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Natural Resources Mini-Research Project

Emily Pope, Stanford University
Hannah Scherer, Stanford University
Anne Egger, Stanford University


In this activity, students are given a brief introduction to the breadth and diversity of natural resources, and then separated into small groups. Each group conducts literature research on a specific topic relating to natural resources, creates a five minute presentation on their topic, and then presents it to the class. Through their own research, students learn that we use more resources from the Earth than oil, that all resources we use are finite, and their extraction and use have a variety of impacts.

Open pit mine.

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Learning Goals

At the end of this activity, students will be able to:
  1. Describe what non-fuel resources are mined from the Earth, and what they are used for
  2. Quantify the impact of mineral and rock resources on society and the environment
  3. Estimate the rate of loss in non-renewable resources on a human time-scale

Context for Use

This activity is most appropriate for a college introductory level geology course. The purpose behind the activity is not to go into great detail about economic geology or mineral resources, but to give students a taste of the variety of earth materials we use as natural resources, and the social, environmental, political, and scientific aspects of the extracting and using those resources.

This activity works best as a small group project (group sizes of 2 or 3), and so has limits on appropriate class sizes in which this is applicable. Larger groups or more topics can facilitate larger class sizes, but one must consider the amount of time that presentations will take, and how much each group member can contribute if the groups become too large.

The amount of class time that is dedicated to this assignment is also negotiable; it can be assigned as an out of class project, where presentations are the only in-class aspect, or students can have time within the class period to perform the research for their projects. The framework for this activity is quite flexible - it can be easily adapted to suit the needs of almost any class format.

Teaching Materials

Choreography for the assignment introduction (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 37kB Jul10 08)
This activity begins with a brief introduction by the professor - a kind of brainstorming session in which a working definition of natural resources is developed and students come up with as many different kinds of natural resources as they can think of (see Choreography document). The point is to establish the diversity of resources and the fact that every facet of our lives is dependent on natural resources. This discussion can be as long or short as the professor wishes, but will for the basis for the assignment.

Assignment handout (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 23kB Jul10 08)
The assignment handout describes what students will do and lists several potential topics. Students form small groups, each group will select a topic and will research it (internet research is fine). Depending on the length of class periods, later that day or at the next class, students will regroup and give short presentations to the class on what they learned. What is due is the powerpoint presentation and a list of references for their research.

Predicting amount of remaining metal resources using USGS data (Excel PRIVATE FILE 516kB Jul10 08)
This is an excel spreadsheet with data from the USGS Minerals Information website. Using this spreadsheet, students can predict how many years are left before we run out of different metals given our average consumption rates. They can find out what these metals are used for at the USGS website.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The topics listed in the assignment handout are fairly broad. One thing that worked well for students was also giving them a separate description of their topic once they had chosen it. This sheet could include leading questions to help them focus their research, and some good starting resources (like directing them to usgs.gov).

Alternatively, the professor could provide a broad overview of these topics, and then assign students topics more relevant to where their from. For example in a version of this activity taught in Colorado, each of the topics students researched was related to a local natural resource issue.

How much students get out of this project varies. It depends mostly on how much effort they put into their research. In general, it seemed the more direction students had for their project, the more successful it was, so being available for questions, and making sure the topics you assign are appropriately focused, as well as being clear about what students should do with any data sets they are given, really helps them in getting something out of the activity, and effectively presenting what they learned to the rest of the class.


Students turn in a PowerPoint presentation and hand-out for their group.

References and Resources


Environmental Science:Forest Resources, Oceans and Coastal Resources, Geoscience:Oceanography:Marine Resources, Environmental Science:Mineral Resources

Resource Type

Activities:Lab Activity

Special Interest

Global/National Issue

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14)


Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Minerals, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Oceanography, Environmental Science