For many educators who are not Earth science trained, and many who are, they flounder when trying to work out the best way to introduce the subject to their students.   The first thing they do is reach for the textbooks found around the science staff room or library and open them up to the first chapter.  What do they find almost all the time – Rock and Mineral Identification.

Why I don’t start Earth science by teaching rock and mineral identification

mineral identification

Now, as a trained geologist, I understand that having a sound grasp of the building blocks of geology may seem to be a great place to start.   But also, as a geologist, I think that getting students to worry about the hardness, streak, cleavage, crystal systems and the specific gravity of minerals is about as exciting as a colonoscopy prep!

Why turn off students when you have the most exciting subject to lay at their feet?


Start with planet-scale features

mineral identification first...when you have these huge scale earthquake patters?? NO!

So instead of starting at the building block scale, I start at the other end – the planet-scale.  We talk about the layers of the planet (inner core, outer core, mantle, crust, hydrosphere, Cryosphere, atmosphere) and then focus in on the crust.  We talk about the exciting things about the crust – it’s volcanoes and earthquakes.  It’s mountains and deep valleys.   We look for patterns in the Earth – the location of the continents, of earthquakes and volcanoes – then talk about Plate Tectonics.

See my posts on:

Understanding the plates

Evidence for Plate Tectonics

A simple way to think about the Crust

I even wrote a simple guide on Plate Tectonics for teachers and students.


…and back to mineral identification

Through these discussions, we talk about the three rock types and properties of the rocks and eventually, we delve deeper into their properties and mineral composition.  And then we are back to the textbook chapter one…and we have covered many of the other chapters as well…and I have a classroom of captured Earth science students instead of a class of bored students looking never to do another Earth science class again.

Yes, I know that many curricula push you to follow the textbook pathways – and many textbooks are following the same boring pathway they did in the 1940s & 50’s.  But surely you want your students to be excited by Earth science and bored to death with dusty specimens when they don’t know the framework into which they fall?

Fortunately, the US NGSS provides you with more latitude to go down this pathway.  So even if you teach middle school level Earth science you can avoid the textbook rock and mineral ID trap.

What do you do to make your intro Earth Science class exciting?



Why I don’t start Earth science by teaching rock and mineral identification

3 thoughts on “Why I don’t start Earth science by teaching rock and mineral identification

  • October 6, 2019 at 3:14 am

    I’m a (mature) second year geology student and my course is taught in this way. As someone who learns with big picture, then add detail, I struggle to enjoy the subject and feel constantly that I’m not ‘getting it’. I think many people learn in this manner and it’s s shame the subject isn’t taught more the way you teach it, because as humans we like stories, we like to see the story of the rock, not just list the dry facts of formula, thin section properties etc.
    I’m sure your students enjoy their studies more.

  • November 7, 2020 at 8:20 am

    I couldn’t agree more. I have taught both HS and MS Earth science. I tend to put Rocks and Minerals in the middle of my geology units. You need to build curiosity about what rocks and minerals tell us about Earth history before teaching it. Thanks for sharing your perspective and getting teachers to get out of the textbook.

  • November 14, 2020 at 2:30 am

    Ditto. I did first year Geology in my Science degree (Chemistry major) as an elective because I enjoyed it at high school. All that great stuff about volcanoes, fossils and earthquakes! Then I got switched off by dry lectures, tutorials and pracs identifying rocks and minerals. The best part of the first year course were the field trips exploring local geology, quarries and fossils .
    Focused then on Maths and Physics as electives in my degree and became a STEM teacher.
    If the first year had been focused more on the “exciting” stuff I might have changed streams and become a vulcanologist!


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