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Thematic Studies – Unit of Inquiry: Mountains – by Andy Gregory

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

Students at Rattlesnake Ridge take time to contemplate how the landscape was formed.

At the beginning of last week we wrapped up our mountain unit in spectacular fashion, with an incredible display of art, science, and pure joy as we created our own Ring of Fire at Mt. Baker Park.

The Ring of Fire

Although each classroom approached this grand unit of inquiry in its own unique way, the whole school participated in many events that bridged the gap from small to large: rocks and minerals to mountains and volcanos, topography and cartography to plate tectonics and seismology.

Many of us began by learning about the three types of rock: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic, and discussing the differences in how they are formed over time. A sense of wonder often filled the hearts and minds of our young learners as they thought about rocks being either formed by hot, volcanic processes or eroding over thousands of years by the forces of weather, water, time, and pressure. A fascination with crystals led many of us to study how they are formed. Lists and drawings of familiar rocks and minerals were made, while new ones were discovered and catalogued.

Students analyze and paint rocks and crystals.

Our wonderings led us into the center of the Earth. As we learned about the inner core, outer core, mantle, and crust, we talked about the scientists who made these discoveries about our planet and wondered about how our surface can be so cool (comparatively) when our inside is so hot. Coupled with our earlier exploration of clouds and the Earth’s atmosphere this year, we investigated the language and science of the layers of our planetary bubble, from the inner core to the exosphere.

A layered diagram of the Earth and its atmosphere.

We looked at topography as well, studying the concepts of contour lines and the logic of plotting lines on topographic maps. Some of our young cartographers made maps of their own.

Students make topographic maps.

While studying our local mountains, some of us went on field trips to places with excellent views of the Olympic and Cascade ranges. We spent time identifying specific peaks, painting landscapes and learning about the natural history of the Pacific Northwest.

Moving towards larger scale Earth processes, we delved into plate tectonics and subduction, learning about the plates of the world. We specifically took a look at the Pacific Plate, the North American Plate, and the Juan de Fuca Plate, the actions of which have largely constructed our local mountains and volcanos over time. 


When it was finally time to end our exploration of mountains, the could have been no more fitting end to the unit than our day together as a school at the park erupting our volcanos. It was also fitting that Earth Day was in the middle of the week, acting not only as a great day of mindfulness and intention in relationship to the Earth, but also a wonderful transition between our mountain unit and our new unit on sheep and wool. 

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. -JM

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