The BBC's television series, British Isles: A Natural History, on anecdotal evidence at least, seems as popular as was Walking with Dinosaurs. That's not surprising, given that holiday fossil hunts are routinely oversubscribed.
Yet the whole subject of Earth science is often either missing from the curriculum - particularly at primary and lower secondary level - or at best cursorily touched on. One part of the problem is that the national curriculum divides this Jsubject between geography and science. Another is that it can't be done without fieldwork. Then there's the lack of geography teachers who were themselves introduced to Earth science in their formative years.
The obstacles can be overcome, however. This is well demonstrated at Leighton Middle School for nine to 13-year-olds in Bedfordshire. Teachers Sally Hart, a science specialist, and head of humanities Sheila Meekums, a geographer - both enthusiasts for the Earth and its structures - work together in a way that starts with the material that's in nearby buildings, walls and tombstones.
Sally wrote a unit of work called the Church Rock Trail. This begins in class, using a box of samples she was given during a course at Birmingham University and supplemented by local stonemasons. "We show the children the different types - igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic," she says. "We do a preliminary walk around the school, which has some old buildings," adds Sheila. "There are limestone pillars and there's a sandstone wall holding up an embankment."
The church trail is the next step. "The children split into groups and spread along a sandstone wall," says Sally. "They look at the effects of weathering, and at the plants that inhabit the wall. They look at the grain size in the stone - that tells you a lot about how the sandstone was formed and in what sort of conditions."
Sheila agrees: "You can see differential weathering where iron in the sandstone has leached down to form 'iron pan' that resists the weather and sticks out. The children can see that and sketch it."
Then there are the visible effects of pollution on the church itself.
"Parts of the church are being replaced because they are eaten away," says Sally. "There's a lot of environmental work and science there."
The trail also takes in the gravestones, many of which are very old. "There are two the same age," says Sheila. "One is granite, the other limestone.
You can't read the inscription on the limestone because it has weathered much more than the granite."
Both teachers have a passion for rocks and geology - which stemmed from an in-service course rather than initial training. They believe it's easy to fire a similar enthusiasm in students. "The children love it, because they can see rocks and handle them," says Sheila."
Sally gets support through her membership of the Earth Science Teachers'
Association. ESTA provides teaching packs and rock samples, is a regular presence at conferences and exhibitions, and has a lively and helpful website. Pete York, ESTA's primary contact, is an A-level geology teacher with a deep interest - and a track record - in promoting Earth science in primary schools. "If we can get them interested early it will be good for the subject," he says. "It's such a shame that it tends to be squeezed out of the primary curriculum. Kids are fascinated by rocks and fossils."
At Leighton, co-operation between Sheila Meekums and Sally Hart means that the Earth science work seems to move from geography to science and back again as it progresses through Years 6 to 8. "We're doing rocks in science in Year 6," explains Sheila. "Then we pick it up again in geography in Year 7 when we look at volcanic rocks, then it's geography again in Year 8 when we look at primary, secondary and tertiary industries, and we can take in brick-making and study the local quarries."
They also share resources. Sheila uses a digital microscope from the science department to show images of rock structure on the whiteboard.
(Many schools, including primaries, have a digital microscope, supplied free as part of Science Year 2001. There are reviews of a good alternative model on the CLEAPSS advisory science service website.) Sally and Sheila have plans for a high street rock trail. "Banks and public buildings are often faced with marble and granite," says Sally. Sheila has sights on Milton Keynes. "When I go there shopping I have my eyes down, because the floors are superb." Which is, you might think, a very special sort of enthusiasm.
Tips and links
How to start
* Join the Earth Science Teachers' Association and get the current newsletters and back issues. "Teaching Primary Earth Science" is packed with ideas for the classroom.
* Provide yourself with a good rock collection. You can do this through ESTA, and university departments and secondary schools are helpful. Try stonemasons, too. Sheila Meekums had some excellent granite offcuts from a local kitchen installation company.
* Look at the science and geography curricula, and plan work across both subjects.
* Start with the basics - types of rock (igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic), how each is used as a material and how it stands up to weather and pollution. Then try to track examples back to a likely source.
* Plan a rock trail using visible rocks (in walls, buildings and outcrops - whatever is within easy reach).
* Use local quarries. There may be one nearer than you think - they tend to be hidden from view.
* Find out about other geological sites from English Nature and the National Stone Centre.
* The Earth Science Teachers' Assocation: www.esta-uk.org
* Geology Shop is a compendium of websites from around the world: www.geologyshop.co.uk
* Based in the Peak District, the National Stone Centre runs a programme of visits and lectures: www.nationalstonecentre.org.uk
* The Association of Regionally Important Geological and Geomorphological Sites (UKRIGS) is a geoconservation organisation whose brief includes the promotion of former aggregate extraction sites for educational fieldwork (see the "education officer" link): www.ukrigs.org.uk
* English Nature has lots of information on geological sites. The downloadable 2003 publication (Research Report 523) The Use of Geological Sites by Schools has a useful breakdown of the way Earth science is distributed between geography and science over the four key stages. It also has reports from geological sites around the country about work with schools: www.english-nature.org.uk
* The CLEAPSS website features reviews and suppliers of digital microscopes: www.cleapss.org.uk