School of rock

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Fossils and crystals can provide a starting point for fascinating explorations of history. Sophie White joins Year 3 pupils on a trip to Cambridge University's Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

In unashamedly traditional surroundings in the Grade II-listed building of the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge, the challenge is to get schoolchildren to engage with row upon row of objects displayed in wooden cases.

The museum houses one of the oldest surviving collections of rocks and fossils of its type in the world as well as Darwin's collection of rocks from his voyage in the Beagle. Part of the University of Cambridge, it functions as a place of academic study as well as a public resource.

For geologist-turned-education officer Annette Shelford, rocks and fossils are stepping stones for teaching. They are the starting points for telling stories, for numeracy and literacy challenges, even for exercises in team building and citizenship for older children.

Today, 22 Year 3 pupils from Cherry Trees School near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk are about to become lonely geologists. Shelford divides the group into pairs with the following instructions.

"Imagine you are geologists working in a remote place. You start off with a partner but they are sick and return to base camp. You have to investigate on your own. All you have is a mobile phone, a ruler and a magnifying glass in your rucksack. When you find a new type of rock you have to ring your partner at base camp and describe it to them. All they have are some coloured pencils and a piece of paper and they have to draw it as accurately as they can based on your description."

Jordan and Lily, sit back to back on the museum floor. Jordan is the first to have a go at describing the rock she is given to touch and inspect but which remains hidden from Lily. "About 6cm across, looks like ice, it's see-through but with a few black speckles. The see-through bit feels slimy.

Bits of it have a light pink colour - it feels like marble too."

From this surprisingly demanding test in using descriptive words, Lily sketches a very fair resemblance of the rock Jordan is holding in her hands. After the challenge has been reversed, both girls are keen to find out the identity of the rocks in the handling collection. It turns out that Lily has drawn halite while Jordan had drawn garnetiferous mica schist - the term alone draws gasps of amazement.

Everyone has a chance to pronounce it. A couple of boys are also delighted to find out that what they have described and drawn turns out to be dinosaur poo. Challenged to find examples of these rocks in the museum's cases, all the children race off to be the first to locate them.

Each rock comes from one of the three categories of rock discussed in the introductory talk, reinforcing their knowledge of the terms igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. While the introductory talk and the description challenge had been tailor-made to suit the children's existing level of knowledge of rocks, the final part of the visit is a chance to follow the "Top 10 Trail".

The children explore the museum, using a map to find 10 of its most popular specimens. This gives them a tantalising glimpse of the breadth of subject areas within the museum that are not covered by their talk, ranging from a cast of a 300 million-year-old fossil of the world's largest spider to a lump of butter preserved for 1,500 years in an Irish peat bog.

And despite Annette Shelford's protestations that "geology is not just about dinosaurs," it is reassuring to know that the Sedgwick Museum comes complete with a life-size cast of an Iguanodon skeleton.

* Admission and workshops are free but there is a suggested donation of Pounds 1 per head

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