Materials World Modules

An Inquiry & Design-Based Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Program

Concrete: An Infrastructure Material Module

Students learn how the components of concrete can be modified to alter the properties of concrete. They use their knowledge to make concrete roofing tiles that meet specific design and performance criteria.

By incorporating everyday materials into science lessons, the Materials World Modules (MWM) program at Northwestern University has found the solution to getting students excited about learning science while helping teachers meet national and state education standards.

The modules are easy to organize and inexpensive to run. They can be incorporated into any science class because of the breadth of subjects covered in the Activity and Design Project sections. Each module is a supplemental science unit that takes 1-3 weeks of class time (approximately 10 hours) to complete.

MWM will give students an opportunity to understand the world around them in a way they have never experienced before. The modules promote an awareness of the roles science and technology play in society and guide students to take increased control of their work.

Module At-a-Glance

Module At-a-Glance

Activity 1: Hunting for Objects Made of Concrete
By identifying concrete objects in their surroundings, students recognize the widespread use of concrete as an infrastructure material. From their observations, students deduce reasons why concrete is the most common infrastructure material used today.

Activity 2: Comparing Different Kinds of Cements
Students observe changes that occur as cement hardens and conclude that the cement-hardening process involves chemical and physical changes. Students also explore the effects of additives on cement.

Activity 3: Comparing Different Concrete Formulations
Students make concrete samples using different formulations. They discover that the density of concrete can be changed by changing the proportions of its components-coarse aggregate, fine aggregate, cement, and water.

Activity 4: Testing Properties of Concrete
Using the samples they made in the previous Activity, students observe how the proportions of the components of concrete affect its strength and brittleness.

Activity 5: Reinforcing Concrete
Students test the effects of three types of reinforcing materials-metal bars, screens, and fiber pieces-on the strength and brittleness of concrete. They draw conclusions about the way each type of reinforcement improves the properties of concrete.

Design Project 1: Designing a Concrete Roofing Tile
Using what they learned about concrete from the Activities, students design and test prototypes of a concrete roofing tile. To be considered successful, the prototypes must meet specific design and performance criteria.

Design Project 2: Designing a New Concrete Product
Possible uses of concrete are explored in this Design Project. Students design and test prototypes of a new concrete product of their choice and, based on their data, draw conclusions about the feasibility of their proposed product.

Extension Activity 1:Chemical Degradation in Concrete
In Part A, students compare the porosity of various concrete formulations by measuring the formulations' electrical resistance. In Part B, students explore the effect of the water-to-cement ratio on the chemical degradation of concrete by acid. They use data from Part A to explain their results and to describe the mechanism by which chemicals degrade concrete.

Extension Activity 2: Making "Flexible" Concrete
Students use layers of fiberglass to make concrete that appears to be flexible. They become more appreciative of the versatility of concrete as an infrastructure material when they see a flexible concrete that bends and stretches easily when a load is placed on it.

Connecting to Your Curriculum

Connecting to Your Curriculum

Materials World Modules are simple to organize and inexpensive to run. They are designed to be easily incorporated into any middle school science or high school science lab or lecture course. The chart below lists the subjects covered in the Activities and Design Projects sections of this module.

Physics & Physical Science

  • Forces
  • Loads and Stresses
  • Tensile and Compressive Forces
  • Energy
  • Work
  • Electrical Conductivity

Geology & Earth Science

  • Rocks and Minerals
  • Geochemical Cycles
  • Acid Rain
  • Earthquakes


  • Properties of Matter
  • Mixtures
  • Chemical and Physical Changes
  • Chemical Reactions
  • Bonding

Language Arts

  • Writing a report
  • Public speaking

Biology and Life Science

  • Biological Materials
  • Environmental Issues


  • Measuring
  • Graphing (Making, Reading and Interpreting)
  • Computing
  • Averages
  • Ratios

Technical Education

  • Designing
  • Building Materials
  • Composites
  • Construction Technology

Math Teaser

Building a Swimming Pool

So you want to build a concrete border around your outdoor swimming pool.  



How can the quadratic formula help you find the parameters?


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Standards Alignment

AAAS Benchmark Standards


NSES Standards


Grades 9-12 Designs Grades 9-12 Designs
1. The Nature of Science


A. Science as Inquiry


Scientific inquiry

Ability to do scientific inquiry

The Scientific enterprise

Understanding scientific inquiry

2. The Nature of Mathematics


B. Physical Science


Mathematics, science, and technology

Structure and properties of matter

3. The Nature of Technology


Chemical reactions

Technology and science

Motions and forces

Design and systems

C. Life Sciences


Issues in technology

The interdependence of organisms

4. The Physical Setting


Matter, energy, and organization in living systems

Structure of matter

D. Earth and Space Science



Energy in the earth system

Forces of nature

Geochemical cycles

5. The Living Environment


E. Science and Technology


Flow of matter and energy

Ability of technological design

8. The Designed World


Understanding science and technology

Materials and manufacturing

F. Science in Personal and Social Perspective


11. Common Themes


Natural resources


S&T in local, natiional, and global changes

Constancy and change

G. History and Nature of Science


12. Habits of Mind


Science as a human endeavor

Computation and estimation

Historical perspectives

Communication skills



Video Clips

Video Clips

Matthew Hsu talks about the Concrete: An Infrastructure Module
View Youtube video



Fiber-reinforced Concrete
Describes how fiber is used to reinforce concrete. Includes its theory, properties, and uses.

Portland Cement Association
Furnishes information about cement and concrete for a wide variety of infrastructure needs.


Concrete Module Intro

@ Materials World Modules