A Strategy for Teaching an Effective Undergraduate Mineralogy Course

By Swope, R. Jeffrey; Giere, Reto | Journal of Geoscience Education, January 2004 | Go to article overview

A Strategy for Teaching an Effective Undergraduate Mineralogy Course


Swope, R. Jeffrey, Giere, Reto, Journal of Geoscience Education


ABSTRACT

An effective undergraduate mineralogy course provides students with a familiarity and understanding of minerals that is necessary for studying the Earth. This paper describes our strategy for integrating the disparate topics covered in a mineralogy course and for presenting them in a way that facilitates an understanding of mineralogy that enables students to apply it in subsequent courses and research. Our strategy is to organize the course into a well-integrated sequence of lectures, demonstrations and laboratory exercises that unfolds the material logically and at a pace that is responsive to the students' needs. The course begins with six weeks on crystal chemistry, then five weeks covering analytical methods for characterizing minerals and ends with five weeks on the silicates. This order facilitates a progression of learning from the basic concepts to the more advanced and allows us to reinforce the concepts of crystal chemistry during the final section on the silicates. Optical mineralogy is almost entirely taught in the lab and is aided by use of a mineral identification chart developed to help students learn to identify minerals in thin section. Student performance is assessed through one technical paper and presentation as well as homework, essay exams and lab practicals.

INTRODUCTION

An effective course in mineralogy is essential for students to develop an understanding of the Earth. Most undergraduate geology programs in the U.S. include only one course in mineralogy or have consolidated mineralogy and petrology into a single course. Therefore, a well thought out strategy for enabling students to develop their understanding of the chemical and physical behavior of minerals is essential. The course material should be presented in a logical order and at an appropriate level and pace with the novice student in mind. Mineralogy should become one of the courses that students look forward to taking. Our goal is for each student to develop a sufficient understanding of minerals to effectively use and integrate it into other course work and in solving Earth-related problems.

Our undergraduate mineralogy course covers crystal chemistry, crystallography, descriptive mineralogy, mineral identification, and analytical methods including X-ray diffraction and electron microprobe analysis. Most mineralogy students have little background (usually one semester of chemistry and possibly one semester of physics) to tackle these often abstract topics. However, our students are quite excited and hopeful at the prospect of learning as much as possible about minerals. This optimism in the face of what is perceived as a difficult course speaks to how much geology students like rocks and minerals. We make every effort to nurture that initial optimism by (1) starting with a familiar topic, (2) presenting information in a logical sequence and at an appropriate pace, (3) working to make each class period a dynamic presentation, and (4) providing encouragement throughout the semester. The danger in letting their initial optimism dissipate is that students can become demoralized enough to negatively affect their learning and thus their ability to apply mineralogy in other classes.

Teaching an effective mineralogy course requires a viable strategy for presenting the course material in a logical, well-integrated fashion. Although there is no unique logical order for presenting materials in mineralogy, we suggest that some ways are more effective than others. For example, a common, but often unproductive way is to start the course with a detailed discussion of crystallography. This traditional approach is used by many textbooks (e.g., Nesse, 2000). However, because symmetry is an abstract and unfamiliar subject requiring lots of new terminology, most students initially have difficulty understanding its relevance. Starting with such an abstract topic is likely to frustrate already nervous students which tends to erode their confidence. …

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