Riding A Rock Through Geologic Processes Explores The Rock Cycle

Rolling dice is an excellent way to emphasize that the rock cycle is deceptively named. Equally importantly, what felt like a failed lesson in volcanoes to me was not noticably catastrophic for my students.

For this ongoing experiment in education, I'm testing out running an active learning classroom for a university introductory geology course. After the introductory week in setting tone, this week dove into rock types with an exploration of the rock cycle and an introduction to volcanoes, while lab went from theory to application by embracing the observation and documentation that is key to the practice of science.


Success! A Rock's View Of The Rock Cycle


Worksheets, station descriptions, and action dice for a cycle through the Rock Cycle Journey. Image credit: Mika McKinnon

The Rock Cycle Journey is a gamification exercise where students travel through various stations and roll dice to simulate the path of a particular rock as it is altered between sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks. While many people have developed variations of this exercise, I didn't find any prepackaged lessons at the appropriate level of complexity. The variation I developed had the following features:

  • Journey worksheets. Each student was provided with worksheets that reiterated instructions, provided a table to record the data of their specific journey (step, location, action, current rock type), a list of analysis questions to guide reflections, and a space to summarize the journey in an illustrated tale where they fill in any gaps.
  • 10 specific location stations: mountain, plain, river, ocean, Earth's interior, and so on. I picked that number of stations based on my class size to minimize the likelihood of long lines. I chose to make the stations specific locations to emphasize how the rock cycle could happen in real life as opposed to theory.
  • Station-specific descriptions of how rocks could be impacted: deposits by river floods, weathering by exposure to the elements, increasing temperature and pressure through burial. This served as a technical overview of each station.
  • Custom action dice for each station. The dice were labelled with abbreviated versions of each of the possible actions detailed on the station description. For example, an action on the plains dice read, "Flood! New sediment deposited. Stay on the plains and re-roll." and one for the Earth's interior was, "Uplifted! Overlaying material eroded, exposing rock. Go to Mountains." Technically, this step could be replaced by using a normal dice and a numbered list, but I think the custom dice is more viscerally interesting.

The bridge into this activity was collectively building an idealized rock cycle, then brainstorming how reality could be different. After giving students time to roam through the stations, I gave them a few minutes to make a first pass at the analysis questions. We then had a group discussion sharing our experiences, and finished by directing them to fill in the gaps of their rock's story by illustrating a history of what exactly happened in a comic-strip format.

What worked really well about this activity is how each student took deeply different journeys. Some students got stuck in a particular location, while others were running all over the classroom. Some students fell into miniature cycles (one kept erupting from a volcano, flowing into the ocean, getting subducted, re-melting, and erupting), and others stayed one rock type forever. Of all the times I've taught about rock cycles, for the first time I think all my students internalizing that rocks can go through the journey in any order, and that not every rock will go through every stage. Mark this one up as a success for active learning!


Failure: A Chaotic Jigsaw Of Volcanoes

A jigsaw is a fairly standard exercise where students first split into groups by topic, becoming experts in that topic, then re-split into new groups with one expert from each topic to teach each other. I ran a volcano jigsaw on each of the main volcano types (cinder cones, shield volcanoes, and stratovolcanoes), which worked well, but then I got ambitious and included jigsaw sections for geochemistry and plate tectonics. This ended up being too much to cover — groups of five are weirdly more chaotic than groups of three.


Despite my displeasure about the chaos, the activity was functional. I think the key part was providing students with a worksheet for scaffolding that required integrating information from each of the topic experts. Even so, I think that my students left with a lot of confusion that will require re-teaching as we continue with igneous rocks next week. While it's never any fun to have a lesson bomb, this week was a reassuring reminder that even when things don't go perfectly, it isn't a disaster.


Success! Observing The Ever-Changing Weather


We practiced weather observations on a strangely sunny day for the Pacific Northwest in the winter. Image credit: Mika McKinnon

Observation and documentation are critical components of practicing science. For lab this week, we kicked off an exercise in both by learning how to make and record observations about the weather. Students will spend the next several weeks filling out observation sheets, making predictions, and reflecting on the accuracy of past forecasts.


Share This Story

Get our newsletter