Cookie Mining

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Students will be able to use a simulation of coal mining to critically consider some of the strategies companies employ to minimize the environmental costs and maximize the economic benefits of mining.

Big Idea

Mining has environmental costs, but economies require mining to function.


In this lesson, students will simulate the environmental costs of mining.  Although one could use this activity to represent any kind of mining, the relative flatness of a cookie and the darkness of a chocolate chip make it sensible to describe this scenario as strip mining for coal.

This lesson is superficially similar to the Tragedy of the Commons lesson from much earlier in the year in that it simulates an environmental scenario using deliciously and safely edible materials.  It is also (more substantially) similar in the fact that students are trying to make a "profit" while critically considering how that drive for profit also affects the environment. 

In this particular simulation, students will use utensils that they purchase at a cost and after they have finished "mining" they will add up their mining income and compare it to their costs to see if they made a profit.

There are two rounds of mining, one with no regulations (in which students are not informed of the additional costs of their mining activity) and a "post-regulation" round in which students are more mindful of the need to limit the spread of the cookie crumbs to avoid reclamation costs and legal fees and thereby maximize profit in an legal environment that provides some cost to polluters.

Following the two rounds of the mining exercise, students will answer some reflective questions in their groups and then we conduct a short class discussion at the end of the class.

DISCLAIMER: This lesson is my own variation of one of those standard AP Environmental Science lessons floating around in various forms on the internet, though I based my version most on the work of some anonymous teacher whose materials where handed to me at a PD years ago.  My apologies to said anonymous teacher if I've missed the intent here in my reinterpretation.


Connection to Standards:

In this lesson, students will engage in a simulation that seeks to propose a solution mitigating the environmental effects of extracting mineral resources and make claims supported by evidence (the data generated by the simulation). 



Getting Started: Materials and groups

10 minutes

You will need the following materials to conduct this lesson:

  • a bag(s) of chocolate chip cookies (sufficient to have at least 2 cookies per group)
  • A box of toothpicks
  • A box of small staples
  • A box of large staples


You will also need two copies of the mining map per group, and you will need one copy of the cookie mining instructions sheet and one copy of the coal calculation sheet for each group.

The "instructions sheet" has the instructions for the activity as well as space to do the calculations for the first round of mining.  The "coal calculation sheet" contains space to calculate the income and costs for the second round of mining.  The "mining map" is where the mining itself takes place and since students will most likely write on it to record their mining costs, you will need a second copy for the second round of mining.

As for groups, I keep students in their typical lab groups, although you may want to combine smaller groups if there are many absences.  Even though 3-4 is probably the ideal group size, I did have two groups successfully complete the activity with only two members.

As far as an introduction to the students, I let them know that we will be doing a simulation of strip mining for coal and that each group represents a mining company.  I then explain that the different mining companies in the class are in competition to make the most profit. 

As I pass out the materials the first instruction sheet and the map, I ask students to come up with a name for their mining company.  This isn't essential, but it adds a little fun for the students to come up with a fun or creative name.  Once the groups are formed, I go over the basic rules, detailed in the next section.

Pre-regulation Mining

25 minutes


Once all materials have been distributed and groups have named their mining company, I distribute one cookie to each group and have them place it on the "place cookie here" space on the map. (Regarding the map, I drew the map on a sheet of graph paper and then photocopied it.  The attached map is a scan of that drawing.  If you would prefer to make your own map, just make sure there is a border area outside the gridded area so that there is a place for the "mined" chips to go.)

After groups have their cookie placed, I tell them to outline that cookie with a pencil.  They can then remove the cookie and count the number of squares covered by the cookie.  A partially covered square counts as half a square if it is less than half covered and counts as a whole square if more than half is covered.  Each square is valued at $100, so when students have counted all the cookie-covered squares, they multiply that by $100 and arrive at their "land value", which they record on their instructions sheet.

I then have them look at the next step on the instructions and make sure they are aware that they may not use their hands at any time and must purchase mining tools.  One thing I stress here is that they can not use their hands to hold the cookie while they mine with the tool, students get frustrated about this, so it's essential to keep an eye on this when the simulation is actually in effect.  I let them know that if they find the cookie hard to mine with the tools they purchased, they can purchase more tools during the actual simulation (I had a few groups do this after a minute or two of frustration).

Finally, I let students know that time = money and that every minute they spend mining will cost them $1,000 in labor costs, so it is in their company's best interest to mine their cookies as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Please note: Chips are not considered "mined" until they have been moved outside the boundary of the map, that's why the map has the white border around it (this can lead to some interesting debris trails on the way to the boundary and was intended to simulate the additional environmental costs of transporting mined materials).


Once the rules have been explained and students have calculated their initial costs (land and mining equipment), I clarify any questions about the rules and then have students place their cookies on their maps and get ready to begin.

Once all groups are ready, I get a stopwatch and tell all students to begin... mining... now!
As groups are working on the mining, I move around to make sure that no one is cheating by using their hands.  I announce every minute that passes so students know how much they are spending on labor.  When a group is finished mining, I rush over to their group and write the time they finished on their map.  I usually allow for about a 10 second grace period per minute, but after that I "bill" their company for the full $1,000 minute.  

When groups are finished, I have them count up the mined chips at a value of $3,000 per whole chip and $2,000 for partial chips amounting to roughly the size of a whole chip (in the case of chips that have a bit too much cookie attached to them, I let them know that that chip is only worth $2,000 because more labor and processing will need to be done before it's ready for use).

Please note: students should know ahead of time to NOT disturb their site by moving crumbs, chips, etc. after they have stopped working as that would represent labor that they're not paying for and would hence be considered cheating (this is, however, a way to make sure that the reclamation costs can be fairly assessed in the next section).



After all groups have finished calculating their revenue and calculating their profits, I ask each group to share their profit.  Most "companies" did pretty well this round, so I write their profits on the board.  We then declare a preliminary "winner" and there tends to be lots of self-congratulation among the groups.

Then for the "big reveal".  I have students turn the instructions sheet over and learn that laws have been passed that require that they pay reclamation costs for the land they disturbed through their mining practices.

To calculate reclamation costs, students must count the number of squares that have any cookie crumbs on them (except for the squares that were part of the original "land purchase") and pay $100 per polluted square.  For this part, we do not worry about partially covered squares, if there is a crumb, that is a square that must be paid for.

Additionally, crumbs in rivers flow downstream, and in the event that there are 5 or more crumbs upstream from a town on the map, the mining company will have to pay legal fees of $10,000 to defend against a lawsuit brought by that town.

The process of counting polluted squares can be especially time consuming, so it is important to allow sufficient time for it.  One strategy that I suggest for students is to make a rectangle around densely polluted areas, to then calculate the polluted area minus any unpolluted squares.  Despite this strategy, I did have several groups insist on counting every single square.  This may be due to varied comfort levels with math in a heterogeneous class.  Unfortunately, this strategy backfired for one group that was so insistent on counting each square that I assume they got lost in all the numbers and wound up counting every square, including those squares that were initially covered by the cookie and already factored into the beginning land cost (you can barely see a faint outline of the original cookie in this group's work.  If I were to do this again, I'd make sure that groups more clearly demarcated the reclamation area from their original land purchase)

Once these reclamation costs have been calculated, I ask students to share their adjusted profits and, in almost all cases, those big profits they initially reported have now become substantial losses.
This turn of events led to some amusing student reactions in my class such as, "We're definitely going bankrupt" and "Oh s*#@, everybody's suing us".

Post-regulation Mining

25 minutes

This round progresses according to the same rules and procedures as the previous round, except that most groups are now very careful to limit the amount of cookie debris covering their map.

Strategies for this round vary, but groups tend to either consciously be careful not to spread debris around during the actual mining or they use some of their labor time using their tools to push crumbs back into the initial "land purchase" area.  In either case, most groups wound up with substantially smaller reclamation areas than in the previous rounds and most were able to turn a profit when they took time to factor and minimize reclamation costs ahead of time.


15 minutes

Following two rounds of mining, we calculate which group was the winning group (determined by net profits in the second round) and I give any remaining cookies to that group, then distribute as many cookies remain as we go down the list of most profitable groups.

I then have students clean up the rest of the materials and then give students about 10-15 minutes to work on the debrief questions.  While they are working on these questions, I walk around and listen in on their conversations and pose and respond to questions as necessary.

Following this, we take about 10 minutes as a class to go over the questions as a class and debrief the activity.  Hopefully your students can come to the same basic conclusion my students did: environmental laws are necessary to protect the common good but companies can still profit from mining activities if minimizing environmental costs are part of their business strategy.