Goal: To help students understand a complex, cataclysmic natural phenomenon by breaking it down into sequenced and simultaneous components, cooperatively researching the nature of those components and their effects, and visualizing the whole through dramatic simulation.

Objectives: Students will


  1. Conduct research and teach each other about the eruption of Mount St. Helens, utilizing cooperative learning teams and expert groups.
  2. Be able to identify the major components of the eruption, their characteristics and their effects.
  3. Apply creative and critical thinking skills to reciprocally teach concepts and collaboratively plan a simulation.
  4. Simulate the eruption dramatically.
  5. Demonstrate their learning on a written test.


Key Concepts: Cataclysmic geological events have shaped and continue to alter our landscape and lifeforms.

Summary: In a series of small-group and whole-class discussions, individual research and reciprocal teaching exercises, students learn about six major components of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, and their effects on landscape and lifeforms. They then assume roles and plan for a dramatic simulation of the event, finally enacting it as an aid to visualization, thorough understanding, and retention of learning.

Content Areas: Science, language arts, drama

Materials Needed:


Instructional Strategies:

Articles in Classroom Supplements:

Evaluation: Have students complete Handout: Student Test/Evaluation to demonstrate learning. After in-class correcting, discuss with students their response to this kind of learning process and answer any remaining questions about the May 1980 eruption.

Note to Teacher: These activities may take from a few class sessions to two weeks or more, depending upon; the maturity and readiness of your students; modifications your students may require; time available for teaching cooperative learning and group process skills, use of descriptive language and imagery, etc.; steps you might choose to omit; quantity and quality of supplementary materials available. To help you estimate time required, review Handouts, Instructional Strategies, and Materials Needed.

Instructional Sequence:


  1. In whole-class discussion, help students identify what they already know about the May 18,1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, and its environmental impact. Mindmap or cluster responses on chalkboard. (See Clustering/Mindmapping Techniques.) Explain that in this series of activities (over several class sessions, as time permits,) they will study the eruption in depth, including dramatizing the event so that it comes alive in their imaginations and is retained in their memories.


  2. In this or subsequent discussion, talk about acting. What kind of work must actors and actresses do to make the roles they play believable? What do they need to know about the characters and scenes they play? Explain that acting requires research, and that this activity will also begin with research.


  3. Explain the Learning-Team/Expert-Group process. Distribute Expert Group/Learning Team handout. Assign students to teams of six members each. Give brief oral definitions for the six components of the eruption. Direct groups to meet and assign one component to each member: precursory period, debris avalanche, lateral blast, vertical column, mudflow, pyroclastic flow. Note that every member is responsible for learning everything he/she can about the assigned component (area of expertise,) plus its particular impact/effect on the environment: natural landscape (rivers, trees, lakes, vegetation, etc.) and animal populations (people, elk, pocket gophers, deer, salamanders, insects, etc.)


  4. Distribute Expert Notes handout. Allow time for reading of supplementary materials provided and/or for library research, or assign as homework.


  5. Have expert groups meet to compare and share information, following steps outlined in Expert Group and Learning Team and keeping notes as directed on Expert Notes handout. Monitor group behaviors so that you can comment later, or give instruction, as needed, on contributing ideas, asking questions, listening, staying on task, etc. Review procedure and clarify instructions periodically.


  6. Hold a whole-class meeting after expert groups have completed their task, in order to 'debrief' the expert-group process: What problems surfaced? How did your group stick to the task, encourage participation, solve problems, resolve conflict? What do we need to do to improve our groupwork skills?


  7. Return students to their learning teams. Now each 'expert' has the task of informing the rest of his/her team about the eruption component he/she was assigned. Instruct students to follow the format on the handout. Encourage teammates to ask each other questions, and to be prepared to do additional research if necessary. Urge them to give their teammates as much detail as possible, and remind them to include any information they have found about their component's impact on landscape and lifeforms.


  8. For the simulation, select one or more members from each expert group, and assign to them the following roles needed in addition to assigned areas of expertise: narrator, trees (or other plant life, 2 to several,) pocket gophers (or other animal life, 2 to several). In whole-class discussion, have students provide suggestions for the narration, and for how trees and gophers will "behave" in the dramatization. Remaining members of expert groups will represent their assigned component of the eruption in the dramatization, planning together how they will move and behave in order to simulate that component's activity (see Simulation Plan handout.) The Eruption Simulation Storyboard may be distributed at this point (but not before) to aid in visualization. (Note: The narrator will require additional time and teacher-assistance to prepare for the simulation.)


  9. After Expert Groups have met and then shared their ideas with the whole class, complete planning for any special effects: props, scenery, sound effects, music, etc.


  10. "Rehearse" the simulation as many times as seems productive. Meet after each rehearsal to share suggestions for the narrator and participants. These rehearsals and discussions are very important, for they refine students' understanding of the eruptive event as well as illuminating "the whole" of the simulation. 


  11. If possible, invite another group to be audience for the final performance.