Scott Collins, BHP Teacher
Illinois, USA

Note from BHP Team: This post is in response to the piece “How Do Minerals Make Our Planet Unique?”, which discusses the evolving relationship between geology and biology, specifically as related to minerals and the development of life.

Moving through the Big History narrative, we utilize the information gathered by cosmologists, astrophysicists, chemists, and others to develop a coherent picture of how things got to be the way they are. We trace the development of the Universe as it increases in complexity using the evidence compiled by these and other disciplinary experts. Unit 5 is the first time in the Big History curriculum we get input from biologists on how living things fit into the big picture. Biologists inform our knowledge of living systems at the microscopic and macroscopic levels. One of the most fundamental questions biologists have struggled to answer definitively revolves around how life began on this planet. The article, “How Do Minerals Make Our Planet Unique?” (written by Robert Hazen, a mineralogist/astrobiologist), not only tries to address this important question, but also describes the vital and nuanced relationship between living things and the evolution of simple minerals into more complex ones.

Unit 4 features meteorologist Alfred Wegener and his theory of continental drift. Wegener proposed that at some point in Earth’s history, the continents fit together like puzzle pieces, forming a supercontinent he called Pangaea. He theorized that the continents were slowly shifting around the globe in response to unknown geological forces. These forces are perhaps the most crucial characteristic of our planet, setting it apart from the others in our Solar System, and contributing fundamentally to its habitability. Discussion of “How Do Minerals Make Our Planet Unique?,” with its foreshadowing of Unit 5’s coverage of the beginnings of life, fits well with the Wegener article in Lesson 4.2. That discussion could also come at the beginning of Unit 5, looking back on the turbulence that formed our planet, and forward to life’s emergence. Using the article, students can make connections to the heat and violence of the inner Earth that was present not only during its formation, but that still persists today. The article highlights how vital these conditions have been to the development of life and all the minerals we living things mine in the present, which leads to even deeper discussion.

To further enrich learning, scroll down to the Web Links listed at the bottom of Unit 4. Included in these links is a clip of Ice Age 4: Continental Drift, which attributes the spinning of the Earth’s inner core to video character Scrat the squirrel chasing his precious acorn. Kids love this clip. It’s brilliant. It also highlights the integral part the Earth’s core plays in keeping this planet alive. The core’s spinning creates convection currents. Convection currents churn the mantle. This churning coaxes tectonic plates to move, recycling crust in some parts of the globe and creating new crust in others. All of this action creates the heat and pressure (with the addition of some water and chemical elements) that produces minerals essential not only to life’s beginnings but also its sustainability.

Take the time to read and discuss “How Do Minerals Make Our Planet Unique?” with your students. Not only does it support the transition between Units 4 and 5, it also sheds new light on underlying connection between living things and the endless pockets of minerals beneath our feet.

About the author: Scott Collins is a high school science teacher in Lemont, IL. In addition to BHP, he teaches AP biology, honors biology, and integrated science. His school is on a semester system. Scott’s eleventh- and twelfth-grade BHP classes run about 85 minutes long and focus heavily on the science content. About 60 students per year join him on the 13.8-billion-year journey.

Image credit: Banded iron formation, by Richard Droker on Flikr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One thought on “Minerals and Life: Bringing new topics into Units 4 & 5

  1. Scott, I enjoyed reading your article. Yes, our Earth boasts many minerals that are unique and distinguish our planet from other celestial bodies. I have a question, a bit of a tangent from the topic of minerals: how would you explain to young learners, in less than 5 sentences, how sand forms? Your state of Illinois and my state of Michigan share wonderful beaches, some of the most beautiful in the world, and they feature beautiful sand. How is this formed?


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