers of geologic history in your geologic shoebox.

NPS Photo

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Grade Level:
Fifth Grade-Tenth Grade
Earth Science, Geology, Volcanoes
40 minutes
Group Size:
Up to 36
Law of Superposition, stratigraphic column, volcanic ash, volcano, measure, demonstrate, compare, interpret, observe, apply, analyze, conclude, tephra, lahar, pyroclastic flow, stream gravel, lava flow, landslide, rock fall, mount rainier, Mount Rainier National Park, Living with a Volcano in Your Backyard, Cascades Volcano Observatory


Model depositional processes from volcanically active areas using sediments in a shoebox. Interpret geologic events from layers in a classmate's shoebox model and draw a stratigraphic column graphic. This lesson plan is part of the "Living with a Volcano in Your Backyard" curriculum, created through a partnership between Mount Rainier National Park and the US Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory.


Students will:
  • Learn about the types of deposits produced by volcanic processes
  • Learn about the law of superposition
  • Apply knowledge of geologic processes to create and interpret a model
  • Measure and record data to create a stratigraphic column



Earth processes, such as volcanic events, floods, landslides and glaciers, frequently leave behind evidence of their passing in the form of layers known by geologists as deposits. By studying deposits of recent Earth events, geologists are able to look at older deposits and identify the processes that caused them.

One of the fundamental principles of geology is the Law of Superposition. This law states that layers that younger will be deposited on top of layers that are older. This law is a guiding principle of studying rock and soil layers. The Law of Superposition helps geologists determine the relative ages of earth events. 

Geologists often portray these deposits in a vertical drawing called a stratigraphic column. Drawing a stratigraphic column can help students visualize a sequence of earth events.


Materials include a photo illustration for constructing shoebox stratigraphic column, a student list of materials and the deposit each represents, student worksheets for interpreting the column, and a graphics page illustrating layers at Mount Rainier.



For assessment, review the stratigraphic columns and look for evidence of students recognition that each layer represents a geologic event. Students should be able to interpret the order of events by noting that the oldest evidence exists at the bottom while products of younger events are found at the top. Assess application to real-world situations by assigning interpretation of an additional ready-to interpret geology shoebox. For older students assign and interpretation of layers at a local road cut or stream cut in your community.


Park Connections

Volcanic events, floods, landslides, and glaciers have left behind deposits that can be studied to understand the processes that caused them.



Stratigraphic columns can be created in a graduated cylinder or beaker.

Photograph Your Shoebox: Take photographs of each opened shoebox and instruct students to label each layer using a computer graphics program.

Kitchen Layers in a Jar: Make your own layered sequence out of kitchen ingredients. Use ingredients such as cornmeal, cinnamon, oatmeal, flour, decorative sprinkles, and different colors of sugar to represent volcanic deposits (lahars, tephra, lava) and glacial or stream deposits.

  1. Fill a graduated cylinder or tall jar with layers of different ingredients. Add each ingredient so that layers are of different thickness. Each layer should contain material that looks similar to the type of deposit it represents. 
  2. Instruct students to write and apply labels of each layer with a piece of masking tape.
  3. Instruct students to write a story about the series of events that occurred to deposit these layers.

Stratigraphic Columns from Other Regions: Use library or internet research to find stratigraphic columns of other geologic regions. Discuss how they are alike or different from stratigraphic columns in volcanic landscapes.

Write a Geologic Story: Instruct students to write the geologic story of the events that happened at the site of their shoebox geology.


Additional Resources

Cas, R.A.F., and Wright, J.V., 1987, Volcanic successions modern and ancient-a geological approach to processes, products and successions: Allen and Unwin, London, 528 p.


Fisher, R.V., and Schmincke, H.U., Pyroclastic rocks: Springer-Verlag, New York, 1984, 472 p.


Scott, K.M, Vallance, J.W., and Pringle, P.T., 1995, Sedimentology, behavior, and hazards of debris flows at Mount Rainier, Washington: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1547, 56 p., 1 pl.


Vallance, J.W., and Scott, K.M., 1997, The Osceola Mudflow from Mount Rainier: sedimentology and hazard implications of a huge clay-rich debris flow: GSA Bulletin, February, 1997, v. 109: no.2: p. 143-163, 6 tables.


Zehfuss, P.H., Atwater, B.F., Vallance, J.W., Brenniman, H., Brown, T.A., 2003, Holocene lahars and their by-products along the historical path of the White River between Mount Rainier and Seattle: in Swanson, T.W., ed, Western Cordillera and adjacent areas: Boulder, Colorado, Geological Society of America Field Guide 4, p. 209-223.


deposit, Law of Superposition, stratigraphic column

Last updated: February 28, 2015