What does the word geology mean to a child? Not much probably. But if you start talking about dinosaurs, crystals, volcanoes, and rocks, their interest in the subject will generally become piqued, whether they know these things are part of the world of geology or not.
Geology science projects geared toward elementary school aged children are a great way to help them understand the world on which they play beyond pictures of scary, menacing looking, ancient, giant lizards, or the beautiful sparkly wedding ring mom wears upon her finger. Projects can help children gain a basic understanding of complex concepts such as time, natural processes, chemistry, and change, and teach them to be more observant and appreciative of the important role geology plays in our civilization and culture.
Elementary school children's ages begin around five years old for kindergartners and span up to about twelve years old for 6th graders, if your local school system has a separate junior high program for children aged twelve to fourteen in grades seven and eight. But in the world of geology, there is something for them to learn also. And it's not until they reach college age perhaps, that many of the elementary introductions to the subject of geology are fully learned in specific courses on mineralogy, crystallography, paleontology, petrography, sedimentology, plate tectonics, or volcanism. However, many scientists today whose specialties are related to geology will readily tell you their chosen profession was based on some introduction to the subject that they received at a young age.
A child's first introduction to geology consists usually of picking up shiny rocks while on a hike, holding them up to the sunlight, and admiring their brilliant reflective properties, iridescence, or bright colors. Or they might ask mom about her wedding ring and inquire what it was on the ring that sparkled so beautifully and radiated a myriad rainbow of colors. They were probably also read books, or saw cartoons on television of either cute and playful, or scary, realistic looking dinosaurs. They likely saw pictures in books, or depictions in movies of volcanoes that spewed fire, rocks, and billows of smoke, exhibiting great destructive force, and wondered what they were and how they were formed.
Children are naturally curious about everything and constantly ask questions that begin with why, how, what, and where. Parents struggle to explain while trying to keep their responses confined to elementary answers so the children understand, but are not overwhelmed.
Kindergartners and first graders should first be introduced to geology though, by explaining generally what it is and how man learned to use rocks for everything from tools and weapons in his earliest evolutionary development, to starting fires, using them for building materials, to decoration and personal adornment, to making cars and providing the fuel to make them go.
One of the best ways to introduce children to geology is by teaching them how our lives rely on it and how it provides many of the products we use everyday. A good project for kindergartners would be to ask them if they could name as many items as possible in the school or at home that might have started out as rocks and were changed for some other purpose for our use. As they look around them, they might notice things such as roads, sidewalks, steel signs, columns, dining flatware, dishes, pots, and cars. They might also notice table salt and windows, light bulbs and tools. These are just some of the many obvious things that help make our lives easier and whose constituent materials were formed within the Earth.
Other simpler projects for geologic learning are really opportunities capitalized upon during moments generally taken for granted. While children play at home or school with toys, parents and teachers can explain that most of the toys were made with plastic, one of the most abundant materials used in our society today. Plastic comes from petroleum, and while they don't need to fully understand the complicated process involved in turning oil into toys, a simple explanation furthers an appreciation of how so much of what we use in our lives comes from the Earth, including things that are fun to play with. If the kitchen stove is a gas range, it is also another excellent opportunity to explain what Natural Gas is, where it comes from, and how it is used to cook our meals and heat our homes. A quick trip to the gas station also becomes a chance to explain how our vehicles are able to move around because of the oil that is taken from the ground and turned into gasoline.
Once children begin to see examples of how important geology is to man with its use, they begin to take more notice of the world around them.
As children become older, their minds can begin to grasp more difficult levels of understanding. One of the best ways to explain what can otherwise be complicated geological concepts is through simple experiments that can be done in school or at home. An introduction to crystallography and mineralogy can be done by dissolving table salt into a glass of hot water, suspending a string in the solution, then waiting and watching salt crystals grow around the strin. The comparison can be made between how salt is precipitated from ocean water to form salt deposits, which are mined for our use at home and for industry. The concept can also be stretched a little to explain how minerals precipitate out of magma, or melted rock, deep beneath the Earth's surface to become gold, iron, silver, lead, and copper deposits, and to create diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and other precious stones.
A simple project can be done that introduces children to paleontology and sedimentation. Take a disposable aluminum cake pan, spread a layer of wet plaster in the bottom, and let it dry. Then generously coat the surface with petroleum jelly. Place flowers, with stems attached, leaves, and possibly even dead insects or a dead fish purchased from the supermarket, into the jelly. Lightly coat the surfaces with more petroleum jelly and then cover everything with another layer of wet plaster about one inch thick. Let the plaster dry overnight. The next day, when the two layers of plaster are separated and the plant and animal remains are discarded, the upper layer of plaster should have impressions of the items that were placed between the layers. The plaster layers represent layers of sediment that are deposited on the Earth. The plant and animal remains represent things that might be buried by sediments, and the imprint left on the upper plaster layer shows how a fossil impression of something that was buried by sediment is created and preserved.
After explaining that the project shows what can happen in geology with a process spanning millions of years, the students understand how fossils are formed and why scientists are able to recreate creatures that have lived in the past, the environments animals and plants lived in, and how animals and plants have evolved through the ages into what we see today in the world around us.
When children have reached upper elementary school age, they can be taken on field trips. When taken to sites where they can excavate minerals or fossils using simple hand tools they get more of a hands-on approach to geology. Also, they can often see first hand the layers of sediments that fossils can be found in, or the mineral bands or veins in which minerals have formed. They will be utilizing the same methods used by geologists and paleontologists when they go prospecting for new mineral deposits, or go searching for new fossils to add to the geologic record. Field trips can be coordinated with local geology clubs who know the best places to collect and can possibly even provide a guide who has considerable knowledge of geology and paleontology and can show the students what to look for and how to collect it.
Other field trips can include visits to museums, which have natural history exhibits that include extensive collections of rocks, minerals, and fossils and beautiful specimens or reconstructed fossil skeletons of animals on display. Many times these field trips can include behind-the-scenes visits to fossil preparation rooms and collections that are not always available to view by the general public. The museum also has professional curators who are experts in geology and paleontology and who provide tremendous enthusiastic insight and information about these disciplines.
Learning about geology can be fun and exciting at any age and it usually doesn't require too much effort to get children interested. In fact, the introduction of geology to a child is not too unlike the process of geology itself. Whereby the formation of an understanding of the science begins at an early age typically. Successive layers of knowledge are added through the years, culminating ultimately with exploitation of that knowledge and possible applications that might benefit mankind. Exploration leads to discovery and discovery leads to understanding and knowledge, and these are the bedrock of all education upon which our civilization rests.