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January 17, 2007

Pint-sized geologists 'rock' in GeoKids

By Lisa Trei

On a sunny winter morning, 40 first graders from Santa Rita Elementary School in Los Altos squirmed as they sat on the steps behind Mitchell Earth Sciences Building. Jennifer Saltzman, outreach coordinator for the School of Earth Sciences, asked her young visitors why soil is important. "We grow vegetables in it," one boy answered. A girl ventured: "Plants put roots down in it so they don't fall over when there's a big wind." Saltzman enthusiastically applauded her audience's knowledge of dirt.

It was the beginning of an action-packed morning on Nov. 30 for students participating in an innovative outreach program that Adina Paytan, assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences, has designed to give children firsthand experience in the life of a geologist. "Geology is part of first-grade science standards," she said. "Our program encompasses all the basics of science—observation, quantitative analysis and deduction. The children see what grownups and scientists do and how it relates to them. It makes science more of a thing that real people do [instead of] something done by a crazy person with big hair and thick glasses wearing a lab coat."

Paytan started the program six years ago when her own daughter was a first-grader at Almond Elementary in Los Altos. During a parent-teacher conference at the start of the school year, Paytan learned that geology was part of the first-grade curriculum. "Since I was in the Geology Department I thought it would be nice to organize something here," she said. The first year, all four first-grade classes at Almond trooped over to campus—80 students in all—and GeoKids took off.

"It's an important thing for Stanford to be connected to the community," Paytan said. "This kind of outreach involves a lot of interdisciplinary thinking and it is exactly what is being called for in The Stanford Challenge concerning K-12 education and the future of this nation."

The free program, which almost all Palo Alto first-graders attend but which is open to other area school districts as well, has become so popular that a lottery may be needed next year to assign field-trip time slots. "GeoKids is successful because it's so interactive," said Saltzman, who now runs the program. "It's not just someone talking at the kids and then showing a video. They're really involved. They're also seeing graduate students, young adults, working as scientists." The School of Earth Sciences also runs a high school summer internship launched by Paytan and developed by Saltzman, as well as K-12 teacher workshops and a community lecture series.

GeoKids is designed with 6-year-old attention spans and interests in mind. Think lots of bugs and dirt. Four stations introduce students to minerals, rocks, fossils and soil. The children are divided into groups and spend 20 minutes at each station led by graduate-student volunteers. The participants use an official "Geology Field Book" to record their observations at each station, just like real geologists, Saltzman said.

Following Saltzman's introduction to the program, the Los Altos first-graders were split into groups of 10 and trooped off to the four labs. Carole Flores, a veteran teacher at Santa Rita Elementary, led some of her first-graders to the soil lab, where they looked for insects, rocks and leaves in a dirt-filled container while other children painted watercolors using red, yellow, brown and black mineral powders. Flores asked her charges to handle a tiny snail and a pillbug gently, and made sure they didn't fling dirt out of the tub. "This program is very well put together. We do a lot of hands-on things," she said. "I think it really adds to their overall educational experience. And it's just fun to come to Stanford."

Flores' group then trooped off to the rock lab, where graduate student Nick Van Buer explained how rocks are formed and how to identify igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. "This is fun, especially when the kids figure out something on their own," said Van Buer, who studies how mountains are formed. "Geology is essentially looking at rocks and thinking about them."

Hongbin Cao, a researcher in the Department of Radiation Oncology, followed along as her 6-year-old daughter, Jasmine Shen, listened intently to graduate student Melanie Thompson compliment the group on their rock-identifying skills. "It's very interesting; I'm also learning," said Cao, a native of China. "It's very different from my school. When I was a kid we only listened to the teacher. This is really fun."

After completing two hands-on labs, it was time to work out any first-grade fidgets, so the children met on the grass outside the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences to play a game aptly named "Volcano." Within a few moments, Van Buer had transformed the children into molecules that became increasingly active as they heated up until they exploded out of a make-believe volcano as lava. Then the kids cooled down until they froze back into rocks. Several games of "Volcano" left the children breathless and happy but ready for more learning.

In the third lab, Flores' group learned from graduate student Karen Knee how plants and animals are preserved in rocks as fossils. The children made their own fossils by printing shells onto clay and pretending that 1,000 years had passed. In the final lab, which was held on the second floor of Mitchell, where a mineral collection is displayed, the first-graders learned from graduate students Andrea Erhardt and Liz Clark that minerals have different colors and hardnesses.

By the end of the morning, the children were ready to head back to school armed with their watercolor paintings and handmade fossils. "It's a fun time here. I like being a geologist," said 6-year-old Natalie Caloca.

GeoKids is booked for the remainder of the 2006-07 academic year. Reservations for the upcoming year can be booked in early September 2007.



Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Adina Paytan, Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences: (650) 724-4073,

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