2. History of Rock

Every rock holds clues about how it formed. Geologists are like rock detectives who know how to read the clues about a rock’s origins and the stories it can tell. In this activity, students first become specialists in one type of rock. Then, they meet specialists in other rock types to compare their rocks and teach the others about their rock’s history. This lesson is an opportunity for students to consolidate information from the previous lesson on the rock cycle, and begin to think like geologists. Ideally, the rocks selected for investigation are collected from the site of an upcoming geology field trip – such as to the Caldecott Tunnel or Mount Diablo. In this way, students gain experience identifying individual rocks and learning about the way in which each of the different rock types form. Then, on the field trip, students can apply their controlled classroom knowledge to real world geological history.

Types of rocks


Can describe the 3 major types of rock (sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous) and discuss the relationships between them
Can make careful observations of rocks, including conducting tests for hardness
Can use observations to identify an unknown rock as sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous
Can describe the geologic processes that formed each of the 3 major types of rock

Sedimentary rock
Metamorphic rock
Igneous rock

Attachment Size
rock_data_sheet.doc 20 KB
2compare_rocks_v2.doc 73 KB

2. History of Rock - Logistics

5 min introduction
15 min make observations and become experts
20-30 min rearrange into new groups, share expertise, and compare rocks

Students will begin in teams organized by rock type. They will become specialists on that one type of rock. They will then rearrange into teams with one representative of each rock type and will compare their rocks and tell each other the histories of the rock they studied.


  • Several samples of rock from the field trip site you intend to visit. In my classes, to prepare for the Caldecott Tunnel field trip, I used mudstone, sandstone, conglomerate, granite and basalt. You need one rock per student, and an equal number of rocks of each type – for instance, if you have 25 students in your class and 5 different types of rock, you will need 5 samples of each type of rock for a total of 25 rocks.
  • Copy of the Rock History Data Sheet for each student.
  • Penny, one for each rock type
  • Butter knife or glass slide, one for each rock type
  • Optional: steel file, one for each rock type
  • Optional: hand lenses


2. History of Rock - Background

Teacher Background
In my classes, I used this lesson to prepare students for the Caldecott Tunnel field trip. Therefore, the rocks described in the teacher background section relate to those found in the cliffs of the Berkeley and Oakland hills. Additional sources for identifying common rocks that might be found in your backyard are provided in the Sources section. What follows is a brief introduction to sandstone, mudstone, conglomerate, basalt and granite.

**A special note on hardness testing**
Hardness testing is an easy test to determine the relative abrasion resistance of different minerals and rocks. Using an index material, like a fingernail with a hardness of 2.5, if your fingernail can scratch the surface of the rock you are testing, the rock has a hardness of less than 2.5. However, if the rock can scratch the surface of your fingernail, then the rock has a hardness of more than 2.5. By using a variety of common objects for comparison (fingernail – 2.5, penny – 3.5, butter knife or glass – 5.5, steel file – 6.5) you can easily approximate the hardness of your mystery rock. Unfortunately for this lesson, hardness tests are most useful for minerals that are composed of a pure substance of uniform density. In contrast, the hardness of a rock that is composed of a mixture of minerals will vary depending on the type of minerals in the rock and also how tightly bound the particles are to one another. For instance, a sandstone may be composed mainly of quartz grains with a hardness of 7 that can scratch steel, yet the rock itself might crumble in your hand. Thus, while hardness testing is a standard skill for geologists that want to know the mineral content of a rock, don’t rely on the measurements to identify the rock itself.

Sandstone is probably the most well known of the sedimentary rocks. It varies in color from red to brown, grey to white, sometimes with a tinge of green or yellow. It is usually composed of rounded sand particles that are medium grained, approximately the texture of beach sand. Sand is produced from the weathering of other rocks (like granite, sandstone and basalt). The sediment in a sandstone may have come from a sandbar along a river, an ocean beach, or desert sand dunes. As more and more sand layers accumulate on top on one another, the weight of the topmost layers compacts the sediment into rock. Often, minerals dissolved in water seeps down into the sandstone, cementing the rock together. The hardness varies greatly, between 2-7, depending on how tightly the sediment was compacted and cemented together.

Mudstone is a sedimentary rock similar to sandstone except that it is made of clay and silt-sized particles. The grains are generally indistinguishable from one another with the naked eye. Technically, mudstone is a mixture of clay and silt-sized particles. Shale is entirely clay-sized particles while siltstone is entirely silt-sized particles. It forms in areas such as lakes, deltas and flood plains where water slows to a near standstill and the smallest particles of trapped sediments are able to be deposited. The hardness is generally low, between 2-3.

Conglomerate is a sedimentary rock similar to sandstone except that it contains chunks of rounded rocks and gravel. These are formed in fast-moving rivers where the water washes away all but the largest rocks. The hardness varies greatly, between 2-7, depending on how tightly the sediment was compacted and cemented together.

Basalt is the most common type of rock on the Earth’s surface. Most of the ocean floor is composed of basalt. It is an igneous rock, formed from magma that cools at the Earth’s surface as it erupts from a volcano. It is generally dark in color, from black to dark grey although the rocks near Caldecott Tunnel are weathered to a dark red-brown. It has a hardness of 5-6 and is so fine grained that you need a microscope to be able to see the crystallization pattern. If it cools quickly, it forms a glassy, obsidian surface. Often, air pockets develop within the basalt as it cools, creating a distinctive holey texture like a sea sponge.  

Granite is rapidly becoming the favorite surfacing material in kitchens. It comes in nearly every color of the rainbow, from pink to green to brown to black to white depending on the minerals and inclusions in the rock. The most distinctive feature of granite is crystals of varying color and size, randomly distributed throughout the rock. Granite is very hard, between 6-8 on the Moh’s hardness scale. It forms deep under the Earth’s crust as balloons of magma become trapped under the crust and slowly cools over thousands of years. Thus, granite often forms near subduction zones, where old crust is melted and rises up under the continental shelf. Most of the Sierra Nevadas is made of granite.

Student Prerequisites

A clear understanding of the rock cycle. See the Crayon Rock Cycle lesson.

2. History of Rock - Getting Ready

Getting Ready

  1. Make copies of the Rock History Data Sheet.
  2. Collect rock samples.
  3. Collect rock observation tools: hardness testing materials and hand lenses.

2. History of Rock - Lesson Plan

Lesson Plan

  1. Describe the goals of the day – to become an expert on a specific type of rock then share that expertise with other students in small groups.
  2. Divide students into teams. A fun way to do this is to hand each student a rock when they walk through the door. Tell them not to show their rock to anyone. Once everyone has arrived, have them write down 5 observations about their rock on a sheet of paper. Silently, they should try to find the others with the same rock type based on the observations they wrote down. When everyone is sorted, they should reveal their rocks to see if they are in the right group.
  3. Give each group a set of rocks of the same type and a Rock History Data Sheet. Carefully go over the observations the students need to make, particularly the procedure for hardness testing. Allow at least 15 minutes for students to make their observations and to discuss and describe their rock’s history in as much detail as possible. As they work, circulate among the groups, giving assistance where needed.
  4. When all groups are finished, have students number off within the groups and rearrange them into new teams with one expert on each type of rock.
  5. The first task is for each rock expert to introduce their rock to the other students. Each student should present their observations and the history of their rock.
  6. The second task is to set out all the rocks and make comparisons. Instruct each group should create a summary table comparing the different rocks. If students struggle with making a table, you might want to help them get organized by creating an example table on the board at the front of the room. For instance:       
      Basalt Granite  Mudstone  Sandstone  Conglomerate 
    Grain Size          
    Crystal Size           


  7. Have each group turn in their summary table at the end of the period. If you are planning a geology field trip to visit these rocks in the field, these tables become very useful to remind students of how to identify them.

2. History of Rock - Assessments


  1. The summary tables and data sheets may be collected and graded.
  2. A quiz on different rocks and their formation may be appropriate. For example:

Match each statement to the type of rock being described:
a) sedimentary
b) igneous
c) metamorphic

______     1. This type of rock is formed when eroded pieces of other rocks and minerals are compacted and cemented together.
______    2. This type of rock is formed when other rocks are partially melted under high heat and pressure.
______    3. This type of rock is formed when magma cools.
______    4. This type of rock is often found in layers.
______    5. This type of rock often has swirls, bands, veins, and crystals within it.
______    6. This type of rock comes from volcanoes.
______    7. Sandstone is an example of this type of rock.
______    8. Basalt is an example of this type of rock.
______    9. Granite is an example of this type of rock.
______    10. The size of the particles that make up this type of rock tells you how fast the water was moving when the particles were deposited.

Going Further

  1. Now that students have some experience with making observations of rocks, give each student a mystery mineral to observe, identify, and research. They should complete a Rock History Data Sheet on it and use mineral identification guides to discover the identity and history of their mineral. To up the challenge, give students minerals or metals with a more complicated history like silver ore or a geode.
  2. To learn more about sedimentary rocks, try the Layers upon Layers lesson or make your own sedimentary rocks, described the Going Further section of the Crayon Rock Cycle lesson.

2. History of Rock - Sources and Standards

Many rock identification guides are available on the Internet. My favorites include:

  • The Rock Identification Guide by Don Perry offers a nicely organized dichotomous key that has been developed over years of testing with kids (http://www.rockhounds.com/rockshop/rockkey/).
  • The Rock Identification Project at Brooke Weston College has good resources, both for identifying rocks and for an online rock identification quiz.
  • For a much more detailed, teacher quality guide to rock identification, use this excellent guide from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources in British Columbia.
  • For superb pictures of rocks of different types including cross-sections and close-ups, see the Earth Science Education Unit from Keele University in the United Kingdom.

For more information about mineral testing, including using the Mohs scale of hardness, see:

  • The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which has a great kid-friendly guide to testing the hardness of minerals.
  • The San Diego Natural History Museum also has wonderful resources for mineral testing for educators and kids. On their website you can also learn about testing for color, luster, streak, and specific gravity.

Grade 6
Plate Tectonics and Earth's Structure
Plate tectonics accounts for important features of Earth's surface and major geologic events. As a basis for understanding this concept:
a     Students know evidence of plate tectonics is derived from the fit of the continents; the location of earthquakes, volcanoes, and midocean ridges; and the distribution of fossils, rock types, and ancient climatic zones.

Shaping Earth's Surface
Topography is reshaped by the weathering of rock and soil and by the transportation and deposition of sediment. As a basis for understanding this concept:
a     Students know water running downhill is the dominant process in shaping the landscape, including California's landscape.
b    Students know rivers and streams are dynamic systems that erode, transport sediment, change course, and flood their banks in natural and recurring patterns.

Investigation and Experimentation
Scientific progress is made by asking meaningful questions and conducting careful investigations. As a basis for understanding this concept and addressing the content in the other three strands, students should develop their own questions and perform investigations. Students will:
a     Develop a hypothesis.
b     Select and use appropriate tools and technology (including calculators, computers, balances, spring scales, microscopes, and binoculars) to perform tests, collect data, and display data.