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Probing Under the Surface
Administration Procedures
8th Grade Performance Task
Contributed by: New York State Alternative Assessment in Science Project (NYSED)


Students will use a measuring stick to determine the shape of the inside of the bottom of a box, then apply their understanding to an additional situation.

The task assesses students' abilities to make simple observations, collect and organize data, and apply their understanding to an additional situation.

This task is designed to take students approximately 20 minutes to complete.

Overall Task Content Area:

Earth Science

Specific Knowledge Areas:

Structure of the earth system

Performance Expectations:

  • conducting investigations
  • using equipment
  • gathering, organizing, and representing data
  • formulating conclusions from investigational data
  • applying scientific principles to develop explanations and solve new problems

National Science Education Standards:

8 A SI 1: Ability to do scientific inquiry: Grades 5-8
1.4 Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence. Students should base their explanation on what they observed, and as they develop cognitive skills, they should be able to differentiate explanation from description providing causes for effects and establishing relationships based on evidence and logical argument. This standards requires a subject knowledge base so the students can effectively conduct investigations, because developing explanations establishes connections between the content of science and the contexts within which students develop new knowledge.

8 D ESS 1: Structure of the earth system: Grades 5-8
1.3 Land forms are the result of a combination of constructive and destructive forces. Constructive forces include crustal deformation, volcanic eruption, and deposition of sediment, while destructive forces include weathering and erosion.

(Use the "hot" link on the PALS home page to check the full text of related National Science Education Standards, if desired.)

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics:

AL1: Understand patterns, relations and functions:
Grades 6-8 f. represent, analyze, and generalize a variety of patterns with tables, graphs, words, and, when possible, symbolic rules

MEAS2: Apply appropriate techniques, tools, and formulas to determine measurements:
Grades 6-8 k. select and apply techniques and tools to accurately find length, area, volume, and angle measures to appropriate levels of precision

GEO4: Use visualization, spatial reasoning, and geometric modeling to solve problems:
Grades 6-8 l. use two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects to visualize and solve problems such as those involving surface area and volume

DAP3: Develop and evaluate inferences and predictions that are based on data:
Grades 6-8 c. use observations about differences between two or more samples to make conjectures about the populations from which the samples were taken

PS2: Solve problems that arise in mathematics and in other contexts:
Grades 6-8

RP2: Make and investigate mathematical conjectures:
Grades 6-8

REP2: Select, apply, and translate among mathematical representations to solve problems:
Grades 6-8

General Instructions to the Teacher:

This task is designed to take students approximately 10-15 minutes to complete.

Students will be working individually during this exercise.

Students should be ready to work as soon as the period begins. The materials should be set out at each lab station, if possible. A central supply area, if needed, should be easily accessible. All supplies should be clearly labeled.

Materials for "Probing Under the Surface":

At this station students should have:
  • Measuring stick
  • Mystery box

The teacher will need:

  • ruler
  • marking pen
  • dowels
  • shoe boxes
  • styrofoam blocks
  • knife or file
  • glue
  • duct tape
  • packaging tape

Advance Preparation:

Measuring Stick:
  • use a small wooden dowel 1/8"-1/4" in diameter and at least 5 cm longer than the box height.
  • mark off in centimeters and label 0-15.
  • Mark the dowel with a fine permanent marker.

Mystery Box

  • use a regular size shoe box.
  • cut and or shape Styrofoam blocks to different levels. A handy knife or coarse file will do this. See diagrams below.
  • boxes must be all the same or labeled to match student papers with an answer key.
  • glue Styrofoam blocks at 3 or 4 different levels inside the bottom of the box.
  • cover the tops of the Styrofoam blocks with tag board (duct tape). This keeps the measuring stick from poking into the Styrofoam
  • the depth between hole 3 and hole 5 should show significant changes.
  • on the top of the box, place a row of 10 equally distant dots.
  • number the dots 1-10.
  • use a drill or sharp pair of scissors to poke holes through the top of the box on the odd numbered dots.
  • be sure that the holes are large enough for the measuring stick but not so large that you can see into the box.
  • seal the edges of the box top with clear packaging tape.
  • The students should not be able to see into the box at all during the experiment.
  • measure and record the actual depth reading of each box to serve as the answer key.


  • Watch that the students don't push the probe down too hard, causing the base to puncture or split.
  • Be careful.
  • Teachers and students should always exercise appropriate safety precautions and utilize appropriate laboratory safety procedures and equipment when working on science performance tasks.


  • Students may wish to design their own hidden surfaces.



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