Lesson Plan

Lava Building Blocks

Mount Rainier Map
Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RST.1, 6-8.RST.2, 6-8.RST.4, 6-8.RST.8
State Standards:
Washington State Science Standard EALR 4 Earth and Space Science - Grades 6-8 Cycles in Earth Systems
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.


Students investigate the influence of magma viscosity on the shape of a volcanic cone. Then, they explore nature and motions of lava flows and learn about the importance of lava flows as the building blocks of Mount Rainier. Students will:

How do lava flows influence volcano structure and type, specifically at Mount Rainier,
Mount St. Helens, and Kilauea?


Lava flows-building blocks of Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier consists of hundreds of overlapping lava flow layers. Sandwiched between the lava flows are layers of loose rock rubble. These lava flows formed during hundreds of individual eruptions over the last 500,000 years. While the volcano has erupted frequently during this time, most lava was erupted between 500,000 to 420,000 years ago and 280,000 to 180,000 years ago. Today, chilled and hardened lava flows extend up to 22 kilometers (14 miles) from the volcano's summit. Future lava flows are more likely to be smaller and travel no more distant than 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the summit. The most recent lava flows at Mount Rainier were erupted around 1,100 to 2,200 years ago, and some of these young lava flows can be seen as raised rock ridges that bisect Emmons Glacier, and as raised areas beneath the ice. Mount Rainier lava flows consist of andesite and some low-silica dacites, with some minor lava flows containing basaltic andesite.

The volume of lava on Mount Rainier is approximately 150 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles), an amount sufficient to fill Seattle's Safeco Stadium 100,000 times! Lava flows from each new eruption accumulate on top of older flows, building the cone taller and broader. Lava flows on the upper cone are relatively thin, commonly 30 meters (100 feet) or less in thickness. However, lava flows that pooled along the base of the cone formed layers hundreds of meters in thickness. When the eruption ends, many processes begin to destroy the cone, including glacier erosion, flowing water, rockfall, and landslides. A volcano will grow in size if the volume of lava erupted exceeds the amount lost to erosion.

How do lava flows form on steep-sided volcanoes? 

Volcanic eruptions often begin with the release of steam and other volcanic gases that have been trapped within the magma during its long ascent from the magma chamber. The real mountain building begins after most volcanic gases have escaped. Inside the vent, molten lava rises and subsides repeatedly. The lava within the vent eventually rises high enough to spill over the crater rim as a glowing lava flow, often with temperatures that range between 900-1100 degrees C (1,650 to 2,000 degrees F). The outside of the lava flow cools and hardens into a rubbly crust within minutes, while the interior of the flow remains hot and gooey and continues to spill downhill. But, that is not the end of the story.

Pyroclastic flows, avalanches of hot rock and gas 

Many lava flows that issue from steep-sided volcanoes break up into blocks and rubble that avalanche down valley accompanied by a billowing cloud of rock dust and steam. Pyroclastic flows can also form from the collapse of eruption columns. The swift melting of snow and ice by pyroclastic flows has the potential to create lahars that travel great distances beyond the slope of the mountain and threaten nearby communities. Geologists speculate that, at steep-sided Cascade volcanoes, some of the rock rubble found sandwiched between lava flows originated as pyroclastic flows. Learn more about lava flows, pyroclastic flows and associated hazards in the Rock Stars, Volcanic Processes, and Understanding Volcano Hazard Video activity.

Where are the lava flows at Mount Rainier? 

Lava flows are visible in two general arrangements at Mount Rainier-as thin rock ledges that protrude from the cone of the volcano, and as the immense ridges that radiate from the volcano in every direction. The rock ledge lava flows, commonly 30 meters (100 feet) in thickness, are all that remain of longer flows that during the eruptions disintegrated into pyroclastic flows, or after the eruption were eroded away by glacial action. The great lava flow ridges, exemplified as Paradise Ridge, Ricksecker Point, Mazama Ridge, and Rampart Ridge, rise hundreds of meters (hundreds of feet) above the valley floors. Their rock-rubble tops can be difficult to observe because of dense meadow and forest vegetation. Almost every step taken on these ridges is made upon hardened lava flows. From valley bottoms, the educated observer can view multiple lava flows that have built the ridge. The lava rocks usually appear gray, and in some places form columns. See examples of thin and thick lava flow types in the graphic "Photographs of Lava Flows at Mount Rainier."

Silica influences lava viscosity and overall shape of the volcano

Silica content is the principal control upon the viscosity of magma. Silica molecules form a strong bond that permits entrapment of volcanic gases and promotes explosive volcanic eruptions. Low-silica magmas allow rapid escape of gases and low-explosivity eruptions. Other factors that control magma viscosity include the magma's temperature, gas and water content, and the amount of crystals in the magma. The massive shield volcanoes of Kilauea and Mauna Loa, in Hawai'i, contains 50 percent silica in its magma, whereas the stratovolcano of Mount Rainier has silica content of nearly 60 percent. Mount St. Helens has the highest average silica content at 64 percent. For more information about magma, visit the Magma Mash activity and the Internet Resources Page.

Not all volcanoes are created equal

While there are many ways to classify volcano types, one very simplistic and common classification system separates all volcanoes into three types based upon overall shape- shield volcanoes, cinder cones, and stratovolcanoes, sometimes known as composite volcanoes. The overall shape of a volcano provides clues about the texture and chemical content of the lava that formed it. Magma erupted from shield volcanoes produces fluid lava that spreads quickly and thinly for great distances across the surface. This produces a gentle slope, similar in shape to the round shields used by Roman soldiers. Shield volcanoes have large foundations that cover massive areas. A stratovolcano consists of accumulations of viscous lava flows and rock rubble. Their slopes are much steeper than slopes of shield volcanoes. The type of magma that creates a cinder cone is similar to that producing shield volcanoes. During an eruption, expanding gases inflate small pieces of rock called cinders, which accumulate into a pile forming a rubbly cone. Many cinder cones also contain small lava flows. The graphic "Three Types of Volcanic Cones" depicts examples of these volcanic cones.

Get A Sense About Lava Flows

  • Color - Color and texture of lava vary considerably depending on cooling conditions. Lava rocks at high temperatures appear red to orange in color but cool quickly to shades of red (due to oxidation) and gray.
  • Sound - Witnesses of slow-moving, partially cooled lava flows report sounds similar to breaking of glass and pottery, caused by the splintering of the cooled outer skin of the lava flow. In contrast, the passing of a pyroclastic flow is eerily quiet. Some people say this is because its sound energy is absorbed within the billowing ash cloud.
  • Smell - Observers of lava flows report a slight sulfur smell in the air and the odor of burning vegetation.
  • Texture - Lava at Mount Rainier is not as fluid as lava at the volcanoes on Hawai'i, where lava flows sometimes resemble hot molasses, nor is it as viscous as lava at Mount St. Helens.

Comparisons of Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens

Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens have very different ages (oldest rocks 500,000 years ago and 40,000 years ago, respectively) and eruption styles, which explains their difference in shape and size. Mount Rainier's tendency to erupt more lava than tephra is one reason why it has been able to grow to such a great height. On the other hand, Mount St. Helens produces a tremendous amount of tephra that is blown away from the volcano and does not contribute to the volcano's cone. Lava at Mount St. Helens can be so viscous that it appears to squeeze out of the ground like toothpaste from a tube. This creates a muffin-shaped feature called a lava dome that grows over the vent. Later explosive eruptions will destroy earlier lava domes and prevent the volcano from growing to great heights.

This is the resistance of a material (usually a fluid) to flow. Examples higher and lower viscosity would be the higher resistance to flow of cake batter compared to water.


*Make one copy per student of each of the following: “Lava on the Run” student page and the graphic “Three Types of Volcanic Cones”

*Either prepare to project on a board or provide copies to each student of the graphics "Photographs of Lava Flows at Mount Rainier” and “Volcanic Rocks of Modern Mount Rainier”

*For each student group prepare the following materials: Newspaper, paper cups, pencil, ruler, stopwatch, measuring spoon, and cardboard 1x1 meter (3x3 foot). Optional: Provide samples of lava rocks. 

*Choose three products to represent lava samples. Products should have different compositions and textures and viscosities (chocolate syrup, corn syrup, shampoo, oatmeal, jelly, ketchup, rubber cement, etc.). Place each of these materials in small containers to give to each lab group, such as paper cups or other containers. 


An example of the graph that should be produced by the Lava on the Run experiment.

Download Teacher Page - Lava on the Run Sample Graph

Student directions for the Lava on the Run experiment. Copy one per student.

Download Student Pages - Lava on the Run

A graphics page illustrating lava flows at Mount Rainier. Either project on a board for the class or make one copy per student.

Download Graphic - Photographs of Lava Flow on Mount Rainier

A graphics page illustrating volcanic rocks at Mount Rainier. Either project on a board for the class or make one copy per student.

Download Graphic - Volcanic Rocks on Modern Mount Rainier

Graphics page describing the three different types of volcanoes. Make one copy per student or project on the board for the class.

Download Graphic - Three Types of Volcanic Cones

Lesson Hook/Preview

Reviewing Types of Volcanoes

1. Hand out the “Three Types of Volcanoes” graphic to compare the shapes and sizes of shield, cinder cones, and stratovolcanoes.

2. Explain to students that today they will answer the question: why do volcanoes have different shapes? 

3. Show students a picture of Mount Rainier and a picture of Mount St Helens. Ask students to identify the types of volcanoes and predict why these two volcanoes have such different sizes. Mount Rainier is 14,409' (4,392 m) and Mount St Helens is 8,366' (2,550 m). Feel free to give them the hint that it has something to do with lava. 


Introducing Viscosity

4. Introduce the term viscosity and describe how the viscosity of lava will determine eruptive style and the type of volcano produced.

Lava On The Run

Students test the viscosity of three “lava samples” and draw conclusions about the type of volcano that might result.

5. Provide each student with a “Lava on the Run” student page.

6. Divide the class into groups of three or four persons. Each team member should have at least one role in the experiment, such as recorder, timekeeper, marker and measurer, and sample pourer.

7. Students spread newspaper or plastic sheeting over activity areas to ensure easy cleanup.

8. Students use a marker to draw a start line at the top of the cardboard and then prop the cardboard against an object at a steep angle.

9. Provide the lava flow samples to each group. Instruct students to examine the lava samples. On the student page, students write their prediction about which sample is the most viscous (slowest flowing) and least viscous (fastest flowing).

10. Instruct students to measure one tablespoon of sample and hold it above the start line ready to pour when the timekeeper says go. Pour the sample onto the cardboard. After ten seconds, the timekeeper will say stop, and the marker will draw a line where the “lava” was at that time. The measurer will determine the distance traveled during that time. The recorder writes the distance on the student page.

11. Students repeat the process with all samples. Average the results of each “lava” sample for all groups.

12. Instruct each group to graph the results showing which sample is more viscous or resistant to flow in the experiment. 

Concluding the Experiment 

13. Discuss results with the class. Address similarities and differences among group results.

  • Did each group mark the same specimen as most or least viscous? Instruct students to explain their answers.
  • Which specimen might represent each type of volcano?
  • How did slope play a role in the results?
  • How would shape or slope of a volcano and changes in silica content affect the volcano?
  • Discuss how each consecutive lava flow adds height to the volcano.

14. Display the graphics “Three Types of Volcanic Cones,” “Photographs of Lava Flows at Mount Rainier,” and “Volcanic Rocks of Modern Mount Rainier”. Ask students to identify the samples that would build a shield and stratovolcano. Note the presence of thin flows on Success Cleaver, and thick flows in the Ricksecker Point Lava Flow. Explain how thin lava flows form high on the volcano while lava pools along the base of the volcano, forming thick flows and ridges that radiate from the volcano.


  • Andesite - a dark, fine-grained, brown or grayish volcanic rock that is intermediate in composition between rhyolite and basalt.
  • Basaltic Andesite - a black volcanic rock containing about 55% silica. 
  • Composite Volcano - Also known as a stratovolcano, is a conical volcano built up by many layers (strata) of hardened lava, tephra, pumice, and volcanic ash.
  • Cinder Cone Volcano - the most common type of volcano; they are the symmetrical cone shapedvolcanoes we typically think of. They may occur as single volcanoes or as secondaryvolcanoes on the sides of stratovolcanoes or shield volcanoes. 
  • Cone - is a triangle-shaped hill formed as material from volcanic eruptions piles up around the volcanic vent, or opening in Earth's crust.
  • Crater - is a circular or central depression caused by volcanic activity.
  • Dacite - a volcanic rock resembling andesite but containing free quartz.
  • Eruption - become active and eject lava, ash, and gases.
  • Eruption column - consists of hot volcanic ash emitted during an explosive volcanic eruption. The ash forms a column rising many kilometres into the air above the peak of the volcano. 
  • Glacier - a slowly moving mass or river of ice formed by the accumulation and compaction of snow on mountains or near the poles.
  • Lahar - a destructive mudflow on the slopes of a volcano.
  • Landslides - the sliding down of a mass of earth or rock from a mountain or cliff.
  • Lava - hot molten or semifluid rock erupted from a volcano or fissure, or solid rock resulting from cooling of this.
  • Lava Dome - a mound of viscous lava that has been extruded from a volcanic vent.
  • Lava Flow - a mass of flowing or solidified lava.
  • Magma - hot fluid or semifluid material below or within the earth's crust from which lava and other igneous rock is formed by cooling.
  • Magma Chamber - a large underground pool of liquid rock found beneath the surface of the Earth.
  • Pyroclastic flow - a dense, destructive mass of very hot ash, lava fragments, and gases ejected explosively from a volcano and typically flowing downslope at great speed.
  • Rock Rubble - rough fragments of broken stone or rock 
  • Shield Volcano - a broad, domed volcano with gently sloping sides, characteristic of the eruption of fluid, basaltic lava.
  • Silica - a hard, unreactive, colorless compound that occurs as the mineral quartz and as a principal constituent of sandstone and other rocks.
  • Stratovolcano - Also known as a composite volcano, is a conical volcano built up by many layers (strata) of hardened lava, tephra, pumice, and volcanic ash.
  • Vent - an opening that allows air, gas, or liquid to pass out of or into a confined space.
  • Viscosity - the state of being thick, sticky, and semifluid in consistency, due to internal friction.
  • Volcanic gases - Molten rock (either magma or lava) near the atmosphere releases high-temperature volcanic gas.

Assessment Materials

Recipe for Mount Rainier

To assess whether students comprehend how volcanoes are made, ask the students to list the ingredients and steps to make Mount Rainier. Be clear to students that their recipe should use scientific vocabulary learned in the lesson.

Recipe for Mount Rainier

Download Assessment

Supports for Struggling Learners

*Conduct “Lava on the Run” as a classroom demonstration to provide additional teacher guidance. 

*Create teacher-chosen heterogenous groups for the experiment. 

*Instead of providing each group all three samples, divide the class into three groups and ask each group to test one sample. 

Enrichment Activities

*Assign Internet or library research concerning volcano growth rates. Instruct students to examine the life histories of other Cascade volcanoes.

*Illustrating volcano types using simple foods–Display to the class a chocolate chip, a chocolate kiss, and a wafer cookie. The chocolate kiss represents a steeply sloped stratovolcano, or composite volcano; the chocolate chip represents a cinder cone; the wafer illustrates the broad slope of a shield volcano. Ask students which type of volcano each of the foods represents.Used courtesy of Dr. Robert Lillie, Oregon State University

Additional Resources

Sisson, T. W.; Vallance, J. W.; Pringle, P. T., 2001, Progress made in understanding Mount Rainier’s hazards: EOS (American Geophysical Union Transactions), v. 82, no. 9, p. 113, 118-120.

Related Lessons or Education Materials

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.

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Last updated: July 28, 2015