Rocks Beneath Our Toes

January 3, 2011

This fall, a group of earth science undergraduates, under the supervision of Ethan F. Baxter, Associate Professor in the Earth Sciences Department, assisted high school students in learning modern geoscience procedures. Baxter runs the “Rocks Beneath Our Toes” (RoBOT), a high school outreach program sponsored by the National Science Foundation, currently in its fifth year. During the program, 10 high school students from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, alongside 12 undergraduate mineralogy students, analyzed the mineralogy and geological past of the rocks beneath their feet. The students gathered to examine rocks in the geological analytical facility in the Department of Earth Sciences on December 8.

“The idea was to get out the word to high school students about what modern geoscience research is all about. Specifically, what mineralogy and geochemistry are and their relevance in the big picture,” said Baxter.

RoBOT began early in the fall semester, with an introductory lecture by Professor Baxter on the role of geochemistry and mineralogy in Earth Systems. After identifying potential sampling locations in Acton, Mass., the RoBOT participants and Baxter’s Mineralogy undergraduates went off on a weekend trip to collect and document rock samples. Throughout the semester, the undergraduates worked on analyzing the samples, while RoBOT high school students performed background research on the geography and geology of the sample locations.

“Once we recruit a good high school group, we try to match each undergraduate with a high school student. The aim is that students experience exciting science without traveling very far. Many of our sampling locations are suggested by high school students,” said Baxter.

The research culminated when the teams reunited in December—each undergraduate explained the mineralogy process to his or her high school student, and they looked at their rock samples under a microscope. To broaden their appreciation of modern geochemical research, students also toured many of the facilities in the Department of Earth Sciences including the laser and thermal ionization mass spectrometry laboratories, the clean geochemical laboratory, and the high pressure experimental petrology laboratory.

Baxter suggested that after returning to Acton-Boxborough students complete a poster that describes the geological story of their particular rock.

“I liked Earth Science a lot and I thought this would be interesting to take it a little bit further. It was exciting to see everything that went on. It helps me realize that I want to be out and interacting with other people as a career,” said high school participant Sophie Durdom.

 View photos of the students' visit.

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