Volcanoes Lesson Plans

Mt. St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. I was living in Northern California at the time, and we had ash falling on us from the sky. For so many of us, volcanoes are something we think of as having happened long ago and far away — the eruption of Mt. St. Helens changed our minds.

57 people died in that eruption.

Share this with your students:


Hawaii recently faced a live volcano spewing lava into the streets on the Big Island. Kilauea has been active for decades and may continue erupting at the current rate for months or years. Check out these resources:

Visit Annenberg Learner’s interactive volcanoes exhibit (use your projector) to learn the basics about how volcanoes form, how they can be predicted, and how people deal with the dangers of volcanoes.

Now that you have your students’ attention, here are two lesson plans we like to use to study volcanoes. The first, a literature based study, is a good choice for upper elementary, while the second is suited to middle school or older.

21 Balloons


Preparing for volcanic eruptions

  • Are you in the path of a volcano? Use the USGS map to find the nearest volcano to your school. Use Google Maps (or just ask Google directly) to find the distance from your school to the volcano.
  • Determine whether you would be in any danger if the nearest volcano erupted. Divide students into ten pairs or teams and give each team one of the Top  Ten Volcanic Eruptions to research.
  • Have students add the eruption they’re researching to the class timeline and map. Each team should also identify the furthest point at which effects of the eruptions were reported. Compare the distances with your distance from the nearest volcano.
  • If you determine that your school would be affected by an eruption, list the effects you might encounter. Note that the 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mt. Tambora, the largest recorded eruption, affected the world’s climate so much that crops failed in Europe and North America. Use this information to remind students to consider consequences beyond the most obvious ones.
  • Scientists now can predict volcanic eruptions in ways they couldn’t in the past, so people are usually warned. Check out the CDC’s advice on preparing for volcanoes. Compare this information with the disaster preparedness training you usually cover in school (such as preparation for earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, severe storms, etc.) and take the opportunity to remind students of the importance of disaster preparedness.
  • Develop a plan for your school if the nearest volcano should erupt. Depending on your location, it might include preparing for evacuation, staying inside to avoid ash, or raising funds for distant victims of the volcano.

Online resources:

A note on the baking soda and vinegar volcano…

My kids made baking soda and vinegar volcanoes every year in school, I think. I have three problems with this activity:

  1. It seems to imply that volcanoes are caused by a chemical interaction, which is not the case.
  2. It’s an art project, which is fine, but doing it every year seems to give unwarranted importance to it.
  3. Kids get sick of it, even though it’s spectacular, if they do it every year.

If you are determined to conduct this project, put a quarter cup of baking soda into a bottle with some dish soap and a bit of red food coloring. Do something with  the bottle to make it look like a volcano — sand, papier mache, or store-bought volcano kits will all work.

Pour in a half cup of vinegar and stand back to enjoy the show.


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