ES4 - Soils, Rocks & Landforms

Geology is the study of our planet’s earth materials and natural resources. Because they are so ubiquitous and abundant, they are often taken for granted. The Soils, Rocks, and Landforms Module provides students with firsthand experiences with soils and rocks and modeling experiences using tools such as topographic maps and stream tables to engage with the anchor phenomenon of the surface of Earth’s landscape—the shape and the composition of landforms. The driving questions for the module are What are Earth’s land surface made of? and Why are landforms not the same everywhere?

This module has four investigations that focus on the phenomena that weathering by water, ice, wind, living organisms, and gravity breaks rocks into smaller pieces, erosion (water, ice, and wind) transports earth materials to new locations, and deposition is the result of that transport process that builds new land. Students conduct controlled experiments by incrementally changing specific environmental conditions to determine the impact of changing the variables of slope and amount of water in stream tables. Students interpret data from diagrams and visual representations to build explanations from evidence and make predictions of future events. They develop model mountains and represent the landforms from different perspectives to look for change. Students gain experiences that will contribute to the understanding of crosscutting concepts of patterns; cause and effect; scale, proportion, and quantity; systems and system models; structure and function; and stability and change.


The anchor phenomenon for this module is the surface of Earth’s landscape—the shape and the composition of landforms. The driving questions for the module are what are Earth’s land surfaces made of? and why are landforms not the same everywhere?

  • In the first investigation, students investigate soil as a surface earth–material phenomenon and ask the question How do soils form?
  • In Investigation 2, students investigate the phenomena of erosion and deposition of weathered earth material by flowing water, and the phenomenon of fossils found in layers of sedimentary rock. The guiding questions for this investigation are how do erosion and deposition impact landforms? and what do the locations of fossils in rock layers tell us about past life on Earth?
  • In Investigation 3, a volcanic mountain is the major phenomenon that students investigate as they work with models to represent and describe this surface feature on Earth and understand how volcanic mountains were formed and how they change over time. The guiding questions for the investigation are how do maps help us observe Earth’s surface features? and what might reduce the impact of catastrophic Earth surface events?
  • Finally, in Investigation 4, students explore the phenomenon of earth materials as natural resources. The driving questions for the module are what are Earth’s land surfaces made of? and why are landforms not the same everywhere? The guiding question for this investigations is what makes rock a natural resource and how is this resource used by people?

NGSS Standards Addressed
By the end of grade 5. Earth has changed over time. Understanding how landforms develop, are weathered (broken down into smaller pieces), and erode (get transported elsewhere) can help infer the history of the current landscape. Local, regional, and global patterns of rock formations reveal changes over time due to Earth forces, such as earthquakes. The presence and location of certain fossil types indicate the order in which rock layers were formed. Patterns of tree rings and ice cores from glaciers can help reconstruct Earth’s recent climate history.
  • Local, regional, and global patterns of rock formations reveal changes over time due to earth forces, such as earthquakes. The presence and location of certain fossil types indicate the order in which rock layers were formed.
By the end of grade 5. Earth’s major systems are the geosphere (solid and molten rock, soil, and sediments), the hydrosphere (water and ice), the atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (living things, including humans). These systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth’s surface materials and processes. The ocean supports a variety of ecosystems and organisms, shapes landforms, and influences climate. Winds and clouds in the atmosphere interact with the landforms to determine patterns of weather. Rainfall helps shape the land and affects the types of living things found in a region. Water, ice, wind, living organisms, and gravity break rocks, soils, and sediments into smaller particles and move them around. Human activities affect Earth’s systems and their interactions at its surface.
  • Rainfall helps to shape the land and affects the types of living things found in a region. Water, ice, wind, living organisms, and gravity break rocks, soils, and sediments into smaller particles and move them around.
  • Earth’s major systems are the geosphere (solid and molten rock, soil, and sediments), the hydrosphere (water and ice), the atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (living things, including humans). These systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth’s surface materials and processes. The ocean supports a variety of ecosystems and organisms, shapes landforms, and influences climate. Winds and clouds in the atmosphere interact with the landforms to determine patterns of weather.
By the end of grade 5. The locations of mountain ranges, deep ocean trenches, ocean floor structures, earthquakes, and volcanoes occur in patterns. Most earthquakes and volcanoes occur in bands that are often along the boundaries between continents and oceans. Major mountain chains form inside continents or near their edges. Maps can help locate the different land and water features where people live and in other areas of Earth.
  • The locations of mountain ranges, deep ocean trenches, ocean floor structures, earthquakes, and volcanoes occur in patterns. Most earthquakes and volcanoes occur in bands that are often along the boundaries between continents and oceans. Major mountain chains form inside continents or near their edges. Maps can help locate the different land and water features areas of Earth.
By the end of grade 5. Living things affect the physical characteristics of their regions (e.g., plants’ roots hold soil in place, beaver shelters and human-built dams alter the flow of water, plants’ respiration affects the air). Many types of rocks and minerals are formed from the remains of organisms or are altered by their activities.
  • Living things affect the physical characteristics of their regions.
By the end of grade 5. All materials, energy, and fuels that humans use are derived from natural sources, and their use affects the environment in multiple ways. Some resources are renewable over time, and others are not.
  • Energy and fuels that humans use are derived from natural sources, and their use affects the environment in multiple ways. Some resources are renewable over time, and others are not.

Science and Engineering Practices

Asking Questions and Defining Problems - in grades 3–5 builds from grades K–2 experiences and progresses to specifying qualitative relationships.
Ask questions about what would happen if a variable is changed.
  • Identify scientific (testable) and non-scientific (non-testable) questions.
  • Ask questions that can be investigated and predict reasonable outcomes based on patterns such as cause and effect relationships.
  • Use prior knowledge to describe problems that can be solved.
  • Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.
Developing & Using Models - in 3–5 builds on K–2 experiences and progresses to building and revising simple models and using models to represent events and design solutions.
  • Identify limitations of models.
  • Collaboratively develop and/or revise a model based on evidence that shows the relationships among variables for frequent and regular occurring events.
  • Develop a model using an analogy, example, or abstract representation to describe a scientific principle or design solution.
  • Develop and/or use models to describe and/or predict phenomena.
  • Develop a diagram or simple physical prototype to convey a proposed object, tool, or process.
  • Use a model to test cause and effect relationships or interactions concerning the functioning of a natural or designed system.
Planning and Carrying Out Investigations - in 3–5 builds on K–2 experiences and progresses to include investigations that control variables and provide evidence to support explanations or design solutions.
  • Plan and conduct an investigation collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, using fair tests in which variables are controlled and the number of trials considered.
  • Evaluate appropriate methods and/or tools for collecting data.
  • Make observations and/or measurements to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence for an explanation of a phenomenon or test a design solution.
  • Make predictions about what would happen if a variable changes.
  • Test two different models of the same proposed object, tool, or process to determine which better meets criteria for success.
Analyzing and Interpreting Data  in 3–5 builds on K–2 experiences and progresses to introducing quantitative approaches to collecting data and conducting multiple trials of qualitative observations. When possible and feasible, digital tools should be used.
  • Represent data in tables and/or various graphical displays (bar graphs, pictographs, and/or pie charts) to reveal patterns that indicate relationships.
  • Analyze and interpret data to make sense of phenomena, using logical reasoning, mathematics, and/or computation.
  • Compare and contrast data collected by different groups in order to discuss similarities and differences in their findings.
  • Analyze data to refine a problem statement or the design of a proposed object, tool, or process.
  • Use data to evaluate and refine design solutions.
Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking - at the 3–5 level builds on K–2 experiences and progresses to extending quantitative measurements to a variety of physical properties and using computation and mathematics to analyze data and compare alternative design solutions.
  • Decide if qualitative or quantitative data are best to determine whether a proposed object or tool meets criteria for success.
  • Organize simple data sets to reveal patterns that suggest relationships.
  • Describe, measure, estimate, and/or graph quantities such as area, volume, weight, and time to address scientific and engineering questions and problems.
  • Create and/or use graphs and/or charts generated from simple algorithms to compare alternative solutions to an engineering problem
Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions - in 3–5 builds on K–2 experiences and progresses to the use of evidence in constructing explanations that specify variables that describe and predict phenomena and in designing multiple solutions to design problems.
  • Construct an explanation of observed relationships (e.g., the distribution of plants in the back yard).
  • Use evidence (e.g., measurements, observations, patterns) to construct or support an explanation or design a solution to a problem.
  • Identify the evidence that supports particular points in an explanation.
  • Apply scientific ideas to solve design problems.
  • Generate and compare multiple solutions to a problem based on how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the design solution.
Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information - in 3–5 builds on K–2 experiences and progresses to evaluating the merit and accuracy of ideas and methods.
Obtain and combine information from books and other reliable media to explain phenomena.
  • Read and comprehend grade-appropriate complex texts and/or other reliable media to summarize and obtain scientific and technical ideas and describe how they are supported by evidence.
  • Compare and/or combine across complex texts and/or other reliable media to support the engagement in other scientific and/or engineering practices.
  • Combine information in written text with that contained in corresponding tables, diagrams, and/or charts to support the engagement in other scientific and/or engineering practices.
  • Obtain and combine information from books and/or other reliable media to explain phenomena or solutions to a design problem.
  • Communicate scientific and/or technical information orally and/or in written formats, including various forms of media and may include tables, diagrams, and charts.

Crosscutting Concepts

Patterns Observed patterns in nature guide organization and classification and prompt questions about relationships and causes underlying them.
  • Similarities and differences in patterns can be used to sort, classify, communicate and analyze simple rates of change for natural phenomena and designed products.
  • Patterns of change can be used to make predictions
  • Patterns can be used as evidence to support an explanation.
Cause and Effect - Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. Deciphering causal relationships, and the mechanisms by which they are mediated, is a major activity of science and engineering.
  • Cause and effect relationships are routinely identified, tested, and used to explain change.
  • Events that occur together with regularity might or might not be a cause and effect relationship.
Scale, Proportion, and Quantity In considering phenomena, it is critical to recognize what is relevant at different size, time, and energy scales, and to recognize proportional relationships between different quantities as scales change. 
  • Natural objects and/or observable phenomena exist from the very small to the immensely large or from very short to very long time periods.
  • Standard units are used to measure and describe physical quantities such as weight, time, temperature, and volume.
Systems and System Models - A system is an organized group of related objects or components; models can be used for understanding and predicting the behavior of systems.
  • A system can be described in terms of its components and their interactions.
  • A system is a group of related parts that make up a whole and can carry out functions its individual parts cannot.
Structure and Function - The way an object is shaped or structured determines many of its properties and functions.
  • Different materials have different substructures, which can sometimes be observed.
  • Substructures have shapes and parts that serve functions.
Stability and Change - For both designed and natural systems, conditions that affect stability and factors that control rates of change are critical elements to consider and understand.
  • Change is measured in terms of differences over time and may occur at different rates.
  • Some systems appear stable, but over long periods of time will eventually change.




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