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Lesson Plan Title: Unraveling the Formation of Volcanoes: A Journey into Sunset Crater Flagstaff, AZ

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

In the year 1085 A.D., the magnificent Sunset Crater burst into volcanic life. Its name originates from the striking cap of oxidized, red spatter crowning its summit, an image that evokes the vibrant hues of a setting sun. An intriguing chapter in the volcano's history unfolded in the 1920s when H.S. Colton intervened to protect the cone from the potential harm inflicted by a Hollywood movie company. This company had considered detonating the volcano to simulate an eruption, but Colton's actions ultimately paved the way for the establishment of the esteemed Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.

The eruption of Sunset Crater commenced as an impressive spectacle, marked by an approximately 11-kilometer-long fissure of lava fountaining, aptly dubbed the "curtain of fire." The focus of this natural drama then shifted to the Sunset Crater scoria cone, where Strombolian-style fountaining activity sustained the eruption's vigorous columns, steadily enlarging the cone and depositing vast layers of tephra. Simultaneously, fiery lava streams flowed from the cone's vent, extending their reach to nearly 11 kilometers (or close to 7 miles) from the volcanic source. The climax of this eruption yielded an awe-inspiring cinder cone, reaching a height of approximately 300 meters (around 1000 feet). Furthermore, it produced an extensive tephra fall deposit, spanning 2300 square kilometers (about 890 square miles) with layer thicknesses of up to 12 meters (equivalent to 40 feet), and three extensive lava flows covering approximately 8 square kilometers (or roughly 3 square miles). This volcanic legacy continues to captivate both geologists and enthusiasts of natural wonders to this day.

Objective: To guide students in understanding the causes of volcanoes, exploring volcano hazards, and examining examples of volcanoes around the world, with a focus on Sunset Crater Volcano.

Guiding Questions:

  1. What causes volcanoes?

  2. What are some examples of global volcanoes?

  3. What are volcano hazards?

Background: This web-based activity is designed to introduce students to key concepts related to volcanism and provide them with a virtual tour of Sunset Crater Volcano. Students will engage in an internet-based inquiry investigation to understand volcano formation, hazards, and global examples. The lesson is divided into three investigations, each targeting a specific question. Students will collaborate to share their findings and create presentations based on their investigations.


  • Access to computers or webbooks for student groups.

  • Photocopy the three worksheets for the web quest.

  • Decide whether groups will present using posters or whiteboards.

  • Gather presentation materials and supplies.

  • Create a webpage or provide links to the relevant resources for each group's investigation.


Part 1: Day 1

Step 1: Divide the class into three groups. Each group will receive a computer lab worksheet associated with one of the guiding questions.

Step 2: Go to the computer lab. Students should work on answering the questions on their worksheet, either individually or in pairs, depending on the availability of computers and the teacher's preference.

Step 3: Students will complete the worksheet, explore the websites, and gather information to present to the class. Each student should focus on answering the question at the top of their worksheet.

Part 2: Day 2

Step 4: Students will regroup in the classroom according to the worksheet they completed. In these groups, students will compare their answers to the rest of their group.

Step 5: Provide each group with whiteboards or poster paper and drawing materials.

Step 6: As a group, students will create a presentation that answers their key question associated with their group's worksheet. Suggest additional topics for inclusion in their presentations:

  • Two specific questions from page one of your web quest and your answers.

  • How does your virtual tour of Sunset Crater Volcano support your answer to your group's primary question?

  • One interesting fact about Sunset Crater Volcano that you learned during this investigation.

Step 7: Each group will present their findings to the class and explain how they addressed their primary question. The teacher can decide how to assess these presentations and ensure students are held accountable for the information. It is recommended that students take notes.

Assessment: Students will be assessed based on their completion of the worksheet and their group presentation. Presentation options include a World Café-style discussion or a Gallery Walk presentation.

Supports for Struggling Learners: Provide print materials for tactile learners to improve readability. Consider printing materials for all students to aid in highlighting important evidence.

Enrichment Activities:

  • Research a specific volcano in detail.

  • Map out volcanic evidence around the San Francisco Volcanic Field.

  • Create a model of a volcano to demonstrate its formation.

Additional Resources: Provide access to relevant resources, as indicated in the lesson plan.

Related Lessons or Education Materials: Suggest that classes visit Sunset Crater National Monument on an Appleseed Expedition to compare what they observed in the lab to the actual site. Encourage students to explore lava flows and the vegetation that has adapted to this environment. Visit the Visitor Center to see displays, gather information, and observe a seismograph.

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