Mineral madness: Science labs boost test scores

March 8, 2011

By Laura Geggel

Sunset Elementary School third-graders Glen McInerney and his rocks-and-minerals partner Catherine Griffin do a streak test to see which minerals leave a mark on paper. By Laura Geggel

Fluorite fluoresces green under an ultraviolet light and graphite leaves a silvery streak across paper. Sunset Elementary School third-graders tried myriad tests on a bagful of minerals, identifying each one for their unit about rocks and minerals Feb. 17.

For a fee of $740, Roxanne Nanninga, a Pacific Science Center instructor for Science on Wheels, taught the entire third grade the difference between rocks and minerals.

Some students already knew the basics about the two.

“Rocks are just rocks and minerals could be valuable stuff, like rubies,” Laurel Bangs said.

Nanninga compared the two to a chocolate chip cookie — the cookie was like a rock, she said. The chocolate chips, nuts and raisins in it were like minerals inside a rock.

Minerals were easy to identify, so long as students had the right tools, she said. Dividing students into pairs, she passed out eight minerals to each group. Students tested the properties of each mineral before solving the mineral madness mystery.

They started with an easy test, called a streak test.

“The streak test is to find out now hard or soft the minerals are,” Nanninga said. “Some minerals are so soft they leave a mark on paper.”

Glen McInerney smiled when he saw the mineral graphite left a mark on his worksheet.

“It’s like a pencil,” he said. “Cool.”

Although it is commonly called lead, graphite is used to fill pencils.

“They call it lead because a long time ago, they put lead in our pencils,” Nanninga said.

“But then they learned that lead was very poisonous, so now they use graphite.”

The next test was as simple as decorating a refrigerator door. Students held magnets next to their minerals to see if they were magnetic. The mineral magnetite passed the test.

“You’ll notice it’s heavy, too,” Nanninga said. “It has a lot of iron in it, and iron is magnetic.”

Later, the third-graders used hand-held generators to learn that copper and graphite conduct electricity. It tied in perfectly with their last unit, which covered electricity, so students understood why they needed a closed circuit when testing the minerals.

“We put copper inside of wires a lot of the time because it’s so good at conducting electricity,” Nanninga said.

For their final test, students used ultraviolet light to see if their minerals would fluoresce. Nanninga explained that ultraviolet light is part of a spectrum. Its wavelengths are smaller than the visible light spectrum that makes up the rainbow, but its not as small as X-rays.

Some minerals have chemicals that react with ultraviolet lights, causing them to glow.

The opals glowed a bright green, and some students held them as they would a “Star Wars” light saber, examining their eerie glow. Fluorite emitted speckles of yellow and orange.

“I learned that rocks can sometimes glow,” Ken Zahn said.

Students learned that garnet is used in sandpaper and used to make gemstones. Quartz can be used to make glass. Halite, a blocky sort of mineral, more commonly known as rock salt, is a form of sodium chloride.

Fluorite, the glowing rock, is also commonly used.

“They use fluorite to make fluoride, which they use at the dentist to make your teeth strong,” Nanninga said.

Science workshops help test scores

The students’ careful mineral observations tie into the scientific method incorporated into their lessons from first to fifth grade. Starting in 2007, Sunset partnered with its PTA to raise funds for more science workshops, including the third grade’s Pacific Science Center’s Mineral Madness lesson.

“Every grade gets an enhanced opportunity to do hands-on science because they get additional funding from our PTA,” Principal Wayne Hamasaki said.

In first grade, “I try to keep it as hands-on as possible,” teacher Cindy Nelson said. “We always start with a question, we make a hypothesis and then we do the experiment.”

Students celebrate if their hypotheses are right, and they celebrate if they are wrong, too, “because you learned something,” Nelson said.

By fifth grade, students know all about the scientific method.

“We try to get away from science as observation to where you’re manipulating something in the experiment,” teacher Wendy Heider said.

The science labs and enthusiastic teaching are paying off; last spring, Sunset fifth-graders had the highest average science test scores on the Measurement of Student Progress in the Issaquah School District, with 72 percent passing. The district’s other elementary schools’ averages range from 32 percent to 62 percent of their students meeting standard in science.

“Sunset’s scores are impressive,” district Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Emilie Hard said, noting the supplemental funding it receives from its PTA and its teachers’ commitment to science.

The district is in the process of updating its science curriculum for all elementary schools, and soon other schools, like Sunset, may have more science workshops.

“We need our kids to have skills that will meet the needs of the 21st century,” Hamasaki said.

Get involved

The next Sunset PTA auction that supports scientific outreach will be held March 19 at the Meydenbauer Center. Learn more at www.sunset.issaquah.wednet.edu.

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