October 31, 2019
(++++) WORKING THE SYS-STEM
Rocks, Gems & Geodes. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $24.99.
The increasing demands for education to be centered as much as possible on the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – seems tailor-made for the cleverness of Klutz, that purveyor of “books-plus” products in which crafts projects are carefully explained, step-by-step, and are offered to young people complete with all the materials needed to accomplish them. Klutz has in fact risen to the occasion with its line of Klutz Maker Lab offerings, which are a marvelous mixture of hands-on experimentation and learning-by-the-book.
Rocks, Gems & Geodes is a particular, well, gem among these items. It presents readers ages eight and up with more things to look at, touch, feel and admire than there are pages in its instruction book: 36 rocks in a nicely labeled plastic display tray vs. a book that runs 32 pages. Interestingly, there is a geography lesson – not part of the “official” learning process here – even before anyone opens the nicely designed box that includes the rock samples and book. It turns out, per the “contents” notation on the box’s back, that six of the rock samples are from Brazil, one from Madagascar, four from South Africa, one from Afghanistan, one from Tanzania, and 23 from China. Think about that for a moment: in a $25 kit for preteens there are carefully selected and arranged rock samples from six countries, a veritable world tour of geology visible through the box’s plastic front even before anyone opens anything. It is a bit mind-boggling, and a fascinating introduction to the extent of our interconnected world – a world whose needs have led to those increasing demands for education in the STEM subjects.
And so we circle back to the main event of Rocks, Gems & Geodes, which is to learn about the science of rocks and such basics as the Mohs scale of hardness (which runs from 1, talc, to 10, diamond). Studying the 36 sample rocks and learning about their differences can be a self-guided activity lasting hours, especially if a budding geologist has his or her own magnifying glass (there is one in the Klutz kit, but it is low-magnification). In addition to the facts about rocks in the included book, there are – as usual with Klutz – some apt and interesting hands-on activities. One of these involves building a rock tumbler, a genuinely intriguing project that introduces young readers to the world of gemstones and that will help explain the highly polished look of a number of the rock samples provided here. Young readers/participants will likely be intrigued by the way in which some of the samples provided could, under other circumstances, become very valuable indeed. Those would include the ruby and garnet, for example, as well as the rutilated quartz – a form of quartz containing needle-like crystals of titanium dioxide and much used as a gem as well as a kind of New Age “focusing object.”
In addition to studying the rock samples themselves and providing basic information on geology and how scientists study it, Rocks, Gems & Geodes of course includes everything needed for some hands-on experimentation. The final word in its title refers to a specific type of rock formation, one that is not seen in those 36 samples. Instead, the book explains what a geode is and then shows how to make your own – using a “geode mold” along with plaster powder and purple crystal powder. This is scarcely the first “hobby kit” to offer young people a chance to grow their own crystals – that particular activity has in fact been a mainstay of science classes for decades, long before the current strong focus on STEM subjects began. But Klutz handles the project in its own way, explaining clearly what geodes are, how they form, and how to grow one in the common purple color in which they are usually found in nature. Then Rocks, Gems & Geodes provides step-by-step growth instructions that budding geologists (or just rock lovers) will find simple to follow.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy for the increasing STEM focus in schools to be overdone, to turn instruction in these subjects into must-do drudgery taught with unceasing intensity because young people must learn this material in order to “keep up” and “be employable in the future” and all that. There is some truth to those essentially sociopolitical arguments, but the problem is that they can suck all the joy out of exploring the world around us – which, ultimately, is what science is all about. What Klutz does so well in Rocks, Gems & Geodes and its other STEM offerings is to keep matters accurate and factually well-presented while presenting the information in a way that is interactive, participatory, and just plain fun. Enjoyment and excitement are ingredients all too often missing in our very sober focus on the competitive environment of STEM today and in the future – but they are elements that are more likely to get young people interested in STEM topics than all the strongly worded pronouncements that are constantly being made about these fields of learning. Thanks to its form of presentation and the high quality of its projects, Klutz, in Rocks, Gems & Geodes and its other STEM products, has become a real contributor to an important part of today’s educational environment.