Hands-on High School Geography: Creating a Karst Cave Model

I love doing school with little people. Crafts and labooks and coloring sheets make learning fun. But school work gets a little boring when kids get into high school. All of sudden they have more reading and answering questions and fewer hands-on projects. This leaves kids who enjoy hands-on learning a little frustrated.

But there are some fun hands-on activities that high school students can do. And if you have a student who learns best through hands-on learning, these can be really important- as well as fun! If you have a high school student who likes to learn through activity, you can look for a curriculum that is going to include some hands-on projects or you can supplement and add in some hands-on activities that kids can do throughout the course.

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Kathryne- who is a high school senior this year- has been using North Star Geography from Bright Ideas Press this year. She- and I – like the fact that the curriculum includes hands-on activities. This week she made a karst cave model to help her understand how karst caves form.

What’s a karst cave?

Don’t worry I had to read about it for myself also. (Have I mentioned that I never learned much about geography when I was in school?)

Karst landscape is formed when rock types that are soluble are dissolved. This can form caves, springs, and sinkholes. These can be scenic areas as well as landforms that provide water we can use.

Creating a model karst cave…

Supplies we used:

Sugar cubes
Glass container

The activity description in the book called for using modeling clay instead of fondant. Kathryne suggested using fondant so that the whole thing would be edible. The fondant worked- for the most part. There was a result (that I’ll mention later) that she found that we could have prevented with the modeling clay or with preparing the fondant differently.


Kathryne stacked the sugar cubes against the side of a glass container to resemble the cross section of a hillside. The sugar cubes represented soluble rock underground. She rolled out the fondant and covered the “hillside” with it to represent the ground cover.

She then poured water over the ground, which should have caused the soluble sugar cubes underground to dissolve. This would hollow out the hillside and formed a cave.


Some of the sugar cubes did dissolve. But the problem that Kathryne found was the solid sheet of fondant caused much of the water to run off instead of allowing it to soak down and dissolve the sugar cubes. The same issue could have happened with clay if you rolled out a solid piece of modeling clay to cover the “ground.”

If you think about it, real ground cover isn’t in a solid sheet. It is loose. Kathryne concluded that she could have poked holes in her fondant. That would have been a better representation of real ground cover and probably would have allowed the water to run down under it better.

The whole hands-on process- even having a problem and figuring out what would make it work better- helped Kathryne to understand better the whole process of the formation of a karst cave. Even though her sugar cubes didn’t fully dissolve to form a cave, it was easier to see the process from a hands-on activity than from simply reading about it in a book.

It is possible- with a little planning- to come up with hands-on activities for high school students. And it’s nice to break up what can be monotonous textbook reading and questions answering with something fun and active once in a while. And actually doing something hands-on can definitely help students better understand how things work.

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