Earth Sciences graduate student uses ‘common sense’ approach to help children understand rocks and minerals
Earth Sciences graduate student uses ‘common sense’ approach to help children understand rocks and mineralsApril 03, 2002Judy Holmesjlholmes@syr.edu
A favorite childhood past time for Barbara Hill, an earth sciences Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University, was finding samples of hematite and using it to paint her face. Hematite is a source of iron oxide, a commonly used ingredient in makeup and paints. A native of Oklahoma and mother of two children, Hill, takes a pragmatic approach to helping elementary children understand rocks and minerals-show them how the minerals are used in everyday life.
“From Cheerios to Cat Litter: An Introduction to Everyday Uses of Minerals” is a teaching program that Hill began developing about six years ago when her daughter’s first-grade teacher asked Hill to talk to the class about her work as a geologist. Before moving to Syracuse in 1987 when her husband got a job at General Electric, Hill was a hydrogeologist with the U.S. Department of Defense in California, where she worked on water resource, erosion and salt-water intrusion issues.
Her daughter’s teacher wanted Hill to do a lesson on rocks and minerals. Hill brought samples of cat litter, Cheerios, pool balls, sandpaper, jewelry, makeup and baby powder, among other items. She placed the household items alongside samples such as bentonite, calcite, wollastonite, peridotite, hematite and talc. The children worked in teams to match the right minerals with the end products. Along the way, Hill talked about where the minerals are mined-many in New York state-and how they are used in the various products.
The presentation was a hit with the first-graders. Hill has repeated and refined it over the years and now presents it at Cub Scout den meetings, Girl Scout meetings, at teacher training workshops and in elementary school classes. Last week, she was invited to present her approach at the joint meeting of the North-Central and Southeastern Sections of the Geological Society of America in Lexington, Ky. More than 1,000 geoscientists were expected to attend the event. Hill’s presentation was part of a workshop on “Innovative Teaching Ideas for Earth Sciences, K-12.”
“My approach is not innovative so much as it is common sense,” Hill says. “I try to give kids something they can get excited about and remember long after the presentation. Among Hill’s fondest memories is finding a neighbor’s child some 20 feet up a tree in her backyard retrieving a kite. As she urged him to come down from the tree, he looked down and said: “I know you, you’re the rock lady.”
About five years ago, Hill, who earned a bachelor’s degree in geology at Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in geology at Cal State, Long Beach, decided that she wanted to do an in-depth research project. She enrolled in the earth sciences Ph.D. program at SU. “I wanted to get back into rocks,” she says.
Hill is trying to determine how the North American continental crust was formed some 1.7 billion years ago. The clues to the puzzle are held in microscopic grains of zircon that she painstakingly extracts from rocks found in central Colorado. She then uses an ion microprobe, located in Ottawa, to date the individual zircon grains. Some of the zircon contain several zones, each of which maybe a different age. She found one zircon that contained three distinct zones, the oldest of which was 2.5 billion years.
“Zircons are not always completely destroyed during melting of continental crust,” Hill says. “They sometimes act a nucleus around which new zircon grows as the magma solidifies to form new continental crust. We therefore find a very old nucleus of zircon surrounded by zones of new zircon.”
Hill will present findings from her research at a Pathways to Knowledge lecture at 7:30 p.m. April 9 in Grant Auditorium, located in the College of Law’s White Hall.
“I love to teach,” Hill says. “I especially love to teach teachers, and eventually hope to find a position where I can combine my love for teaching and my love for geology.”