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The Q? Blog

'Dig Deep': Teaching Students How to Locate Geologic Resources

by Adam Blankenbicker -- Aug 27, 2014
Photo of Adam Blankenbicker, a geology education specialist at the Museum

Adam is a self-proclaimed “volcanologist-turned-educator” who enjoys designing visitor experiences, especially around, you guessed it, geology. He has led...

Students apply their new skills to solve the final challenge in the “Dig Deep” school program. Photo NHB2014-01468 by Leah M. McGlothern, Smithsonian.
Students apply their new skills to solve the final challenge in the “Dig Deep” school program. Photo NHB2014-01468 by Leah M. McGlothern, Smithsonian.

Most of us don’t look at a phone, a car, or a building and think, “Where on Earth did they find the materials to build that?” Even if we do think about how something is made, we focus mainly on the technology and engineering required, not necessarily where those materials came from.

With the help of Smithsonian geologists Ben Andrews, Michael Wise and Tim Rose, we developed the “Dig Deep” school program to break this habit and dive into the sciences that make it possible for geologists to locate the natural resources we use in our daily lives. This hour-long, staff-led school program focuses on finding a specific resource that is used in building roads, skyscrapers, cars, ships, tools, and many more items: iron ore.

Students use this model to learn how tectonic forces affect the layers in Earth’s crust. Photo by Adam BlankenbickerConcepts Taught in the Dig Deep School Program
In "Dig Deep," students work in teams to learn about geologic processes and the skills geologists use to interpret clues in the Earth. Then the teams compete against each other in a final challenge, implementing their newly learned knowledge and skills to locate the iron ore.

The first concept we teach is how tectonic plates affect layers of rock close to Earth’s surface. Specifically, students participate in building a model that demonstrates how layered rocks become folded and faulted due to compressional tectonic forces. During this part of the program students also study rocks that display the same features found in the model.

The model shows a great cross-section of the layers in Earth’s crust, but these layers are usually hidden from our view, so the next skill we teach is how to read a geologic map. Students learn how to read geologic symbols and interpret how layers of rocks are folded and faulted beneath the surface. To help students along with this task, the class instructor and volunteers lead an activity involving a series of boxes with simplified geologic maps on top (see photos). Imagine each box is a chunk removed from Earth’s surface. Since the only information on the boxes is a geologic map on top, the students are challenged to draw in what they think the layers are doing on the sides.

Museum educator Adam Blankenbicker answers question as students work on the final challenge in Dig Deep. Smithsonian photo NHB2014-01465 by Leah M. McGlothern.The last skill that the students will learn before the final challenge is understanding what drill cores are and how geologists use them. One method geologists use to gather information is to drill into the Earth, through the layers of rock and dirt, and take out a long, cylindrical core to observe those layers. Geologists take several cores along a line and these serve as pieces to a puzzle. To learn this concept, the student teams play a short game in which slivers of a picture are revealed one at a time, and the students need to figure out what the rest of the picture looks like.

At this point in the class it has been fun to watch how students work together and get excited when they think they know what the image is. This prepares them for the final challenge, where they will choose as a group where to drill for more information.

A Final Challenge for the Young Geologists
In the final challenge, each student team is given a large box with a geologic map on top that includes a layer of iron ore. The box also contains a series of “drill cores” – vertical magnetic strips sticking out of the top that students can pull out to reveal a small part of the cross section inside. Their challenge is to accurately draw the horizontal cross section, using the fewest cores possible.

A student takes notes about block models to understand geologic maps. Smithsonian photo NHB2014-01458 by Leah M. McGlothern.To help them draw a cross-section of the layers beneath the surface, particularly the layer of iron ore, teams need to combine the information from the geologic map and the drill cores. To do this, the students must recall what folds and faults look like and how to interpret the symbols on a geologic map.

In the end, groups share their interpretations with the rest of the class. After each group has shared, the students are told to open the box (it opens!). Inside is the answer: the actual cross-section of the area that they were interpreting. Students have strong reactions to the final answer ranging from “I told you there was a fault there!” to “We got it right!” and “Oh, we missed that layer.”

To wrap up the program we discuss pros and cons of mining, including possible environmental concerns, such as ground-water contamination and acid mine drainage. Students make the connection between our need for natural resources and the need to be environmentally (and fiscally!) responsible when searching for, and extracting, natural resources.

If you’d like your class to participate in "Dig Deep," sign up here. Classes start in October. See you soon!


Program Details: "Dig Deep" is a free, staff-led school program created for Grades 6-12. It is designed to keep students on task for 60 minutes. Subject areas: Earth Science, Environmental Science.

How to Register: We offer onsite school programs Monday through Friday. To register, go to the school program registration page, choose your date and time, click the "Sign Up" button, and on the registration form select the "Dig Deep" program. 

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