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  • Magma Drillers Save Planet Earth is an activity that uses a team approach to finding environmentally friendly sources of geothermal energy. Ākonga take on the roles of scientists and engineers to learn specialist knowledge and then work collaboratively within teams to complete two missions.

    The first mission – set in the 1970s – requires ākonga to select an appropriate location to drill for geothermal energy. It works as a knowledge-building session and provides immediate feedback about team choices and actions. The second mission – set in 2035 – involves choosing locations to drill into a magma chamber and to build the Magmathermal Environmental Research Centre. Team success is evaluated on three key criteria: successfully drilling in the right location, managing risks and hazards, and cost-effectiveness.

    Rights: All art was prepared by Elisabeth Mordensky

    Geothermal Drillers – energy from the past

    Students work in groups of four to role-play scientists drilling into the Earth to tap into geothermal energy – using steam to generate electricity.

    Using real-world examples

    Each of the missions is based on real-world examples. Aotearoa New Zealand has a long history of using geothermal energy. It was first used by Māori for heating, cooking and therapeutic and cultural purposes. In the late 1950s, wells were drilled in geothermal reservoirs in the Taupō Volcanic Zone to generate heat for paper and timber mills. The Wairakei Power Station, New Zealand’s first geothermal plant, opened in 1958. Geothermal energy produces about 20% of the country’s electricity supply, and hot water and steam use has expanded to include other industrial processes like dairy manufacturing and greenhouses.

    Iceland also has a long history of using geothermal energy for heating, washing and bathing. The international energy crisis in the 1970s pushed Iceland to switch its electricity generation from fossil fuels to renewables like geothermal. In 2009, the Iceland Deep Drilling Project unexpectedly struck a pocket of magma. The engineers chose to continue their investigations, and for a few months, the well produced steam at temperatures of over 450°C – a world record! Scientists discovered that it is possible to drill into magma, and an international consortium of scientists and engineers is exploring how to capture geothermal energy with minimal risks to people, equipment and infrastructure. Like the Magma Drillers teams, the Krafla Magma Testbed is building a research facility with in situ access to a magma chamber.

    Rights: Ben Kennedy

    Magma Drillers Save Planet Earth game map

    Each team of scientists use their expertise to locate a drilling site on the Google Earth map, determine drilling and casing swap depth and manage risks. After submission, the interactive format provides feedback on the success of the drilling mission.

    Earth sciences, engineering, te ao Māori and the nature of science

    Using Magma Drillers Save Planet Earth provides opportunities for learning across NCEA’s big ideas in science, with special emphasis on using science-based information for decision making.

    Ākonga work through the missions via their roles in the drilling team:

    • Volcanologists are scientists who study volcanoes. They help by providing information about where magma chambers and hot water for geothermal energy production might be found.
    • Environmental risk managers are scientists who evaluate the risk and hazards for new projects and give recommendations about how to minimise and prepare for hazards. They help to keep the team and others safe.
    • Geophysicists are scientists who use satellites, seismometers and the physical characteristics of the rocks to help locate features underground. They help to determine where magma chambers may be located and how deep to drill.
    • Drilling engineers are scientists who determine the best way to design the holes that will be drilled into the Earth and what equipment will be needed. This information is key to avoiding collapses or blowouts in the wells.

    Underpinning these roles are nature of science and ao Māori perspectives. Ākonga sign a scientist code of conduct that outlines several tenets of the nature of science and dispositions, which include whakawhanaungatanga and kaitiakitanga.

    Nature of science

    The Magma Drillers scientists code of conduct supports several tenets of the nature of science:

    • There is uncertainty involved with new scientific endeavours, so try your best to be prepared for your role. Failure is part of the design cycle on the pathway to success.
    • Scientific endeavours are the result of collaboration, and the end result reflects the strength of the team.
    • As responsible scientists, it is important that you seek to support your ideas with evidence and look for evidence supporting others’ explanations. Be open to critique of your ideas.

    The real-world contexts place a spotlight on Earth science and engineering and provide authentic contexts for students to continue their development of key competencies in science and the science capabilities.

    Rights: All art was prepared by Elisabeth Mordensky

    Magma Drillers – energy for the future

    Students use role-play to drill for magma – to harness energy for humans living on a damaged and depleted Earth.

    The characters are a bit silly and hopefully make the students laugh while they’re learning, but we also hope there’s some excitement. Drilling too deep could initiate an eruption and kill everyone. But get it right and you can cool down the magma chamber, reduce the risk of a large eruption, make renewable energy and save the Earth!

    Professor Ben Kennedy, University of Canterbury

    Seeing scientists in action

    Magma Drillers Save Planet Earth was developed by a real volcanologist – Professor Ben Kennedy – along with geological 3D visualisation expert Dr Jonathan Davidson and a host of other experts. It uses light-hearted videos featuring actual scientists to present the information and introduce the missions. Ākonga have the opportunity to learn about and role-play the ground-breaking research the scientists do – and have fun while doing it.

    Classroom activity

    Magma Drillers Save Planet Earth is designed for use with secondary school students. Instructions and supporting resources are found in this activity.

    Related content

    Useful links

    This YouTube video provides additional information about Magma Drillers Save Planet Earth, including student and teacher insights.

    Geothermal energy in Aotearoa New Zealand

    Learn more about geothermal energy with these resources:

    Krafla Magma Testbed

    The Krafla Magma Testbed is located in Krafla, Iceland. It is an international project to learn about magma energy and build the world’s first magma observatory. Find out more about the project with these resources:


    Magma Drillers Save Planet Earth was created by Professor Ben Kennedy and Dr Jonathan Davidson with help from teachers Ian Reeves and Georgina Barrett, artist Elizabeth Mordensky and videographer Rob Stowell. Leapfrog – a 3D geological software company – created the magma holograms.

    The project received funding from Curious Minds and GNS Science Beneath the waves.

      Published 28 February 2024 Referencing Hub articles
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