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The following article was published in Down to Earth magazine in 2004.

The Rock Club at the National Museums of Scotland

A look in any bookshop or public library shows from the number of dinosaur books alone how much potential there is to interest children in earth science. We started the Rock Club at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh in 1999 to meet this demand, and take kids a little bit deeper into the world of geology. The impetus came from a very successful visit of the Rockwatch Roadshow to the Museum. Over the years we’ve had from 10-20 kids at most sessions, meeting once a month during the school year. The National Museums of Scotland have led the club, providing the meeting place, resources, limited advertising and some staff time. Other helpers have been volunteers, including undergraduate and postgraduate students from Edinburgh University.

The programme has included indoor sessions in winter and field trips in summer. The club was originally aimed at the 8-16 age range, although we have been flexible about the lower age limit and haven’t managed to attract many kids over 12. Each two-hour indoor meeting has a theme, for example volcanoes, Lothian fossils, geological time or the story of Scotland. We arrange a mix of games, looking at specimens and using microscopes, craft activities and drawing. We tend to have several short activities lasting up to thirty minutes, and include a mix of running around, listening, and activities around the tables. Field trips have always been popular, especially when there was a chance of fossil or mineral collecting! The Rockwatch model of involving parents in outdoor activities works very well – not only are field trips easy to run and safer with plenty of adults present, the parents also learn something and enjoy themselves immensely, and the families as a whole benefit from a shared experience.

In 2001, we introduced the John Muir Award to give a structure to the year and add an environmental slant to our activities. This is an environmental Award scheme run by the John Muir Trust, focused on the discovery and conservation of wild places. It’s free to take part in, is very flexible and everyone completing the Award gets an individual certificate. We encourage each family to tackle the Award together, and to do their own activities outside the club that contribute to the Award. The four challenges of the John Muir Award make a good framework for outdoor activities with any age group. Participants are challenged to discover, explore, conserve and share a wild place. Our projects focus on a ‘wild place’ within Edinburgh, such as Corstorphine Hill and Arthur’s Seat. We visit the site several times during the year, and ‘explore’ them in indoor sessions too. Putting something back is an important component of the Award, and with the help of the local Ranger Services we organise a conservation day each year, and carry out a simple conservation task such as tree planting, graffiti removal, or pulling up invasive rosebay willow herb. You can find out more about the Award at www.johnmuiraward.org.

As the years went on, several issues came to a head. We had a core of regular members, and occasional new ones. This meant that we couldn’t repeat topics which we’d already tackled, and it was becoming difficult to come up with new themes. The new members were missing out on the basic stuff that we’d done at the beginning, and as the nine year olds grew into twelve year olds, they were looking for something different. The solution was to form two clubs – the beginners ‘Trilobites’ and the more advanced ‘Ammonites’. We weren’t strict about age ranges, leaving it up to parents and kids to decide what they were interested in, and indeed many kids come along to events of both clubs.

In the Trilobite Club, we went back to basics and repeated many of the topics we’d done before – apart from anything else this made preparation easier, as we didn’t have to invent everything from scratch. The Ammonite Club meets five times a year, and has involved more adventurous and in-depth activities, most of them in partnership with other museums and visitor attractions. Longer sessions have allowed us to explore topics in more depth and build on what the kids already know.

Over the years we’ve built up quite a number of activities. We can’t recommend any single resource for developing activities, but many of our ideas have involved a geology twist on an existing game, and we’ve built up a core of worksheets and games that we can use in the future. Having access to the Museums specimens and resources has been invaluable.

The Rock Club at the NMS has shown how much demand there is for earth science clubs for young people. It is an immensely satisfying project, and shows how with a few resources and a bit of imagination, earth scientists can engage kids, and have fun at the same time. And all these dinosaur books stacked up in libraries, well they are a bit of a double-edged sword. We’ve avoided the topic, for the kids know more than we do!

Angus Miller runs Geowalks and is a volunteer at the NMS.
Diane Mitchell is a member of staff at the NMS.

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