This activity addresses the nature of science and scientific inquiry by putting it in the context of human inquiry more broadly. It compares different perspectives on Earth and distinguishes the scientific perspective while validating all human perspectives. It demonstrates the importance of science to all people and gets students thinking, sharing ideas, and encourages them to be comfortable in sharing their ideas with their peers. This idea was developed by Dr. Karen Havholm at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and published in JGE (1998).

Rock and Role Activity - Instructions

Adapted from K. Havholm (1998)

A. Set-up

  1. 3 or 4 students per group (desirable to have 8 to 10 groups)
  2. Give each group a role slip (*list appears below)
  3. Introduce each other and write names on slip.
  4. Give each group a rock sample of the same type, preferably one with large crystals or clasts so plenty to look at, for example a coarse-grained granite or gneiss.

B. Instructions (takes about 10 minutes or so)

  1. Study and discuss the rock from the point of view of the assigned role.
  2. Write down questions you want to know about the rock, and the observations you might make about the rock, from the perspective of the role.
  3. Be prepared to share ideas with class.

C. While students discuss

  1. Divide chalk board into n+1 sections (n = number of groups)
  2. Circulate to provide assistance as necessary, and sense when task is complete.

D. Idea-sharing

  1. Select a role and a representative to share observations and questions-ask rep their name, and intro them as so-and-so, a world famous painter, or landowner, or whatever the group’s role is.
  2. Write role in section on board, and jot down key words for observations and questions. Ask the group why a certain observation or question is important to them.
  3. Do all groups, leaving child and religious leader until last.
  4. Last space: you, as the Geologist
    • Why are there different colors in the rock?
    • Why are some grains shiny?
    • How was this rock formed?
    • How old is this rock?

These are important because we are interested in learning the Earth’s history, which includes processes and timing. The questions that I ask help to determine the observations I make: note the interlocking texture, which indicates that the crystals grew together; the crystal size indicates that some time was involved to grow to that size; mineral content which indicates something about the source material the minerals came from, and the conditions under which the crystals formed.

E. Drawing conclusions from the data on board

  1. Ask the students what conclusions they can make based on the set of data.
  2. Try to get at 1 or 2 big ideas:
    • what is noticed depends upon the questions one asks, and these are determined from the perspective of the person.
    • some of the child’s questions are most similar to the Geologist’s! Geologists tell stories about the earth, so Earth Science can be appealing to any kid who loves a story.

F. Mini-Lecture to reiterate the main ideas and to introduce the science to come:

  1. Although one can view the Earth from a variety of perspectives, in this class we will learn about the Geologist’s way of thinking about the Earth.
  2. We will learn lots of “stories” about the history of the Earth, and will seek to understand the methods used to arrive at these “stories”.

*Example Roles

  • Painter: You are an artist, and there is an outcrop of this rock in the landscape you plan to paint.
  • Architect: You are considering this rock for use in construction of a building.
  • Road Builder: You are considering this rock for use in constructing a road bed.
  • Miner: You are considering purchasing mineral rights to an area that contains a lot of this rock type.
  • Economist: You work for a mining company. The company Mining Geologist wants the company to purchase the mineral rights to an area that contains a lot of this rock type.
  • Biologist: You are interested in a plant that seems to grow best in soil on this kind of rock.
  • Rock Climber: You would like to climb a cliff face made of this rock.
  • Sculptor: You are considering this rock as a medium for your next sculpture.
  • Farmer: You have a lot of this rock on a piece of land you want to farm.
  • Potential Landowner: You are considering purchase of a piece of land underlain by this kind of rock, and you are wondering whether you can put in a water well.
  • Landscape Designer: You are hired to design formal gardens on an estate underlain by this rock type and containing prominent outcrops of the rock.
  • Religious Leader: Explain this rock, or use it as a part of a sermon or lesson.
  • 8-Year Old Child: You pick up a piece of this rock in a stream.


Havholm, Karen Gene, 1998, An activity to introduce the geoscience perspective: Journal of Geoscience Education, Vol. 46, no. 2, p. 137-140.

Following this exercise I like to focus on the geological view of Earth, and get the students observing and thinking, using slides, or large photos of Earth events:

Science as a Way of Knowing

A. Geologists are scientists whose interests are the planet Earth and other Earth-like planets. But what is science?

  1. body of knowledge and a way of knowing.
  2. for geologists, a way of understanding the world and its processes.

B. Assumption: that natural events have physical, and therefore ultimately knowable, causes.

Scientific knowledge is acquired through the systematic and disciplined testing of ideas by careful experimental design, methodical data collection, and objective reasoning and analysis.

Examples: show pictures or slides of:

  • volcano photo: Class: What questions might Geologists ask about volcanoes?
    • Why does it erupt; when does it erupt; what kind of material?
    • source of material? What happens to the material?
    • Note how the effects of the volcano are not just the solid Earth; atmosphere; hydrosphere; biosphere.
  • earthquake damage photo: Class: What happened here?
    • Why do you think that? Leads to question of possible causes. Observations leading to most likely cause. Can have students vote on which cause they think most likely.