Integration of New Methods into Teaching Mineralogy

By Dyar, M. Darby; Gunter, Mickey E. et al. | Journal of Geoscience Education, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Integration of New Methods into Teaching Mineralogy

Dyar, M. Darby, Gunter, Mickey E., Davis, John C., Odell, Michael R. L., Journal of Geoscience Education


Mineralogy is usually the first geology course taken by students above the 100 level, and as such it is a vital building block for geology curricula. In recent years the number of mineralogists has declined, the relevance of the field has been questioned, and as a result the course has often been taught by less than enthusiastic non-specialists in the field. We believe that the key to restructuring mineralogy involves setting reasonable, prioritized course goals and employing (at least) four modern pedagogical learning methods: spiral learning, inquiry-based learning, concept maps, and use of interactive models and visualization. We present here a revised mineralogy curriculum that benefits from reflections on appropriate content and on these new learning methods and teaching styles.


Mineralogy is of fundamental importance to the geosciences (solid earth, planetary, soil, hydrological, environmental, and ocean sciences) because the composition, structure, and physical properties of minerals ultimately control natural chemical and mechanical processes. Mineralogy has traditionally been one of the cornerstones of the geoscience curriculum, but recent trends in the job market, coupled with an explosion of new knowledge in all disciplines, have called into question the relevancy of the traditional curriculum. For example, Dr. Gordon Eaton, former Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, has been critical of the geoscience curriculum in a number of forums. Mineralogy in particular (along with the related disciplines of petrology and geochemistry) has been singled out as an example of arcane, irrelevant knowledge (Eaton, 1994, 1995). His main point of contention is that this curriculum is more than 100 years old, and it has mainly been directed toward training of geologists for work in the extractive resource industries, whereas current employment trends require training in fields such as hydrology, education, engineering, and environmental geology. In light of demands to add new, practical components to the curriculum, hard decisions have to be made about which courses (or concepts, or methods) should be deleted or compressed to meet the contemporary needs of our students in their professional development.

However, as much as reforms are needed, one has to ask the question "Can any geoscience discipline be adequately explored or applied without a basic knowledge of the materials of the Earth?" We cannot hope to understand how the Earth and other planets work if we do not know what they are made of! Whether representing melting reactions near the Moho on a pressure-temperature diagram, or examining Eh-pH relations that control acid mine drainage while using minerals to immobilize hazardous waste, the relationships between minerals and their local environments have important implications for all geosciences and for society. Ignorance of mineralogy has cost our society dearly, as witnessed by the asbestos problem of the 1980's (Gunter, 1994) and, more recently, the ruling that quartz is a human carcinogen (Gunter, 1999). Mineralogy is also particularly needed by K-12 educators: the first questions asked by students about geology are usually fundamentally grounded in mineralogy, such as "What mineral is this?" The problem is not that mineralogy is irrelevant, but rather that new methods and materials for teaching mineralogy are needed to demonstrate fundamental principles. We need to present this information in meaningful contexts to create a better learning environment. In this paper, we address our own attempts at facing these challenges.

When we started teaching mineralogy, each of us taught the course the way we had learned it as students. The course is usually taught as a series of subjects (crystallography, crystal chemistry, classification, etc.) in a very linear fashion, starting with a set of supposedly simple material and progressing in a straight line to complex material. …

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