A Challenge of Friction: Great Sand Dunes National Park


Students will investigate and make predictions about friction and surface design. Students will develop persuasive communication skills.

Coin Type(s)

  • Quarter

Coin Program(s)

  • America the Beautiful Quarters


  • Students will investigate and make predictions about friction and surface design.
  • Students will develop persuasive communication skills.

Major Subject Area Connections

  • Math
  • Language Arts
  • Science


  • 9th
  • 10th
  • 11th
  • 12th

Class Time

  • Sessions: Six
  • Session Length: 45-60 minutes
  • Total Length: 151-500 minutes


  • Whole group
  • Small groups
  • Pairs
  • Individual work

Background Knowledge

Students should have a basic knowledge of:

  • Rock formation and composition
  • Hardness scales, such as Mohs and field

Terms and Concepts

  • Quarter
  • Obverse (front)
  • Reverse (back)
  • Displacement
  • Erosion
  • Barchan dune
  • Transverse dune
  • Alpine
  • Montane
  • Dune field
  • Nonrenewable
  • Scarcity
  • Friction


  • 1 overhead projector or equivalent technology (optional)
  • 1 overhead transparency (or photocopy) of the following:
    • "Great Sand Dunes National Park Quarter" page
    • "Comparison of Dunes" worksheet
  • 1 class map of the United States
  • 1 topographical map of Colorado
  • Copies of the following:
    • "Materials Collection" letter to parents
    • "Sand Observations" worksheet (two pages)
    • "Personal Sand Dune Flags" worksheet
    • "Sand Landcraft Rubric"
  • Variety of plastic containers (such as peanut butter jars, milk jugs, juice bottles etc.) with screw-on caps (at least one per group)
  • Variety of pebbles 1/2 inch or smaller
  • Measuring cups and beakers, 1 set per group of four
  • Paper filters and funnels, 1 set per group of four
  • Spray bottles, filled with water (1 per group)
  • Two 40-pound bags of play sand
  • Sandwich size resealable bags, 1 per student
  • Dinner size foam or water-resistant plates
  • Box of 4 colors of food coloring
  • Box of toothpicks
  • Glue sticks
  • Markers or colored pencils
  • Small fan (optional)
  • Electric hair dryer (optional)
  • Four baking pans
  • Text, photos, or videos that give information about the scenery and recreation of Great Sand Dunes National Park, such as:
    • The National Parks: America's Best Idea by Ken Burns
    • Images of America: Great Sand Dunes National Park by Mike Butler
    • Guide to National Parks of the United States, Seventh Edition by National Geographic
    • Great Sand Dunes: The Shape of the Wind by Stephen Trimble
  • Fictional text that describes a sandy landscape and/or an imaginative vehicle designed to travel across sand, such as:
    • A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
    • Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
  • Web pages that provide information about the properties of sand and geologic interactions, such as:
  • Digital camera
  • Video and audio recording equipment
  • Large tub, such as a plastic baby pool


  • Make an overhead transparency or equivalent of each of the following:
    • "Great Sand Dunes National Park Quarter" page
    • "Comparison of Dunes" worksheet
  • Make copies of the following:
    • "Materials Collection" letter to parents (one per student)
    • "Sand Observations" worksheet (page 1, one per group; page 2, one per student)
    • "Personal Sand Dune Flags" worksheet (1 copy per 16 students)
    • "Sand Landcraft Rubric" (one per student)
  • One or two weeks before the lesson, send "Materials Collection" letter home with the students.
  • For Session 1:
    • Set out spray bottles, measuring cup, beaker, funnel and filters at each station.
    • Provide a large, undisturbed area to dry "Sand Observations" activity.
    • Scoop out one-half cup or 130 ml of damp sand from bag of play sand.
    • Seal each scoop of sand in a resealable bag.
    • Stack bag of sand, toothpick and flag cut-out on a foam plate.
    • Prepare recording equipment for student use.
  • For Session 2:
    • Prepare four pans, one containing a sample of pebbles from the previous session, another with damp sand from the bag, another with dry sand (leave out overnight to dry), and another with enough water to cover the bottom of the pan.
    • Set out fan and electric hair dryer (optional)
    • Locate photos of sand dunes (see suggestions under "Materials").
  • For Session 3:
    • Locate a passage from a fictional text that describes a vehicle traveling on sand (see suggestions under "Materials").
    • Fill a large tub, such as a plastic baby pool, with all the remaining sand and shape a 45 degree slope at least 5 inches wide and 12 inches long.
  • For Session 4:
    • Provide poster paper, markers or colored pencils
    • Obtain video and audio recording equipment.


Worksheets and files (PDF)

Lesson Steps

Session 1

  1. Display and examine the "Great Sand Dunes National Park Quarter" page. Locate this site on a class map. Note its position in relation to your school's location.
  2. As background information, explain to the students that the United States Mint began to issue the quarters in the America the Beautiful Quarters® Program in 2010. By the time the program ends in 2021, there will be a total of 56 quarter designs. Each design will focus on a different national site—one from each state, territory and the District of Columbia. Tell the students that the back of a coin is called the "reverse" and the front is called the "obverse."
  3. Ask the students to share their ideas about the image on the quarter's reverse. If necessary, explain that the image shows a father and son playing in the sand next to a creek bed. The distinctive mountains and sand dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park are featured in the background.
  4. Describe the lesson objective to the students: to explore what makes sand so difficult to travel on. Prompt the students to recall definitions or examples of texture, hardness and luster, and review as necessary.
  5. Point out the location of materials and the drying and storage area in the classroom.
  6. Divide the class into groups of four students. Distribute a copy of page 1 of the "Sand Observations" worksheet to each student and discuss it with the whole class. Have them share the materials they brought and have each group decide on one container and one type of rock to use for their observations. Encourage the different groups to use different types of containers and rocks.
  7. Following page 1 of the worksheet under "Making Sand," have each group appoint one student to each of the actions: record, measure, shake, filter. Tell the students to complete the "Predict Outcomes" question before shaking their containers. Guide teams as necessary through the process described on the worksheet.
  8. Host debriefing discussions with each group. Ask the students if there were any surprises or if conclusions could be drawn yet from the data they collected. Ask them how long they think it would take to make a beach full of sand.
  9. As the groups finish, have the students pick up one each of the following items: a cut-out sand dune flag, a toothpick, and a plastic resealable bag containing 1/2 cup (or 130 ml.) of damp play sand. Have glue sticks and markers available for the students to assemble the flags on the toothpicks.
  10. Review the directions under "Making a Sand Structure" on page 2 of the worksheet. Explain that this is an individual activity.
  11. Allow the students to place two drops of food coloring in the sand bag to dampen the sand and distinguish the structures. Have the students seal the bags and knead the color through the sand. Display a sample sand dune with a flag and challenge them to form a dune that will hold up a flag the longest.
  12. Show the students where to store their dunes to dry until the next class period. Have the students take photos of their dunes with a digital camera.

Session 2

  1. Display and examine the "Great Sand Dunes National Park Quarter" page. Point out to the students that the design represents four geographic formations: alpine tundra, montane forests, dune field and creek field. Point to each feature on the coin image and provide a brief description, including the elevation of the mountains (13,600 feet) and the tallest dune (750 feet).
  2. Display the classroom map of Colorado, locating the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the San Juan Mountains. Orient the students to the topographical map by pointing out the same features discussed on the coin image.
  3. Tell the students that you are going to demonstrate the effect of wind on different terrains. Display four pans, one containing rocks, the second damp sand, the third dry sand and the fourth water. Have the students predict what will happen when you direct a small fan at each pan.
  4. Explain that the fan represents cold air. Ask the students what effect it would have over a long time. Repeat the process with a hair dryer representing hot air. Lead the students to conclude that different temperatures of wind will affect the dryness of sand and the amount of possible wind erosion.
  5. Display and discuss the "Comparison of Dunes" worksheet.
  6. Refer back to the map of Colorado and explain that the Great Sand Dunes were formed and are maintained by a unique combination of geologic features. View more detailed descriptions of the properties of sand and of sand geology using Web sites such as those suggested under "Materials."
  7. Using a Think/Pair/Share method, ask the students to determine the three requirements in the formation of sand dunes (ground water from creeks, competing cross winds and sand trapped between mountains). As they discuss, remind the students of the dunes they created during the last session and ask the students which of the three requirements are missing that maintain the Great Sand Dunes.
  8. Have small groups of students retrieve their dunes and record their observations to finish page 2 of the "Sand Observations" worksheet. Have the students reconstruct their dunes by adding water and record dune changes with a digital camera.
  9. Have the groups follow up on page 1 of the "Sand Observations" worksheet. Have the student assigned to filtering scrape the sand from the filter into a small resealable bag, observe whether the sand settled in the beaker or not and repeat the filtration if warranted.
  10. Prepare the class for the next two sessions by reminding them to bring materials listed in the "Materials Collection Note" to build a sand landcraft.

Sessions 3 and 4

  1. Display the "Great Sand Dunes National Park Quarter" page. Discuss what the class has previously learned and note each fact on a whiteboard or chart paper.
  2. Introduce the students to the recreational aspects of the Great Sand Dunes National Park by showing a video or photos (see suggestions under "Materials"). Ask the students to share their impression of the scenery.
  3. Conduct an opinion poll: Ask the students to put a hand up if they thought it was easy to make sand from rocks in the classroom demonstration. Ask who thought the classroom could make a bucket of sand in an hour or in a week.
  4. Now ask to see the hands of whoever thinks sand is a nonrenewable resource—that we could make more if we needed it. Ask who thinks it would be cost-effective to make sand. Lead the students to conclude that sand, although plentiful, is an example of scarcity.
  5. Explain to the students that, in the 1920s, the sand in the Great Sand Dunes National Park was being excavated for making concrete mix and glass. As a result, concerned citizens petitioned for the Great Sand Dunes to be designated a national monument in 1932. In 2004, it became part of the national park system.
  6. Explain to the students that many famous scientists and engineers have been inspired by science fiction stories they read as children. Tell the students that you are going to read some science fiction to inspire creativity in their landcraft designs.
  7. Read a passage from one or more fictional texts that describes a vehicle traveling on sand (see suggestions under "Materials"). Ask the students what geometric shapes they have seen used in vehicles. Ask the students what features a surfboard, a boat and a snow sled have in common. Ask students what properties water, snow and sand have in common.
  8. Distribute a copy of the "Sand Landcraft Design Rubric" to each student and review the directions. Divide the class into groups of four and have the students pick roles as defined on the rubric. Answer any questions.
  9. Allow time for the groups to construct, assemble and test their sand landcraft. Have available a large tub with 2 bags of play sand molded to a 45-degree slope for testing. Have the students complete their rubrics.
  10. Remind the students to follow up as needed on the previous demonstrations on making sand and sand dunes.
  11. Prepare the students for the next step of the lesson by describing the culminating project, a persuasive presentation. Have the students choose a format for their presentations from among a radio or TV commercial or a magazine advertisement.

Sessions 5 and 6

  1. Display the "Great Sand Dunes National Park Quarter" page. Lead a discussion about the man and child in the foreground. Have the students imagine how an adult and a child might use the sand landcrafts they have designed. Have the students evaluate whether an adult and a child would consider their landcraft a toy or a vehicle. Lead the students to conclude that engineers must adapt designs to fit the needs of the intended audience. Ask the students what features become more important in design when a child is involved. Have the students discuss in their groups how to add features to their design that would be more advantageous for a child.
  2. Have students write a description of their landcraft that takes 30 seconds to read.
  3. Allow the students to choose whether they will create a digital audio or video presentation or a magazine advertisement. Allow time for them to prepare scripts or create or gather artwork for their print ad.
  4. Assist the students with recording their presentations as needed. Provide poster paper, markers and rulers for students creating magazine advertisements.
  5. Allow time for the students to present their landcraft to each other and invite other classes to visit.

Differentiated Learning Options

  • Provide ready-made materials or found objects for students to finish their sand landcrafts.
  • Provide written fact sheets and lecture notes for students who have difficulty with synthesis.
  • Provide timed guidance for students with attention deficits.
  • Adjust assignment deadlines to allow more time for students to fulfill writing or presentation requirements.


  • Use specific types of rocks (shale, quartz, gypsum) for page 1 of "Sand Observations."
  • Have students host a viewing/listening session at Open House or school assembly. Place student work or photographs of work in school gallery or display cases.
  • Have students merge commercials into a loop and upload to a school or county Web site.
  • Have students research the diverse animal life native to the park and construct a sand landcraft that reflects the motion of the animal.
  • Conduct reading study groups using the types of fictional texts suggested under "Materials."
  • Construct an actual prototype of the vehicle to full scale.


  • Take anecdotal notes on group teamwork and class fact checking.
  • Use the "Sand Observations" worksheet and rubric to assess whether the students have met the lesson objectives.

Common Core Standards

Discipline: Language Arts
Domain: RL.9-10 Reading: Informational Text
Grade(s): Grades 9– 10
Cluster: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

  • RI.9-10.7. Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.
  • RI.9-10.8. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
  • RI.9-10.9. Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), including how they address related themes and concepts.

National Standards

Discipline: Science
Domain: NGSS-9-12 Next Generation Science Standard
Cluster: Science, HS forces and Interactions
Grade(s): Grades 9–12

Apply scientific and engineering ideas to design, evaluate, and refine a device that minimizes the force on a macrosopic object during collision.

Discipline: Mathematics
Domain: 9-12 Geometry
Cluster: Analyze characteristics and properties of two- and three-dimensional geometric shapes and develop mathematical arguments about geometric relationships.
Grade(s): Grades 9–12

In grades 9–12 all students should

  • analyze properties and determine attributes of two- and three-dimensional objects;
  • explore relationships (including congruence and similarity) among classes of two- and three-dimensional geometric objects, make and test conjectures about them, and solve problems involving them;
  • establish the validity of geometric conjectures using deduction, prove theorems, and critique arguments made by others; and
  • use trigonometric relationships to determine lengths and angle measures.

Discipline: Mathematics
Domain: 9-12 Geometry
Cluster: Apply transformations and use symmetry to analyze mathematical situations.
Grade(s): Grades 9–12

In grades 9–12 all students should

  • understand and represent translations, reflections, rotations, and dilations of objects in the plane by using sketches, coordinates, vectors, function notation, and matrices; and
  • use various representations to help understand the effects of simple transformations and their compositions.