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Lesson 3: GeoSleuth Schoolyard


The main goal of this lesson is to get students familiar with the idea that geology is something tangible and that it affects the world around them. They should be inspired to ask questions about how geologic processes shaped the world around them and make observations to answer those questions. All of this on their schoolyard.

During the introductory activity, students learn that geology is a lot like detective work. Geologists infer the sequence and timing of events by collecting evidence and making observations, just like a detective. Students first make observations of a murder mystery. Then, they try to use simple principles to develop a story that is consistent with these observations. Many of the principles they use in the murder mystery are exactly the same as a geologist uses in determining the history of a landscape. Photographs relate the murder mystery to real geology.

Teachers can then take their students outside to explore their new found geologic interpretation skills. Because every schoolyard is slightly different, teachers will need to adapt this excursion to their own unique setting. The rest of the web site is a collection of example geologic features that might have analogs in the schoolyard. Teachers should browse the images and walk around their schoolyard looking for similar features. It also has links to background information and classroom activities about those features that serve as a jumping off point for teaching a wide variety of topics in earth science. A teacher could plan a single fifty minute field trip to the schoolyard to explore all the features, or use images from this section throughout their entire earth science unit.

Learning Outcomes

Students relate geologic concepts to observations and processes that are familiar from the schoolyard.

Materials A schoolyard and some creativity.
Time Requirements Varies. Most of these features can be integrated into other lessons as short 15 minute field trips to the schoolyard to introduce a unit covering a topic in geology. Each individual topic also includes a variety of activities for further exploration that can take 1-2 class periods each.
Science Standards Varies. Click on each feature to find out which standards it addresses.

Opening Activity Drawing of room for GeoSleuth detective GeoSleuth Murder Mystery

To get students familiar with the idea that geology is something tangible, try out this activity. It introduces a series of fundamental geological ideas (geologic time including superposition & cross-cutting relations, observations versus interpretations, physical processes, and more). And, it's a lot of fun!

Click here for instructions and a short teacher's guide on this activity.

Instructions Before class, review the example schoolyard features shown in the table below. Then, go exploring your schoolyard for interesting features on your schoolyard. They might be quite similar to our examples, or they might be completely different. Every crack in the sidewalk can be a teachable moment because every crack is evidence of some physical process, so be creative! Note that many of the example pages have related classroom activities that you may want to consider doing before or after your field trip.

Take your students on a field trip to the schoolyard. The trip may take half a class period or much longer.

  • Guide them to some of the features you selected earlier.
  • At each stop on the field trip, get students thinking about what they see. Ask them to begin by making detailed observations. For older students, this may include 3-5 minutes of "free time" to wander around and look closely at the pavement or other surface of interest. For younger students, you may want to sit the class in a large circle around the feature. Solicit observations from students, and correct them if they incorrectly give you too much interpretation about what happened (It's important to keep observations and interpretation separate!).
  • Then, guide them slowly into discussing what they think the sequence of events was that formed this feature.
  • Using printouts of photos from the web (either this site or others), show a geological analog. Explain how the schoolyard feature formed by a similar process to the real geological feature. Our glacial striations page shows a good example of how processes on the schoolyard are similar to processes in nature.
  • Then, explain how they might be different. A good example of differences comes from our fossil page. In the schoolyard, the tree that dropped its leaves when the concrete was wet is still alive. For some fossils, the species of organism recorded by the fossil may be extinct and might no longer exist. Further, the climate might have completely changed so that you can find fossils of ferns in the modern-day desert.
  • You can take a single field trip to many features, or take several field trips throughout the school year.


On a class trip out on to schoolyard, look for features like these. (Click on each image for a schoolyard example and one of a geologist in action.)

Image of a cornerstone made out of rock
Ages of Rocks

Photograph of dinosaur tracks
Dinosaur Tracks

Photograph of fossilized fern

Photograph of glacially striated rock
Glacial Striations

Image of Grand Canyon showing layers on top of layers
Layers on top of layers

Photograph of rock layer cutting across other layers
Cutting across layers

Image of sinkhole


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