Initial Publication Date: October 16, 2014

Joy Branlund: How Humans' Dependence on Earth's Mineral Resources meets a community college's general-education goals, at Southwestern Illinois College

About this Course

An introductory Earth Science course primarily comprised of non-science majors.


Two 95-minute lecture
One 2-hour lab

Community college

Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 281kB Oct30 13)

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

Although I'm a geologist, I had a hard time making rocks and minerals exciting and relevant when only given a two-week window of my Earth Science class, so I used to avoid them as much as possible (in fact, I spent only two days on the subject). The Human's Dependence on Earth's Mineral Resources module brought rocks and minerals back into my classroom, making them interesting and very relevant to students. Students were especially fascinated to learn what minerals were in products they use (and eat!) everyday and to learn about mining, including its benefits and its environmental consequences. The module requires students to interweave many aspects of society with mining and mineral use, and to draw on information taught in other classes (such as economics and chemistry).

For the students, the module content was challenging, requiring students draw concept maps, draw and interpret graphs and maps, and apply knowledge to different settings. Nonetheless, students were successful and remained engaged.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

The module activity was composed of a variety of activities, mostly switching between group and whole-class discussions within the two weeks. All student materials are included in the module. Choices are provided to allow instructors to cater the module to their courses; some materials can be adapted to apply to local mining issues and/or current events. The module provides support for instructors, including resources on both content and pedagogy.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

The active, student-centered teaching techniques used in the module fit well with my teaching style, so it was easy to insert the module into the course (in between plate tectonics and discussion of geologic time and dating). I completed the module in the order indicated. For all units, I gave students study guides (click to open a sample study guide) (Acrobat (PDF) 119kB Oct30 13) listing the questions students should be able to answer and vocabulary they should be able to use, assigned the background readings, and then quizzed students at the beginning of class on the questions and vocabulary. (I use this format throughout the semester; students can use notes they've written on the reading on these quizzes and can ask questions about the material before the quiz.)

Some general tips for using this module include:

  • Manage time wisely! Give strict time limits for the mineral and products activity (Unit 1) and group activities. Some student groups took a very long time with Part 2 of the Unit 2 battery activity, so giving a time limit for this section of the activity would help ensure completion of the activity in a timely manner.
  • Require students to prepare for class. I posted readings and videos that students could read/view before class. This freed up a lot of class time. (For example, in Unit 6 I didn't need to give any background on phosphate use and mining before students were set loose on their group activities.)
  • All of the topics (units) can be covered in two weeks, but it is impossible to do all of the included activities during class time, especially if an instructor only wants to spend six 50-minute classes on this module. Pick and choose activities accordingly, and leave some time for discussion of background reading, discussion of homework and activities, and for reviewing concepts already learned.


The concept map was assigned on the first day of the module, and students each picked a different mineral resource. This was most successful when (a) we introduced concept mapping earlier in the semester and continued practicing, and (b) when I worked out at least two portions of the halite map in front of the class. On the first day, on a large piece of flip chart paper, I drew portions of the halite map that deal with minerals (Unit 1 concepts). This paper was hung in front of the class on the day we addressed sedimentary rocks, and then I added another piece of paper and more about sedimentary rocks to the map. The assessment (as now posted) does ask a lot from students, and my students seemed to do very well on one (but not all) aspects of the concept map. However, anecdotally, students seemed to enjoy linking the module to a mineral resource of their choice.

Two of the activities were used as lab activities. This allowed me to incorporate more of the module activities into the course, and also gave students a grade incentive to do well on the activities. In these (and several of my other labs), I allow students to revise answers, which promotes more thinking and (ideally) learning.

The exam questions included as summative assessments were also included both in unit exams and the final exam.


I expected students to learn the geologic processes and rock types, to be able to explain (at least some of) the array of people, places, and environments impacted (both positively and negatively) by mineral resource extraction and use, and to evaluate how their own consumption patterns play a role. As expected, student interest in the subject has increased with use of the module (as opposed to the standard rocks and minerals presentation). Students still have a hard time understanding rock-forming processes (due to the short time in which they are addressed, or the fact that these processes are abstract to many urban/suburban students), but they did seem to get a taste of how mineral resource use here impacts people and environments globally. Their understanding of the entire system (and the true consequences of their own actions) was still small, though, but seemingly a good foundation on which to build.

Of the vocal students, about half were quite excited about what was being taught in the module (where their products come from, the impacts of mining and mineral resource use, etc.), whereas the other half were mentally exhausted and ready to move on. I suspect that this resulted partly from their separation from the rock-forming processes that we were trying to study (these concepts were conceptually unfamiliar, and this contributed to the mental exhaustion).