“Are We There Yet?” Part 1 – Train Trips as Geological Teaching Tool


Exposed sedimentary rock in a railway cutting. Photo: Luke Bennett

My kids like to watch 3D films. Which is something for which I am truly thankful, as I then have a valid excuse to go see 3D films with them. However, there is no 3D cinema in our town. What this means is that to go see a movie with glasses, we have to travel half an hour in one direction, or two hours in the other. Sometimes we travel in my rather rickety car, but given my daughter’s propensity for car sickness, we usually catch an interurban train.

Before my current job, I worked as a teacher at an agricultural college. Most of my students were mature age professionals or retirees, that had lived their entire lives in a major city, and then decided to move to the country. They were intelligent and informed people, but they could not “read” the land, its form, vegetation or wildlife. Teaching them that was my job. A large component of this involved taking them for excursions to different portions of our region’s surrounding districts.

As a result it is second nature for me to try to get my kids to spot stuff out the windows during the train journey. The most successful activity is spotting the changes in soil color in the farm dams as we traverse the landscape. Given the geology where we live, we cross from an area of heavy metamorphic hills, through a valley of grayer granite sands, and then to an area of sedimentary hills. And if we go south, we travel across a plain of dark black volcanic soil.

Therefore, it is not the kids that are saying “Are we there yet?” Instead, it is me, trying to get them to spot the change in soil and landform. Admittedly I usually cheat and look up an online geology map prior to the journey, but hey, it works. It also helps that I have a passing awareness of the various geological formations which are present in the landscape as we move through it, and can point them out. I cannot but recommend having access to an electronic map displaying one’s location on an aerial photograph helps as well. Yep, Google Maps can be entertaining in a train journey.

And the end result is that I travel with a pair of kids who are engaged with the vista of the world that they can spy from the train window. All I have to do is throw out cognitive bread crumbs of facts and ideas, they look some more, think a bit, and low and behold, another question pops out.

If your landscape is geologically homogeneous, I suggest that you consider analyzing the natural vegetation, and its changes, land use (farming can be more varied that you may first think), or history. Our landscapes have been both subtly and demonstratively worked over by our ancestors. And in some landscapes this process has been undertaken over millennia. The signs are there. And we owe it to our kids to point them out to them.

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