Imagine you’re in the third grade. You’ve been given an assignment to learn about the classifications of rocks while studying a unit on geology. Which would you rather do: (A) Look at pictures of rocks on the computer screen or (B) Grab a box of sand and mine for precious stones in an actual sluice of rushing water? Raise your hand if you picked (B). It’s the right answer because the excitement of active participation can make learning an enjoyable experience for both student and teacher.
That’s something veteran science teacher Gwen Allen Smith knows very well. Throughout her 20+ year career, she always felt the constraints of teaching inside the classroom versus experiencing nature outdoors in planning units for her elementary and middle school students. She often looked for ways to engage her students beyond the confines of the classroom, remembering that her own curiosity was better satisfied through hands on learning in an engaging environment. Enjoyment of the outdoors is what drew her to the field of science to begin with.
Smith moved with her family to Statesboro in fifth grade attending Julia P. Bryant Elementary School, then William James Middle School, and later graduating from Statesboro High School in 1981. She earned a BS in Biology from Georgia Southern and accepted her first job as a lab technician for the City of Statesboro at the waste water treatment plant. During this time Smith returned to Georgia Southern to earn her teaching certification and in 1986 began teaching seventh grade science at the middle school she had attended, William James.
Smith met and married Georgia Southern marketing instructor Bill Smith early in her career. Together they traveled to Los Cruses, New Mexico, where Smith taught a 99% Hispanic population of eighth graders. After three years, the adventurous couple moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where Smith taught seventh grade science at Darnell Cookman, a medical arts magnet school.
While living in Florida’s Palm Coast, the Smiths created and hosted a coastal environmental boat tour for students and their families. The marine excursions centered on the intercoastal waterways, examining and learning about the wildlife and ecosystems of the area.
While in Jacksonville, Smith also worked during the summer creating science camp excursions for students to nearby Marineland where they worked on science fair projects requiring experimental research on the coastal inhabitants.
“For example, one student’s project involved periwinkle snails that crawl up and down blades of marsh grass with the incoming and outgoing tides,” said Smith. “The experiment was to see if the snails would vacillate like that with no tide. This was of high interest to the students, and learning about the snails in a hands on experiment was both exciting and enjoyable.”
She led camping excursions to nearby Cumberland Island, one of the nation’s protected sea shores, to show students firsthand a coastal environment undisturbed by commercial development.
The couple later relocated to Anderson, South Carolina, where Smith taught fifth grade science. After a few years in Anderson, they came back home to Statesboro, where Smith taught multiple grades at the Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts & Technology.
“I really enjoyed teaching at CCAT because of the open classroom format and the ability to engage students individually in ways that helped them best to learn,” said Smith.
The opportunity to teach engineering and technology to third through fifth graders lured Smith to Beaufort Elementary in Beaufort, South Carolina. It was while teaching there that Smith experienced the Diamond Del Gem Mining Adventure for the first time. She had booked Diamond Del for her own classes. The experience of having a “field trip”” come to the school, was both economical and logistically a lot easier than transporting students to another location. She immediately saw the benefits of the Diamond Del Adventure for both students and teachers.
Bill Smith spoke with Del Allen, a graduate of Wofford College and founder of Diamond Del’s Gem Mining Adventure, LLC. Allen agreed to franchise his portable field trip operation consisting of a long trailer equipped with sluices along the cave-like interior walls. Students enter the “cave” and are given a shallow wooden box with a screened bottom full of small rock material similar in consistency to cat litter. The gravel has hidden gems that are “discovered” by the students bringing much excitement as cat’s eye, rose quartz, pyrite, garnets and other precious stones are uncovered.
Before engaging in the interactive mining activity, the students first see a 20-minute video in the classroom that prepares them for the adventure as Diamond Del introduces each rock and mineral. The 30-minute mining session follows. The Smiths make a special effort to talk with each student during the mining activity, answering questions and pointing out interesting aspects of the gem stones.
After sifting through the material, students return to the classroom with a bag of stones for closer examination and identification with an accompanying brochure and video that highlights everything in the junior gemologist’s bags. The educational gem mining DVDs are part of the program in which Diamond Del teaches the students how to identify and classify their collections.
Bill Smith has been operating as “Billy Rock” with Diamond Del Adventures since 2009 in the South Carolina low country, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and North Florida. Four years ago, Gwen joined Bill fulltime with the Diamond Del operation, and now the couple works together to bring the unique learning opportunity to school children.
They have returned to Statesboro as home base, but stay on the road throughout the school year taking the Diamond Del Gem Mining experience to children all over the southeast.
“This really appeals to teachers who appreciate an activity that is meaningful, simple, and that meets expectations. They know how the program will go and can build around the experience. The teachers feel good and the kids are so excited. You would think they actually found a diamond! They get to take their rock samples back to the classroom, and we often check on the classes to observe how engaged they are in learning, swapping rocks and having fun.”
The Smiths book the Adventure with schools August through November and February through May each year.
“Some teachers want to book the activity early in the year when the students are first learning about rocks and minerals in Earth Science,” stated Smith. “Other teachers prefer to use Diamond Del right before state testing begins in the spring to reinforce what was learned earlier in the school year.”
Diamond Del’s Adventure is good for all elementary and middle grades as it can work to introduce geology in elementary school units like Scientific Inquiry, and helps with more complex learning about geology and the layers of the Earth’s crust; the composition of rocks and minerals, in middle school.
“It’s the look on their faces that lets you know they are engaged and you are connected with them in an enjoyable learning experience. That connection is what teachers are always seeking. There is no greater gratification for a teacher than to know that you have reached a student, that you have helped them to learn something new,” Smith said. “You can see it in their eyes. They’re having fun learning.”