Many educators who are not Earth science trained, and many who are, 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 in 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 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 on the crust.  We talk about the exciting things about the crust – its 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

6 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!

  • February 9, 2021 at 2:39 pm

    I love your thinking! I’ve been teaching Earth Science since 1993… and I’ve tried every possible combination, sequence, etc.

    MY personal preference was when I taught the course as a “Virginia-centric” course, since that’s where we are. I started at the very western tip (Appalachian plateau) and did a bit on sedimentary rocks, fossils, etc. The Ridge & Valley covered karst, rivers, groundwater.. Blue Ridge was where we looked at volcanoes, earthquakes (more interesting now that we’ve had a few recent ones), igneous rocks. Piedmont area was more weathering/erosion, minerals/resources, metamorphic rocks. Lastly, the Coastal Plain was sediments, more fossils, a broader look at Geo Time, dating, sequencing, etc. Everything Geo was covered in those 5 sections, then we went on to the Meteorology, Oceans, and Astro part of the high school curriculum. It made more sense to me that way, but it was harder in some ways. I wish I was allowed to do that again..

    • May 24, 2022 at 11:39 pm

      I love your approach. But is it hard teaching earth sciences in a part of the country where the religious majority think that the universe is 6,000 years old? Serious question. You must get a lot of new students who have been taught this.

  • February 9, 2021 at 3:32 pm

    BS in Geosciences followed by decade in env’t remediation and construction. I’ve been teaching 8th grade science for 14 years now. A student dubbed my Earth Sci half of the year “The Three D’s: Death, Destruction and Density.” And they were totally right! For pretty much any topic you can find an interesting real-world example/case study. Weekly something is in the news that is Earth Sci based and relevant to their general lives now or in the future. The day I overheard two students talk about how I “make rocks interesting” was the biggest win for me. And – oh yeah – I’ve spent 13 years as a cyber school teacher.


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