Introduction: Geology Rocks!

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Geology really does rock!

In my years of teaching-- irrespective of the subject-- I have found there are three key elements that make for an engaging lesson:

- Learning through doing

- Making the learning relevant

- And using storytelling as a means of bringing the subject to life

In this Instructable I will be sharing a few activities that you can use to teach young people about geology and associated scientific disciplines. What makes this lesson a bit different from others is its attention to the men and women behind the science. Learning about scientists, their lives, and how (most of the time) they started out as very ordinary people can be a powerful message to communicate to children. If you ask a child to name a scientist, there are few names that often come to mind. In this lesson I've chosen to focus on lesser-known scientists and have made an effort to include both men and women, as well as scientists from different points in history. There's one scientist who isn't even human...

I also wanted to show that there's more to geology than the rocks you might find in your garden; there are so many disciplines that branch out from geology and I wanted to use the opportunity to introduce children to new and exciting areas of study. If you find rocks fascinating, there's a whole world (and even further beyond that!) out there for you to explore! Alas, I only had an hour and a half in which to run my science club, so I was limited in the number of scientists I could pursue. At the end of this Instructable, I've included some ideas for activities that I didn't get a chance to run, but would love to if given the opportunity to run a longer club!

Each step of this Instructable will begin with a brief story about the scientist in question. Then, I will briefly explain the science behind the story. Finally, I will lead you through an activity or demonstration which explores the science in a hands-on, creative way.

This workshop was developed and delivered by Science Oxford as a Saturday Science Club for children aged 5-9 and their accompanying adults. We delivered the workshop as one 90-minute session, but you could teach the activities individually if you would prefer.


Excavating Dinosaurs

Plaster of Paris powder


Plastic cups

Toy dinosaurs

Something to stir the plaster with- eg: old spoon, lolly stick

Tools to excavate the dinosaurs (we used clay tools and old toothbrushes)

Table cover (this is a messy task both in preparation and when being played with!)

Dinosaur Fossils

Salt dough (read on for recipe) OR Playdough

Toy dinosaurs (from previous task)

Optional: You may want to experiment with different materials to see what sorts of fossils they make. We liked using shells, plants and twigs.

Panning for Gold

Large tub to contain your materials




Pyrite (or real gold, if you're feeling flush)

Sieves or strainers (or you could use purpose-bought pans for gold panning)



Ocean Relief Maps

Paper or card

Blue tissue or crepe paper

Cut outs of countries (we used the UK as this is where we live, and I pre-cut them to save time. Your class could always create their own stencils or draw their countries themselves)

Glue sticks

Step 1: Mary Anning- Fossil Hunter

The Story

Mary Anning was a rather unremarkable little girl... until something curious happened to her. She started out distinctly average, no better or worse than any of her other nine siblings. Of all of the Anning children, nobody could have predicted that Mary would go on to achieve great things. Sure, she seemed smart enough, but she was always so ill and in 1800s England, with deadly diseases rife, only the strongest would survive. Sadly, several of Mary's siblings didn't make it to adulthood and poor little Mary had a close call with death herself.

One summers day, Mary was being minded by a group of local women. The group took shelter under a tree, baby Mary happily enjoying watching horses taking part in a show in front of her. Then, as if from nowhere, a bolt of lightening hits the tree, killing everyone... except for Mary. Whereas once Mary had been sickly, something happened that day that seemed to put a spark of life into her. Her mind grew more curious, she became much stronger, and in the years that followed, Mary would carve a path for herself in the world of science. A very big achievement for any woman at the time, let alone a woman so ordinary!

As Mary grew up, she had a keen interest in the world around her. She lived on England's Jurassic coast, with beaches full of hidden treasures. Every summer, tourists would flock to the town to bathe in the sea and enjoy the coastal air. Many locals, including Mary and her family, would sell 'curios', treasures buried beneath the sand, to tourists, keen to take souvenirs home with them. These 'curios' included things like snake-stones, devils-fingers and verteberries. Today, we would call them fossils; shapes of bones, shells, plants or animals that have been preserved in rock for a very long time.

Selling fossils became a great way for Mary and her family to earn a bit of extra money. They often found it difficult to make ends meet and although still children, Mary and her brother, Joseph, did their bit to support their family. Their first big discovery came when they uncovered a skull of an ichthyosaur which was almost as tall as the twelve year old Mary! A few months later, Mary dug up the rest of the dinosaur and sold it to a collector for a whopping £23. That would be well over £1000 in today's money!

Mary had a long and happy career searching for fossils although it could be quite dangerous scouring the rough coastline for hidden gems. If ever you wanted to know something about fossils, Mary would be the person you'd want to speak with. Although at the time women weren't allowed to go to university, many of the leading geologists and palaeontologists of the age recognised Mary as a wonderful scientist and an impressive source of knowledge. What sort of career do you think Mary would have had, if she had lived today?

* * * * * * * * * *

The Science

If you've ever seen a fossil, you may have been amazed at how clear the impressions can be. It's amazing to think how little more than the right circumstances have led to the fossil, which started life often millions of years ago, have found their way into your hands today.

This is what BBC Bitesize has to say about fossils. You can read the full article here:

It’s very rare for living things to become fossilised. Usually after most animals die their bodies just rot away and nothing is left behind. However, under certain special conditions, a fossil can form.

After an animal dies, the soft parts of its body decompose leaving the hard parts, like the skeleton, behind. This becomes buried by small particles of rock called sediment. As more layers of sediment build up on top, the sediment around the skeleton begins to compact and turn to rock. The bones then start to be dissolved by water seeping through the rock. Minerals in the water replace the bone, leaving a rock replica of the original bone called a fossil.

There are four main types of fossil:

Trace fossils show evidence of animal activity, and include footprints and coprolite (that's fossilised poop!)

Mould fossils show an imprint of the animal or plant.

Cast fossils are mould fossils that have been filled in with sediment.

True form fossils preserve the entire animal, including details such as skin and fur.

We are going to have a go at excavating dinosaurs and creating our own fossils!

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The Task

Excavating Dinosaurs

Excavating dinosaurs is a fun, hands-on activity that is simple to put together, just requires a bit of forward planning!

To make the 'rocks' that will encase your dinosaurs, mix up plaster of Paris, following the instructions on your packet. Pour the plaster mixture into a plastic cup and pop a toy dinosaur inside. I used a lolly stick or a skewer to fully submerge the dinosaur. DO NOT STICK FINGERS, ARMS, LEGS OR ANY OTHER BODY PART INTO PLASTER MIXTURE! IT IS DANGEROUS AND CAN CAUSE SERIOUS BURNS!

TOP TIP: I was making enough dino rocks for 50 children, some of whom were quite young! I wanted to make sure the consistency of the plaster was just right; not too loose that they fell apart, but not so hard they were impenetrable! I found that mixing up the plaster to be slightly looser than the packet called for worked well. The directions state that the plaster sets in as little as 20 minutes which I found to be true, but I left mine for a week to fully set and dry out.

To excavate your dinosaurs, use a range of 'tools' that you have on hand at home or in your classroom. We used tools for modelling clay and old toothbrushes!

For an added element, I chose toy dinosaurs that came as both 'real life' dinosaurs and their skeletons so that kids could try and find their dino-partner! The ones I bought can be found here.

Making Fossils

Making your own replica fossils at home is remarkably easy AND it takes much less time than a few million years! Firstly, mix up your salt dough:

1. Mix 1 cup of flour with 1/2 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of water

2. Knead to form a dough. If your dough doesn't come together properly, add a little more water. If it is too sticky, add more flour.

3. Store your dough in an air-tight container, wrapped in plastic wrap, until you are ready to use it.

It really is that simple!

To create fossils, roll out your dough to around 1 inch thick. This is just a guide, but remember the thicker your dough, the longer it will take to dry out. There are different things you could use to create your fossils. When planning our club, we tested:

- Plastic animals

- Shells

- Twigs (arranged in the shape of an animal's skeleton)

To preserve your fossil, either let it air dry for about a week in a warm place with good circulation of air or use a low oven for a few hours.

If air drying, it is worth turning your fossil over after a few days so that it dries evenly.

You can also use playdough, if you'd like to create fossils that involve less prep and can be repurposed into new creations when you are done!


If you'd like your fossils to look more authentic, you could paint them or colour your salt dough with either cinnamon or coffee grounds. Coffee grounds give a lovely muddy texture whilst cinnamon smells delicious!

Step 2: James W Marshall- Going for Gold

The Story

Have you ever looked for something, only to never be able to find it? What about looking for something and then stumbling across something even better? That's exactly what happened to our next discoverer, James W Marshall. Sometimes you might think that you don't have what it takes to be a scientist, but if James can teach us anything, it's that scientists aren't born-- they're made. Sometimes you don't even plan to become a scientist, but are thrust headfirst into such an amazing discovery that you take the scientific world by storm. It just goes to show that everyone has something special they can give.

Life wasn't easy for James, growing up in 1800s America. Nowadays we're lucky to find a job, work hard and return home to somewhere warm and comfortable every evening. That wasn't the case back then. James, and many men like him, found work doing odd jobs, often in construction or as a farmer, but in order to make a living, you'd need to go wherever the work would take you. For James, this meant leaving home and travelling around the country, never really having anywhere to call home.

One such job that James was given was to oversee the construction of a mill. He would find the best place to build the mill and check that all was in order whilst the building was going ahead. But James noticed a problem. The mill needed water to operate, and it just wasn't working. He put together a plan. He needed to roll up his sleeves and get to work digging!

One morning, James was checking out the fruits of his labour and noticed something subtly sparkling in the sunlight. He wiped his eyes and took a closer look. He knew it... It was gold!

It didn't take long for the good news to reach the ears of men and women across the country, eager to get their hands on some ready money. Before he knew it, thousands of people had flocked to the river to pan for gold, leaving James to abandon his plans for the mill.

Striking gold made many people very rich. But poor James was not so fortunate and never made a single penny from the gold rush. Sometimes, it seems, being in the right place at the right time just isn't enough.

If you were to discover something that changed the world, how would you want to be remembered for it?

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The Science

Today, it would be fair to call James W Marshall an engineer. Engineers design objects, systems and processes-- anything that has been man-made has been engineered. James designed the process of panning for gold.

First of all, you need to find a river that contains gold. These aren't found just anywhere- and it's unlikely that, in central Oxford, you could go down to the Thames and start finding a load of gold! Panning for gold works because gold has a greater density than the sand and gravel in the water. If you rinse the sediment with water, you will find that the gold sinks.

A few questions to extend learning:

- What can this activity teach us about the different densities of materials?

- What other materials can be found naturally and crafted into things that people find useful or desirable?

- If gold can be found in nature, why do people charge so much for it?

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The Task

You will need a large, clear box or bucket filled with water, sand, gravel and pyrite (fool's gold)-- if you're really fancy, you could use real gold, but I'll leave that one up to you!

Then, take a sieve and start panning for gold! In our club, we used tea strainers. If you have access to proper equipment for panning for gold, then go ahead and use it; it will help you to see the relative densities of the sediment more clearly.

Each team should have the same amount of time to pan for gold. Put the gold you find (and nothing else!) in your dish to be weighed. We gave 125g of pyrite to each team, which consisted of many small pieces. The team which collects the most gold (in weight) will win.

If this were real gold, you would be able to sell it for roughly the following amount:

1g- £40 or $50

5g- £200 or $250

10g- £400 or $500

20g- £800 or $1000

25g- £1000 or $1250

Sadly, pyrite is worth next to nothing! In fact, it was named 'fool's gold' because some unsuspecting people found it and thought they'd be in for a massive windfall. Pyrite is worth around 1700x less than genuine gold and although they have some things in common (such as lustre and colour), a real gold nugget will be much smoother in texture and heavier.

Step 3: Marie Tharp- Exploring New Depths

The Story

When was the last time you were told you were not allowed to do something?

Why couldn’t you do it?

Our next scientist, Marie Tharp, was told she couldn’t do something. And you know what? she went and did it anyway! Why? Because the reason she told she couldn’t do what she wanted was quite silly. It was because she was a female!

Marie was a fabulous scientist, working in a man’s world. At the time, of those who studied earth sciences at university, only four out of every one hundred students were female. So not only did Marie fight against people telling her she couldn’t do what she wanted, she did a lot to prove that when it comes to being a scientist, boys and girls are equals.

Marie’s research led her to ask an important question: if there are hills and mountains on earth, what’s going on underneath the sea? To get her answers, Marie needed to explore. But there was only one problem- women weren’t allowed to work on ships. Instead, Marie used data collected by male scientists to prove her hypothesis. Under the sea, the land isn’t flat as people had once assumed; it has peaks and troughs. Marie also suggested the idea of continental drift- that over millions of years, the continents have moved away from each other. Although she was right, her ideas were dismissed as silly ‘girl talk’.

As time went on, society began to realise that men and women make equally good scientists and Marie went on to receive many awards for her work.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Science

The scientific word for making maps of the ocean is ‘ocean cartography’. Map making is a serious business and there’s evidence that people have been making maps since prehistoric times. There have even been map-like drawings found in caves! Map making today is very precise, and cartographers use equipment such as satellites and GPS to make maps that are accurate. It’s a competitive industry, too. Some companies will include fake places (also known as paper towns) on their maps. If they see the same place on a map produced by someone else, they’ll know their work has been copied!

In 44 CE, ancient Roman thinker Pliny the Elder wrote that every creature on land has a counterpart in the ocean. Because of that, ancient mapmakers would draw sea monsters on their maps to look like aquatic versions of familiar land animals: sea cows, sea serpents, sea pigs, marine pig-dogs, etc. If you’ve ever seen a sea lion or a seahorse, this is how they got their names!

Ocean relief maps today show us the shape of the land underneath the sea. Some of them are printed versions, but the ones we’re making today are different as you’ll be able to touch them and feel where the peaks and troughs are.

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The Task

Create your own ocean relief map using layers of crepe paper. Use more layers of crepe paper to show where the peaks in the land are. You can make your map look like your own country, or you can get creative! We used the UK, as this is where we live, but you're welcome to use any country, or even make up your own world!

Step 4: SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Shen Kuo- Novel Navigation

The Story

What is your favourite subject in school?

I imagine most people have one or two favourites, but our next scientist seemed to love them all. Our next scientist, who lived around 1000 years ago is what you might call a polymath-- which means 'having learned much'. That, in the case of Shen Kuo, is a massive understatement! Kuo excelled in nearly every subject and was an expert in a huge range of things such as mathematics, astronomy, geology, anatomy, zoology, botany, medicine, geography, cartography... the list goes on! With all of those interests, it's a miracle he found time to sleep!

Like many young boys in China at the time, Kuo was educated by his mother. The family travelled around and Kuo became fascinated with topography-- the study of the shape and characteristics of the land. Kuo was also a brilliant designer and devised a special drainage system to turn swampland into farmland. His invention would have had a massive impact on the community, allowing people to grow crops to feed their families.

Most scientific discoveries arise when curious people notice something unusual happen and ask questions about it. That's exactly what Shen Kuo did. Kuo noticed that when a special kind of metal is heated in such a way as to make it magnetic, it could be used as a means of direction.

I bet you never knew that when you pick up your phone and pull up a map, the technology it uses was beginning to develop a millennium ago!

Where will your curiosity take you?

* * * * * * * * * *

The Science

I'll admit that this one took me years to get my head around. Growing up I remember being told that a compass will always point north. I'd look at the face of the compass, with the cardinal directions printed on and wonder 'well why don't they just draw the arrow on, if they want it to point to the north?!' What I didn't realise at the time was what was meant by 'north'.

No matter where you are, hold a compass in your hand and it will point to the north pole. Not, in this case, the magical home of Santa, or necessarily where the 'N' is printed on your compass, but towards the magnetic north. (Again, the magnetic north isn't *exactly* at the tippy top of the world, but slightly to the east).

Compasses are very simple contraptions, and pick up small magnetic fields, so small we're not really aware they're always there around us.

I learnt all about how compasses work using this website here. Here are the main things I learnt:

- When thinking about how compasses work, imagine the Earth has a giant bar magnet running through the centre from north to south. Remember learning about how magnets are attracted to their polar opposites? To make the needle of your compass point to the north, the north pole must be home to the south end of the magnet.

- Imagine holding two magnets near each other, opposite ends facing each other. The chances are, they'll fly together and the magnetic force will make them 'stick' together. If you put the magnets on opposite sides of the room, the chances are (unless they're super strong magnets!) nothing will happen. the Earth's magnetic field is fairly weak on the surface because the Earth is so huge. In order for the needle of your compass to turn in response to the Earth's magnetic field, it needs to be lightweight and have a frictionless bearing.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Task

Making your own compass

It is possible to make your own compass at home!

You will need:

- a needle (just a regular sewing needle will work fine)

- a piece of cork (or anything small that floats)

- a dish with about an inch of water in it

1. Magnetise your needle by rubbing it with the north pole of another magnet.

2. Place your cork in your dish so that it floats.

3. Put your magnetised needle on top of your float and watch it slowly turn to the north!

Using a compass

This is a great task to do indoors on a rainy day, or outside if you're feeling adventurous! The task involves using a compass to explore an area and find hidden treasure.

Hide your treasure in a safe location and write a series of directions to help your friend find it. Tell them which way to bear (using the compass) and for how many steps.

If you enjoy tasks like this, and enjoy exploring new places, there are companies that will put together games for you. Check them out here! (This isn't an affiliate link-- I'm just mentioning them because I used one of their packages to explore York and loved it!)

Step 5: SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: HAM- to Infinity, and Beyond!

This story contains details of animal involvement in science that some people may find unethical. Whilst it could facilitate fruitful discussions into the ethics of using animals to further human understanding, you may wish to avoid this task if you think it would be unsuitable or upsetting for your audience.

We have been lucky enough to borrow something very special from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)-- samples from the moon!

The STFC is a world-leading multi-disciplinary science organisation, and their goal is to deliver economic, societal, scientific and international benefits to the UK and its people – and more broadly to the world.

If you are a school in the UK, you can click here to learn more about how to borrow lunar samples.

In our club, we spent time looking through the samples but should you wish to learn about moon rocks in more detail, I have a few ideas of where to start. The story is close to my heart as one of my relatives was lucky enough to work with its protagonist!

The Story

All of our stories so far have asked you to challenge your idea of a scientist. This one is no different, except it requires you to think even more outside the box. Waaaaay outside the box.

So we know that men and women make equally brilliant scientists, as long as they work hard and have curious minds. But do scientists even need to be human? We think not.

Some of our greatest achievements as humans have been made possible due to animals. Think about the assistance dog you pass in the street, living as someone's eyes or ears. Think about the canaries that saved human lives in mines, detecting poisonous fumes before they could do us harm. Then there are the animals whose strength we rely on, from horses pulling ploughs, camels offering fun rides on holidays or huskies pulling us through the snow. Animals truly are amazing, and can learn to do amazing things.

Our next scientist is no exception. His name is HAM and, whilst this may make him sound like he ought to be a pig, he is, in fact, a chimp.

HAM was a very special chimp in that he learnt to do things that other chimps can dream of (that is, if anyone can really know what chimps dream of...) HAM visited space!

To prepare for his mission, HAM worked with human scientists to learn the skills necessary to perform simple tasks whilst in flight. You know how you've learnt that tidying your room at home often helps you to earn rewards? HAM was able to learn to do things in the same way. He learnt that pulling a lever when a blue light flashed would earn him treats. He would definitely remember to pull that lever!

After receiving his training, HAM bravely went where no other chimp had gone before-- space! He even had his own space suit to protect him from the change in conditions outside of Earth. HAM was in space for a total of 16 minutes and 39 seconds and, what makes his story extra special, is that he wasn't merely a passenger. He was able to prove that tasks performed on Earth are possible to perform in space and returned from his adventure unscathed. Because of HAM's brave work, humans have been able to venture into space on many successful missions, including the mission undertaken to collect the samples we have been fortunate enough to borrow!

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The Science and Tasks

This story may serve as a springboard into study into various areas of science, for example:

- What are meteorites? What sorts of rocks might we find in space and how can we identify them on Earth?

- How did HAM learn to operate a spacecraft? What is operant conditioning and how can it explain our own behaviours?

- What are the conditions like in space? What might a good spacesuit look like and how might it be engineered to protect its wearer?

- How many missions into space have taken place since HAM's journey in 1961? What have we learnt from them?

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