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Using Museums in Earth Science Teaching: A Cooperative Effort Between Schools and Museums

Merethe Frøyland, University of Oslo Museenes skoletjeneste de naturhistoriske museer
March 02, 1998 | FOSS Partnerships

Editor's Note: I met Merethe Frøyland this past July at the Second International GeoSciEd II conference in Hilo, Hawaii. Merethe introduced herself after she heard my introduction to a poster session I was doing on FOSS Earth Science. She was thrilled to meet someone who had been involved in the development of FOSS K-6. I was equally excited to meet someone who was using FOSS in another country. Merethe met Dr. Larry Lowery during a visit he made to Norway several years ago. During the visit, he presented the FOSS program to a group of Norwegian educators. Merethe became familiar with the FOSS philosophy, the scientific thinking processes, and the methods employed in FOSS activities. As part of Merethe's doctoral project at the University of Oslo, she is working cooperatively with The Norwegian Mining Museum in the development of an education program for elementary school students called GEOMUSA. She decided to use the FOSS Earth Materials Module as part of this program. The following article is an abridged version of her report. --Sue Jagoda


Norwegian Museums are traditional museums characterized by few interactive exhibits and large numbers of objects guarded by "Don't Touch" signs. Museum visitor studies show that this type of exhibition is not ideal for promoting visitor learning (Crane, et al, 1994). However, traditional museums have the potential to function as "extended classrooms," making important contributions to learning for visiting school groups. The Norwegian Mining Museum is a traditional museum located close to the famous silver mines in Kongsberg. As a visitor you walk around and look at the exhibits, but you are not allowed to touch or manipulate them. The only sense you employ is your eyesight. The museum has different exhibitions of Norwegian minerals, silver from the silver mines, and mining history. As an extension to your museum visit, you can visit the nearby silver mines.

The Norwegian Mining Museum and GEOMUSA

GEOMUSA is a teaching program for students in elementary school, developed in cooperation with the Norwegian Mining Museum. It uses the mineral exhibition, silver exhibition, and the mines. The subject for GEOMUSA is minerals and their properties and the history of silver mining.

The museum's mineral exhibition displays the beauty and variety of Norwegian minerals. For example, the different colours of quartz and the different crystal shapes of calcite are on display. The exhibition may teach students about the multitude of common minerals and give them an appreciation for the beauty of minerals.

To best appreciate this exhibition, it is important that students have basic knowledge of mineral characteristics. They need to know what a mineral is and that minerals have different properties. To prepare the students for the museum visit we chose an American teaching program called Earth Materials. This is a module from the Full Option Science System (FOSS). FOSS springs from the philosophy of the Lawrence Hall of Science, a philosophy that has guided much of science curriculum development for more than 30 years.

The students enjoy their experiences with the Earth Materials Module. It gives them some basic knowledge in earth science. Upon completion of the module, the students are ready for a more in-depth experience with the rocks and minerals native to Norway as displayed at the museum.

One of the goals of the GEOMUSA program is to have the students become skilled at identifying rocks in the field. Rocks are very diverse. Students need multiple experiences with different minerals and rocks to be able to identify them in the field on their own. A traditional museum of earth science has both collections and exhibitions displaying a multitude of rocks and minerals, extending the classroom experience. They also have museum staff and geologists who usually know of nearby locations where students can observe and sometimes collect rocks and minerals.

GEOMUSA uses the teaching potential of the museum. If students use Earth Materials in school to gain basic knowledge in earth science and then encounter GEOMUSA in the museum to learn and experience the diversity of minerals, they will be prepared for using their knowledge in the field. What is important here is that students can use this knowledge in their daily lives outside school. Combining GEOMUSA with the Earth Materials experience makes the museum visit an extended classroom experience for the students.

Earth Science in Norway

In the Norwegian curriculum for elementary schools, rocks, minerals and their properties are topics for 5th grade. Thus, Earth Materials and GEOMUSA together are particularly well suited for 5th graders. GEOMUSA uses the same educational pedagogy as FOSS and is based on the knowledge students have attained in the Earth Materials Module.

Earth Materials teaches students the difference between minerals and rocks and how to use acid for identifying calcite and hardness for identifying quartz, calcite, gypsum, and fluorite. In GEOMUSA they learn more about mineral properties and techniques for identifying minerals, such as colour, crystal shapes, cleavage, and lustre. The idea of GEOMUSA is to extend students' experience in earth science and hopefully make them more able to identify minerals in the field.

The Museum as an Extended Classroom

To function as an extended classroom, museums need to have a program that fits the national curriculum, built on what students are doing in the classroom. This is what GEOMUSA is designed to do.

GEOMUSA has two steps, a museum segment and a mine segment. In the museum segment of GEOMUSA, students are encouraged to explore and identify the properties of minerals. They also learn new techniques for identifying minerals. In the mine segment, GEOMUSA encourages students to use in the field what they have learned in Earth Materials and the museum segment of GEOMUSA. Students also learn how people in earlier times have used this knowledge to find silver in the Kongsberg area. Students do all these activities in two days, one day at the museum and one day in the mines.

At the Museum

In the mineral exhibition of the museum, a collection of minerals is made available for the students to touch, look at, examine, and break apart. We call this "the public collection." We have put some tables and chairs in the mineral exhibition room at which the students work. We want them to experience the museum atmosphere, totally different from the atmosphere in their classroom.


Students break minerals with a hammer and count cleavage planes.

As in the Earth Materials Module, each student in GEOMUSA is given a notebook for writing observations and conclusions. Students work in groups of four. Each group member contributes to the data collection, data analysis, and reports of results. The museum segment of GEOMUSA has four activities. These activities introduce students to other mineral properties including crystal shape, lustre, and colour. In GEOMUSA, students learn how to conduct tests of these properties to identify a mineral.

The Mine Segment

The mine segment includes two activities.

  • Firesetting: Earth science is combined with cultural history to show students that earth science is a segment of our history and our daily life.
  • Going for silver: Students are given some practice in using their earth science knowledge in the field.


Students are introduced to the silver mine history from the 15th century when the miners were using firesetting instead of dynamite. Museum staff prepare the mine for firesetting the day before, so when the students arrive the rock inside the mine is loose.

Under supervision, students use hammers and chisels to break loose rock from the walls inside the mine. Other students pick up the rocks from the ground and carry them outside. When the mine is cleaned, students carry wood inside, put it up against the wall, and start a new fire. After a while the mine is filled up with smoke. Suddenly you can hear the rock starting to crack and small pieces of rock falling down. After a few hours the fire has burned down, and the mine is ready for breaking down the loose rock again. This method, called firesetting, was used until 1890 when it was forbidden by law (due to its negative effect on the miners' health).


Students use hammer and chisel to break loose rock from the walls inside the Kongsberg silver mine.

Going for Silver

After lunch the students are taken to another silver mine to look for silver. The silver usually occurs in calcite veins together with fluorite, quartz, and pyrite. The students have learned about all these minerals and their properties both in the Earth Materials Module and in the museum segment of GEOMUSA.

Students work in groups of five. Each group member looks for one property. One student uses acid to identify calcite, one uses a hammer to look for cleavage, one uses a knife to test hardness, another looks for colour, and another for lustre. We want them to use all they have learned in the Earth Materials Module and GEOMUSA to give them some practice in a "real" field setting. At the same time they experience what miners were doing when searching for silver in the old times.

Research and Conclusions

As part of the research project, pre- and post-tests were conducted to help assess student learning in the GEOMUSA project. The test was given to 200 Norwegian students in grades 3-7, half of whom had gone through both the Earth Materials Module and the museum program. It was also administered to 18 students from the University of Oslo who had been studying earth science for at least 1.5 years. The test was designed to particularly assess the language acquired and used by students and their ability to use what they learned in a field experience. The following are some observations and conclusions from the study.


Students use acid to identify calcite.

  • Most of the students used several concepts they had learned both in Earth Materials and GEOMUSA to describe rock and mineral samples.
  • No students from the university did the test as well as the best students in the 5th grade!
  • It seems to be hard for some students to understand that rocks are made of minerals. Some students seem to think that rocks are similar to a box in which you can find minerals inside. They write that there are minerals within rocks. This could be a language problem in Norwegian.
  • It seems to be difficult for most of the students to understand that, because rocks are made of several minerals with different properties, a rock has several properties. They describe the granite sample with only one hardness, only one lustre, and so on. However, they usually describe the granite with different colours and use this to conclude that the granite is made of several minerals.
  • Students were able to explain more about what they knew about the rock and mineral samples during an interview session.
  • Several basic concepts in earth science, like the definitions of a mineral and a rock, are not understood completely by the students. Even the university students had trouble.
  • The teachers told me that this was a new teaching method for them, but they loved it and they wanted to use this in other subject.
  • The students asked the teachers to do similar projects like the "stone project."
  • One teacher wrote after the second test: "I (would) like to express my enthusiasm by citing one of my most tough and negative pupils...'thank you for what you have (taught) me.'"
  • The tests show that the elementary grade students have learned a lot from going through this teaching project when compared with the university students who were tested. Moreover, the findings indicate that the Earth Materials Module together with GEOMUSA gives students the experience they need in order to apply their knowledge of rocks and minerals in the field.


  • Crane, V.; Nicholson, H.; Chen, M.; and Bitgood, S. (1994): Informal Science Learning - What the Researcher Says about Television, Science Museums, and Community-Based Projects. 281 pp.

To get further information about Merethe Frøyland's work with GEOMUSA you can reach her at the Norwegian Museum Authority, Ullevålsveien 11, N-0165 Oslo, NORWAY. Tel: +47 22 11 00 50. Fax: +47 22 11 00 74, e-mail: