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When Glaciers Covered Michigan - Lesson Plan

Background Notes

Topographic map of Michigan shows its land formations, Michigan Historical MuseumSeveral advances and retreats of continental glaciers covered Michigan over many thousands of years. The most recent glacier retreated (melted) about 14,000 years ago, leaving the land formation much as it is today. Vegetation was different from today: first tundra-like, then later covered with spruce forests and bogs. Ice Age mammals inhabited Michigan then: mammoth, mastodon, caribou and giant beaver. Human hunters of the caribou came into Michigan to stalk and kill the big game animals for food, fur and other necessities. The Paleo (ancient) Indians were believed to be the first humans to visit what is now Michigan.


  • Students will draw (show) the effects of glaciation on Michigan's surface.
  • Students will be able to describe how Michigan vegetation changed after the glaciers melted.

Michigan Social Studies Curriculum Content Standards

This lesson presents an opportunity to address, in part, these standards:

  • SOC.I.1 All students will sequence chronologically the following eras of American history and key events within these eras in order to examine relationships and to explain cause and effect: The Meeting of Three Worlds (beginnings to 1620).
  • SOC.II.1 All students will describe, compare, and explain the locations and characteristics of places, cultures, and settlements.

Materials Needed

  • Plastic milk jug with the top cut off
  • Water; sand and gravel
  • Refrigerator/freezer


Freeze a mixture of sand, gravel, and water in the milk jug. Allow the frozen mixture to thaw sufficiently on the edges to allow removal from the jug (or cut away the jug). Examine the ice block and discuss how the real glacier would have accumulated the sand and gravel.

Allow the ice block to melt in an undisturbed location (on a sidewalk or playground surface or in a large pan in the classroom). Discuss what happened to the "glacial runoff" (water) and what happened to the sand and gravel (formation of hills, i.e., glacial moraines).

Questions for Discussion or Research

  • What would it have been like to have lived in Michigan at the end of the Ice Age?
  • If the ice sheets that once covered our state were a mile thick, how deep would that be? How many times would you have to stack your school building on top of itself to make a mile high stack?

At the Museum

  • Look at the large topographic map of Michigan. Imagine the ice sheet covering it and how it melted slowly over thousands of years.
  • Talk about how the hills and valleys shown on the topographic map formed. Are you aware of these when you drive from one part of the state to another?
  • Compare the land cover (rock, grass, trees, etc.) where the Paleo hunters stand and where the large white pine trees stand. Why is the land cover different (Hint: How many years or eras apart are they? How did the climate change during that time?)


  • Bog: wet spongy ground; marsh or swamp
  • Canadian Shield: an area of almost 2,000,000 square miles of Precambrian strata that occupies most of eastern and central Canada and extends into the states of New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. It contains large deposits of copper, gold, and iron ore. The glaciers pushed many of its rocks into Michigan, forming moraines.
  • Coal: black, combustible mineral formed from deteriorating vegetable matter away from air, under different temperatures and pressure for over a million years
  • Copper: reddish-brown, metallic element; excellent conductor of electricity and heat
  • Delta: a deposit of sand and soil, usually triangular, formed at the mouth of rivers
  • Dolomite: common rock-forming mineral often occurring in extensive beds
  • Drainage basin: land drained by a river system
  • Esker: a winding, narrow ridge of sand or gravel, usually by a stream flowing in or under glacial ice
  • Glacial striations: parallel lines on rock surfaces or crystal faces
  • Glacier: compacted snow frozen into a huge mass of moving ice
  • Gypsum: a mineral that occurs in sedimentary rock; used for making plaster of Paris and in treating soil
  • Halite: rock salt; native sodium chloride
  • Iron ore: unwrought natural material from which iron can be extracted
  • Limestone: rock composed of organic remains of sea animals use in building; when crystallized by heat and pressure becomes marble. Limestone is used for smelting iron ore to make steel
  • Loam: rich soil composed of clay, sand, and some organic matter
  • Moraine: an accumulation of earth and stones carried and deposited by a glacier
  • Oil: greasy, combustible substance obtained from animal, vegetable, or mineral sources, not soluble in water
  • Outwash plain: sand and gravel deposited by meltwater streams in front of glacial ice
  • Sandstone: common bedded sedimentary rock used for building; composed largely of sand grains to form coherent mass
  • Shale: fine-grained, thinly bedded rock formed by hardening of clay; splits easily into thin layers
  • Watershed: a ridge or stretch of high land dividing area drained by different rivers or river systems


  • Doff, John, Jr., and Eschman, Donald F. (1970). Geology of Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Fitting, James E. (1970). The Archaeology of Michigan. Garden City, NY: The Natural History Press.
  • Heinrich, E. Wm. (1976). The Mineralogy of Michigan, Bulletin 6. Lansing, MI: Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey Division.
  • Kelley, R. W. (1967). The Glacial Lakes Around Michigan. Lansing, MI: Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey Division.
  • Larsen, Curtis E. (1987). Geological History of Glacial Lake Algonquin and the Upper Great Lakes, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1801. Books and Open File Section, U.S. Geological Survey, Federal Center, Box 25425, Denver, CO 80225.
  • Pielou. E. C. (1991). After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.

Updated 08/09/2010

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