real earth system science


Don Duggan-Haas

The Paleontological Research Institution and its Museum of the Earth

The Quarry Query

Part 1: What is this place?

In this example, Ms. G had taken a hike in the woods and found a rock feature that didn’t match its surroundings.  Through virtual fieldwork that she created, she engaged her students in the puzzle of figuring out why the place looked the way it did.  She had shot several photographs.  And she brought back a few rocks. 

You can go straight to the pictures by clicking here

[This example highlights some elements of Teaching Standards A, B, C, D and E; 9-12 Content Standards A, D  and F; and the Unifying Concepts and Processes; and Program Standards A, B and D.] 

She’d done this a few times over the course of the year – in effect taking her students on virtual fieldwork.  Over time, she’d built up a number of such activities that took her students where she’d been through the power of her description and a framework that she was forever developing.  Of course, she’d rather literally take students to all of these places, but that wasn’t manageable.  She didn’t have the field trip budget and she knew that other teachers didn’t like having kids pulled out of class to go on field trips.  In some years, there was money for field trips and they were great – and they were better still if they’d done virtual work first.  When she could only do one actual trip, she did it later in the year.  In years when there wasn’t a budget crunch, she’d do two – one at the beginning of the year where she raised more questions than were answered and a second near the end of the year where the students would raise and answer questions.  Every year, without fail, she took students around the school’s campus and had them tell the geologic story of the school’s grounds. 

There were certain things she’d learned to do on each one of these trips (whether with the kids or when she went on her own to create a virtual trip for her kids).  She took a GPS unit and recorded the coordinates of points of interest.  She took her digital camera, and sometimes her video camera.  She could then incorporate images of the place into both student handouts and into computer slideshows. If it was in a place where she had permission to collect, she’d bring her rock hammer (if she thought she’d need it).

This time, she took a slightly different approach with her use of pictures.  She created a quick and simple web page of the pictures. ( This was very simple to do with the photo management software that came with her computer.  She used the web space provided by the school district.  She’d added a label on the top of the page and gave a few of the photos titles, but she didn’t sort through them.  She both didn’t have time and thought it would be interesting to have the kids figure out which pictures were better for showing whatever it was they wanted to show.  Earlier in the year, she’d done more of the sorting through of things like this, but was consciously trying to gradually shift more and more of the responsibilities of learning and teaching to her students. 

The class begins by Ms. G talking about the hike she’d taken over the weekend.  She was hiking in the woods on a hilltop not too far away, but far enough away and remote enough that it wasn’t likely her students had been there. 

She told the class that she was walking along the trail through the woods, and then she came around a bend in the trail and found an area that was partly surrounded by vertical rock walls about 10 meters high.  She showed several pictures by clicking through the web page mentioned above.  The students got into their regular working groups of three or four.  Each group was given two rock samples and a handout that included pictures of the area.  Ms. G. told the class to take about ten minutes to analyze the information they had about this place and then be prepared to talk about it.  “If you think you know something about the area, remember to be prepared to describe how you know what you know.”

The handout also included a set of questions, but these questions were, for the most part, not new to the students.  The question page was titled “Why does this place look like this?” and all the questions that followed were intended to connect back to this main question.  The questions that followed the lead question were:

  1. 1.What kind(s) of rock(s) are found in the area?  How do you know?  What environment did these rocks probably form in?

  2. 2.Describe the arrangement and variety of rocks shown in the photographs. 

  3. 3.Tell a story of how these rocks may have formed referring back to the photographs and what you have determined about the rock sample(s).

  4. 4.What has happened to this area to make it look the way it does today?  (That is, what has happened to the area since the rocks formed?)  Why do you think so (what is the evidence for your claim)?

  5. 5.If you could go to the site, what else would you want to do to answer the above questions?

Ms. G. wanted to teach through inquiry methods.  She wondered if this somewhat formulaic approach would be considered inquiry.  In all these virtual fieldwork experiences, she had a good idea of what students would discover. In this case, she expected them to figure out it was an abandoned quarry where the limestone came from that built the old buildings on a nearby university’s campus.  This approach did include part of one of the New York State Key Ideas for Scientific Inquiry: “Beyond the use of reasoning and consensus, scientific inquiry involves the testing of proposed explanations involving the use of conventional techniques and procedures and usually requiring considerable ingenuity.”  She wondered about the ingenuity, but took some solace in its apparent absence in the one example in the Core Curriculum Guide.  That example?  “Test sediment properties and the rate of deposition.”

In the last year she added what she hoped would be an additional motivation for learning.  She’d added a new essential question to her list: “What does learning this empower you to do?”  This allowed her to more explicitly teach metacognition and it allowed her to draw out of her students answers to the question, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?”  If they answered it themselves, they were being metacognitive and they were getting answers to this important question.  If it worked. 

While she wondered about whether or not what she was doing could truly be classified as inquiry, she had confidence that it was more effective than what she used to do – stand at the overhead and literally crank through notes.  (The crank advanced the roller of transparency film).  She believed it was more effective for many reasons, but perhaps most importantly she saw a more clear connection among the different things she taught and it seemed her students did too.  Instead of identifying rocks and minerals for the sake of identifying rocks and minerals and learning something more broadly about taxonomies and dichotomous keys, students now had a purpose for identifying those things.  If they figured out what it was, then they also had a good idea of how it formed.  If they had a good idea of how it formed, they could use that to understand something about the history of a place.  They could use this understanding as part of a story, an unraveling mystery that they were active in unraveling themselves.  In this case that story also connected to the human history of the area.  This quarry provided the stone that built some of the oldest buildings in the county and at least the first one of those buildings was built by students working together with their professors.  This use of story provided a sense of wholeness that had been missing in her teaching. 

What the area looked like:

The area that was partially surrounded by those vertical rock walls had a flat floor that was largely moist but didn’t have any spots where the water was more than several centimeters deep.  Bare, flat rock was exposed in several places on the floor of this place.  She had paced some of it out to get a rough idea of the dimensions of the place and had taken several photographs. 

Her photographs showed the lay of the land for the larger area surrounding the spot.  All the hills were about the same height – it looked to the students that she was in the same region as where they lived, and a few recognized that her first pictures included a nearby university’s campus.  Once this word was out, students knew that it was in the same landscape region.  “That means it’s all sedimentary rock,” said Joe. 

This was confirmed by the presence of fossils in some of the samples.  As the students studied the rock samples, and the pictures of the cliff faces, you could here them working through rock ID tables.  “Is it a sandstone?”  Came one question.  “No, it’s too smooth.”  Came a quick reply.  “Look at how flat the sides are.  Are they crystal faces?”  “That’s one ugly crystal if they are.  Remember, the other piece looks a lot like this one, but it’s got fossils in it.  Oh look!  There’s a fossil on this one too!”  “Is it limestone?” “Should we do the acid test?”  They tested it and it fizzed.  Limestone it was.

One group wanted to know the coordinates immediately, and Ms. G. knew but she wouldn’t surrender that information without the students first having explained how the area in the pictures came to look the way it did.  They didn’t have much to say initially so she made them wait.  She knew they wanted to go to the computer and to the USGS map viewer.  Once they plugged in the coordinates, they’d see the quarry symbol on the map.  (The coordinates were: 75° 31’ 56” West, 42° 48’ 50” North.  (Stated in decimal degrees, -75.532 ; 42.814)). 

Another group was more focused on the pictures.  Katelyn said, “In 823, you can see rock layers, so it definitely looks like sedimentary rock.”  Ms. G was standing nearby and was glad they were sorting through the pictures as she’d hoped.  “It looks kind of like a gorge, but it looks like there’s only one side to it.”  “There’s not really anything that looks like a stream or a stream bed, but that might just be missing from the pictures.  That’s one thing to look for if we were able to go up there.”  “Or if we knew where it was on a topo map.”  “Ms. G!”  They got her attention.  “Can we look on a topo map?  We want to know if there’s a stream there that might have carved out a gorge.”  Ms. G responded, “That’s a good idea to investigate.  I want you to think a bit more before I give you the coordinates though.  I will tell you that it wasn’t a gorge.  It’s fairly close to the hill top you see here.”  She was pointing to a spot on one of the pictures taken from across the valley.  “Do you think a gorge would be on a hilltop?”

The group who had wanted the coordinates right off was moving somewhat slower than the other groups.  Ms. G wandered over to check in and maybe push them along a bit.  She asked, “What can you tell me?”  There were shrugs.  “What kind of rock is it?”  “Sedimentary” is mumbled.  “That’s right.  How do you know?”  Another mumble: “Fossils.”  At least she was getting some kind of answers and they were in very much the right direction, but she was frustrated that she had somehow asked these questions that allowed a one-word way out.  “Where did it go?” Ms. G asked.  “What do you mean?” came back.  “Well, when this rock formed, do you think it just formed all stacked up like this with an almost straight edge sticking out into the air or water or whatever it formed in?”  Justin said, “Who cares?”  Ooh.  They were a frustrating group, but Ms. G kept her cool.  “I thought maybe you did when you asked for the coordinates.  Come up with an answer that you can support using the information you have and I’ll give you the coordinates to look up on the Map Viewer.”  She moved on, hoping they’d try to figure it out. 

After letting the frustrating group hash it out a bit longer, Ms. G turned her last question for them to the whole class: “Where did the rock go?”  She got the same response as earlier, but from a different student.  “What do you mean?”  Justin chimed in, more favorably this time: “There doesn’t seem to be much of a stream to have washed it away, but it wouldn’t form just straight up like that, or at least not having that flat, bare rock right at the base of the cliff.  I think it’s an old quarry.”  From Katelyn’s group came an affirmation – “That’s why she wouldn’t let us look on the topo maps.  It’d be marked and give it away.  Can we bring it up on the map viewer now?”

Ms. G. had Audrey, from Katelyn’s group, bring the map viewer ( up on one of the computers and plugged in the coordinates.  “I knew it.  There’s the quarry symbol!”  Ms. G asked what else she could tell from the map.  “It’s on the Colgate campus, and there’s dirt road leading into it.  I’ll bet it’s where they got the stone for the campus buildings.”  Ms. G responded in the affirmative.  “Ok, we’ve figured out why it didn’t match the surrounding forest.  Now I want you to work through the questions on your sheet and I’ve got another set of questions that are more specific to the quarry.”Ó  She handed out a sheet with these questions:

  1. BulletWhy do you think the quarry was dug in this particular location? 

  2. BulletColgate’s added a lot of buildings in the last several years, and many of them are stone.  But this quarry has obviously been unused for many years.  Why do you think they stopped using it? 

  3. BulletImagine that Colgate has asked you to find a new quarry site for new science building they plan to construct.  Use the geologic and topographic maps to select another quarry site that would likely contain similar stone.  Together with your partners, write a proposal for siting the quarry in a particular location.  In your proposal, you should address not only the nature of the stone the quarry can produce but also at least three other factors that you determine to be important for siting the quarry.  Plan to present this to the rest of the class next week.  You may use either a poster or a PowerPoint presentation. 


  1. National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC.: National Academy Press.

  2. United States Geological Survey (2005 access date)  The National Map Viewer.  Washington, DC: USGS

virtual fieldwork vignette

The vignette takes the form of examples used in The National Science Education Standards -(National Research Council, 1996)-.  The vignette is a composite of experiences together with bits of fiction.  All names are fictitious.  The vignette is not intended to serve as a model of what to do but rather as food for thought. 

Back to the Virtual Fieldwork page.