A Case Study of Geological STEM Education for Elementary and Junior High School Students: The Processes of Sand Formation Using the Geological Characteristics of Niijima Island in Japan

Tomohiro Takebayashi, and Yoshisuke Kumano
Graduate School of Science and Technology, Shizuoka University, Shizuoka, Japan
Museum of Natural and Environmental History, Shizuoka, Japan
Corresponding author: taketomo.geology@gmail.com


In this study we explored geological STEM education among students in elementary (5th -6th) and junior high school (1st -2nd) in Japan. This is a qualitative case study in which data were collected from the students' worksheets and their actions and behaviors. The theme of the lesson was "To investigate and explain the process of sand formation by using our own observation data (The children understand part of the earth system from the rock sources to the sand.)". The samples used were focused on geological features unique to East and Southeast Asia (Pacific Rim orogenic zones and volcanic islands) and used Tokyo Niijima Volcanic Island, beta-quartz sand and mafic sand, rhyolite and basalt from the Habushiura and Wakago areas. Google EarthTM satellite images and microscopes were provided as technological tools for the children. The children thought about their observations systematically and logically, and in the end, 13 of the 14 Students were able to describe the process of sand formation in writing based on their observations. The value of this study is that it focused on Asian geology-specific mineralogy and applied it to Earth and Space STEM education.

Keywords: Earth and Space STEM education, Geology, Crosscutting Concepts, Earth system, Sand

          The Earth forms a complex and diverse system of constantly interacting material and energy, and all the materials form a circulation cycle from the surface to the mantle. Earth and Space Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education require of students an understanding of the changes and cycles of Earth’s materials and energy. For example, sands are a natural product of the Earth's material cycle and has in it the information of the source rocks. Students need to understand correctly that sand is not made spontaneously, but rather by the cyclical process of Earth’s materials, and it is a systematic or continuous phenomenon. The STEM Crosscutting Concepts requires students to develop skills in systematic observation and understanding, pattern discovery, and energy changes.

          Southeast and East Asian countries have many islands, and Japan is one of them. Therefore, sand is a familiar material and easy to collect, and there are previous reports of sand and clastic materials as a teaching material (e.g., Shimooka et al., 2012; Sakata and Kumano 2016). However, prior research has not discussed much about 1) developing educational materials that provide a visual understanding of the relationship between source rock and the outcrops, 2) building on STEM education, and 3) focusing on mineral properties.

          In this study, we conducted a case study (qualitative research) in a formal field setting, looking for methods and rock/mineral samples that allowed the children to draw their own conclusions based on their STEM education and from their observations, discussions and arguments. The samples for the STEM teaching materials were chosen to
focus on geology unique to Asia and Southeast Asia (the Pacific Rim orogenic belt), and we focused on the rocks and minerals of the Niijima Island near Tokyo, Japan. Because Niijima Island has black and white contrasting sandy beaches and outcrops, it is geologically easy to understand the relationship between the sand, the outcrop, and source rocks (Takebayashi & Kumano, 2020).

          STEM education has spread rapidly in East and Southeast Asia in recent years, with Japan being one of the countries implementing it. In the Japanese educational system, compulsory education is provided in elementary and junior high schools (ES and JHS), and schools and textbook companies follow the course of study from the Ministry of Education (MEXT [MEXT 2017a, b]). For Science 2019, the Japanese Government has mentioned STEM and STEAM at MEXT (Matsubara, 2019; Tamura, 2019), and It is increasingly likely that STEM education will become an established part of science education in Japan. For example, there is active research in STEM education, including comparative studies of STEM in the U.S. and Japan, STEM case studies in various fields, and STEM camp practices (Okumura and Kumano, 2016; Kumano, 2019). Hence, the value of this study is to report the results of a qualitative
study (case study) of Earth and Space STEM education, specific to geology unique to Asia, and to consider the prospects for geological STEM education in Asia.


STEM Education and Earth System

          STEM education of the NGSS in the United States (U.S.) has three distinct and equally important dimensions (3D-Learning) to learning sciences in years K-12: (1) science and engineering practices, (2) the crosscutting concepts, and (3) disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) (National Research Council [NRC], 2012). Since 2009 in the U.S., there are Public Laws (PL) of STEM education (PL 114–329, PL 114–59.) and STEM education activities are conducted by research institutions in the U.S. (e.g., the National Science Foundation [NSF], the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA], and the U.S. Geological Survey [USGS]). The interdisciplinary core ideas are divided into four areas, one of which is Earth and Space sciences (NRC, 2012). Similarly, Japanese science education has an Earth and
Space science field.

          The scientific and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts for use in years K-12 have been discussed in NSTA publications (Bybee, 2011; Duschl, 2012). Outlined as a common aim of scientific and engineering practice, summarized as 8 practices (Generation Science Standards [NGSS], 2013), children are required to make problem-solving predictions, collect their own data, discuss and draw conclusions based on the data in order to solve the
problem. The crosscutting concepts are (1) patterns; (2) cause and effect: mechanism and explanation; (3) scale, proportion, and quantity; (4) systems and system models; (5) energy and matter: flows, cycles, and conservation; (6) structure and function; and (7) stability and change (Duschl, 2012; NGSS, 2013).

          Earth and Space STEM education places importance on children's understanding of the correlation between human society and nature, and studying the Earth environments (NGSS, 2013). Further, Earth and Space STEM education includes Earth System education, which advocates the educational goal for children to recognize the Earth as a continuous system (e.g., material cycle, water cycle, etc.) and being curious about the nature on Earth
(Earth System Science Committee, 1988; Goto, 2005; Mayer, 2014; IESO, 2016). For example, there are elements of understanding of the Earth System in the “Crosscutting Concepts” (Duschl, 2012; NGSS, 2013).

Niijima Island’s Geology is Unique to Asia

          Niijima Island is one of the volcanic islands on the Izu-Bonin-Mariana (IBM) Arc, located about 157 km south of Tokyo. The island is mostly made up of rhyolites, and part of the northern area (Wakago area) is made up of basalts (Isshiki, 1987). The sandy beaches of the island depend on the geology of the region and are clearly split into white and black. Most grains of the white sandy beaches of the island are composed of highly beta quartz (as “rock crystal” [The definition of rock crystal in this paper supports gemology, e.g., Dana, 1962]), which is rare in the world. Habushiura, one of the white sandy beaches is estimated to be composed of approximately 70% quartz (Kitamura et al., 2003). In addition, Niijima has a unique culture of architectural stone industry and glass art. Niijima produces large amounts of fire-resistant bricks called "Kouka-seki (Watanabe, 1914) " and is one of the biggest mines in the world. Glass art has been a world competition since 1987, and Niijima Glass and its resources have attracted attention. Therefore, its study is of interest to Japanese students.


Case study method and assessment of students’ writings

          This qualitative case study was conducted in formal education environments. The theory base follows the STEM education of the NGSS. The students were asked to complete a worksheet. The class examined whether the students’ writings on their worksheets were appropriate for the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts and whether their actions were compatible with science and engineering practices.

Preparation (Educational Materials)

          We utilized the specimens we sampled (2014-2017) on the island to teach the class (Figure 1). The specimens in the class were rhyolite (biotite pumice) and rock crystal sand, basalt, and black sand (mafic, i.e., igneous [with iron and magnesium] sand), collected at Habshiura, Wakago, and Ishi-mi overlook points (The areas are located outside the national park areas). In addition, we also prepared Google EarthTM satellite images and photos of outcroppings for students to use in class.

Figure 1

Rock and mineral specimens used in practices

Note: Scale: (a), (c), and (d) are 1 cm, (b) is 1 mm. (a) Biotite pumice (Kouka-seki) from Habushiura sandy beach, near Ishimi overlook; (b) rock crystal sand from Habushiura sandy beach; (c) basalt from Wakago coast; (d) black (mafic) sand from Wakago sandy beach; (e) Satellite image of Habushiura Beach (Google EarthTM); (f) Photo of Habushiura Beach taken at the site. Photo by T. Takebayashi.

Program Framework

          Our laboratory, which was accepted by the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) for the Next Generation of Human Resource Development projects in 2018, launched a STEM Academy in Shizuoka prefecture, led by Professor (Name hidden) (Table 1). This academy engaged ES and JHS students in STEM educational activities over an academic year. We used the STEM instructional periods (120 minutes) in February 2019 to practice the newly developed STEM activities using rocks and sands obtained from Niijima island. The goal was to have students observe the rocks and sand and explain how sand is made based on their observational data. There were 14 participants (seven boys and seven girls; n = 2 fifth grade and n = 5 sixth grade ES students; n = 2 first grade and n = 5 second grade JHS (equivalent to Grades 7 and 8, respectively, in western middle schools) students). Tables 2 and 3 show the program flow and assessment methods. To begin the class, we gave them a pre-question "Do you know the origin of sand?" Students who answered "I’m not sure" wrote their assumptions about the origin of sand, and those who answered "I know" wrote a concrete explanation.

Table 1

The Program at STEM Academy

Data Collection: Students’ Worksheets

          The students were asked to record their observations and thoughts on their worksheets, which had a map of Niijima island printed on it (Figure 2). The conclusion section at the bottom of the paper gave the students space to write their conclusions based on their data.

          The students’ activities are documented in photographs and on their worksheets. In practice, the discussion was focused on whether the students could construct a conclusion based on the evidence of their observational data. A good assessment requires being able to use the evidence and explain logically, rather than relying solely on knowledge.

Figure 2

Example of a worksheet completed by a 6th-grade ES student

Note: (a) student information; (b) lesson objectives: “Find out how rock crystal sand and black sand from Niijima are formed”; (c) free writing space, where students write what they observed, discovered, and thought; (d) conclusion section, where students write their conclusions.

Results of Students’ Writing and Activities in the STEM Academy

Pre-lesson Questionnaire: "Do you know how sand is made?"

          Table 2 shows the results of the pre-survey and the results of the free statements. The students who answered “Yes” focused on the water. The five ES and JHS students wrote about river erosion and transportation; one student wrote about water, and two students made vague comments about content (e.g., “Sand is made up of broken rocks.”). The following are examples of the students’ responses:

  • “While flowing on a river, a rock is broken down gradually and forms sand.” (2nd grade JHS);
  • “Reducing in size, sand is made by changing from rock to stone, and from stone to sand by breaking. Wind and water cause the stone to break.” (6th grade ES);
  • “A theory of the origin of sand is that big rocks flowing in a river are broken down by being knocked together and rapidly reducing their size.” (6th grade ES);
  • “Rocks are broken down and reduced in size. I remember that sand is more than 0.8 mm and mud is smaller than that.” (5th grade ES). On the other hand, the students who answered “No” expected that sands were the result of a rocks breaking. The following are examples of the students’ responses:
  • “Sand is broken rocks (including stones). Sand is the excrement of fish.” (6th grade ES);
  • “Sand is finely broken rocks or stones.” (2nd grade JHS);
  • “Sand is made by the repetition of big rocks breaking. Sand is the excrement of fish having eaten coral. Sand is compressed volcanic ashes.” (2nd grade JHS).

Table 2

Student responses to "Do you know how sand is made?"

Student Behavior

          The students acted on their own without being told what to do. They used observational instruments and conducted experiments to find out the conclusion by themselves. For example, they collaborated with each other and used Google EarthTM and microscopes when observing the samples, even though they had different school affiliations
and were in different grades. When using Google Earth, the students pointed their fingers at the screen and discussed their observations. The students observed the samples and wrote down on their worksheets what they noticed.


The students’ worksheets presented their observations in a well-organized way. Almost all the students wrote about the characteristics of rocks and minerals (e.g., the color, shape, and feel of the surface) and the appearance of the outcrops (e.g., height, rockiness, and color) from satellite imagery, and they compared these data. Several students wrote descriptions that fulfilled the crosscutting elements of STEM, including descriptions that focused on the energy used to make sand, descriptions that focused on physics, such as the fragility of rocks, and sketches that focused on the mechanism by which sand is formed. After completing a description of their observations, the students (n = 13 of 14) used the data to write their conclusions. Five of the six students who answered that they did not know the genesis of sand before the practice were able to explain that sand is made of rock, using their observed data as evidence. Figures 3, 4, and 5 are examples of the worksheets completed by students in each grade. The student responses are in Japanese and we have tried to translate with care into English to preserve the correct terms.

Figure 3

Student A: JHS 2nd grade student

Figure 4

Student B: JHS 1st grade student

Figure 5

Student C: ES student (6th grade)

An Unexpected Response

          On Japan’s mainland, there are many rivers. Therefore, in formal science education in Japan, erosion by rivers is taught in textbooks in the upper grades of elementary school. On the other hand, in the case of this practice, there are no clearly identifiable rivers or streams in Niijima from outcrop photos or satellite images, and it is important to consider
whether the students were able to describe the mechanism of rock destruction from observation rather than relying on memorization.

          In the preliminary questionnaire, five students wrote about the river, and after the class, four students gave their reflections based on the observation data from this experiment. However, one student wrote about a river in the conclusion section, as follows: “The basalt sand was formed by the collapse of stones from the sea and rivers.”

Discussion: Are Rocks and Minerals in Niijima Suitable for STEM Education?

Students’ Perspectives

          Students in Japanese elementary and junior high schools are taught to memorize the process of how a rock breaks down into sand using pictures and illustrations in textbooks. However, in STEM education it is important to gather and discuss evidence from experiments and observations. For example, rock/mineral, sand, and outcrop don’t have a directory answer for the question of “sand origin”. Their materials have a variety of scales, structures, and components. However, the relationships between sands and rocks/outcrops have been investigated, and the original rocks and location of sands have been proven by geological methods (cf. Takebayashi & Kumano, 2020). In STEM education, there are cross cutting concepts and eight practices, so it is important to integrate independent data into
one evidence to solve the problem. Students could come to the conclusion based on their data and numerical analysis. For example, in their worksheets (cf., Figures, 3-5), we can see the student’s considerations; students found common information from diverse data (rocks, minerals, and outcrops), and after they tried to find the meaning from their collected data (cf. prominent, Fig. 5). The students thought about the rocks and geological scales while making their observations, indicating that they were not just observing but that they were observing with a purpose. As a result, the students made connections between their observations to reach their conclusions.

Technology Strongly Supports STEM Educational Activities

          As technology evolves, we can easily get clear satellite and microscopic images using computers and microscopes. Technology provides us with valuable data, but the data alone have no value at that point. For example, in this research, rocks and satellite images have their own information. They are entirely separate substances and information. However, when people realize that they can fuse the information, a new informational value and scientific perspective is innovated. The students shared and discussed their opinions and compared the satellite images to the rocks on the table. They used a variety of tools to gather evidence and try to support their conclusions. The fusion of science and technology, which forms part of STEM education, can accelerate the development of science education
understanding for students.

From the Worksheets, Crosscutting Concepts, and Making Conclusions from Data

          Based on the students’ worksheets, a number of statements that satisfy the Crosscutting Concepts in STEM education were identified in this practice. Almost all students compared the sand to the rocks and the outcrops and made lists of the similarities and differences. The students’ worksheets showed that they found the minerals (sand and rocks) to be similar, and the outcrops and the related sand to be a similar color. The sandy beaches of Niijima have similar features to those of the outcrops and the source rocks, making it easy to identify similarities and differences. Niijima has contrasting geological features, both siliceous and mafic, on one island, making it possible for the students to make comparisons.

          After finding patterns of similarities and differences, the students thought about the relationships between the data they had observed. For example, students who discovered that the rocks and sand were similar concluded that the rocks would break down and make sand. When students considered the change in sand from this rock, they simultaneously considered time and spatial scales (e.g., time scale is a geological scale; spatial scales are the mineral scale [μm], rock scale [mm-cm]), and land scale [m-km]). A few students made observations from a physics perspective. For example, student A thought of the energy needed to change the matter (Energy and matter), and student C said that the outcropping was caused by a volcanic eruption (Stability and change, Cause and effect).

Concluding Sentences Written by a Student

          Students who claimed they did not know the origin of sand initially were able to explain the development process of sand in the conclusions section of the worksheet based on their observations and thoughts during the practice. In their predictions before the practice, they wrote that they thought the rocks would break; however, the observational
activities enabled them to understand how sand is made. In this study, we develop STEM education from the perspective of mineralogy. This case study has shown that STEM education in mineralogy is successful, and with more practice, we might be able to see more effective learning methods.

Geological Mathematics

          Geology can be divided into discussions from observations or numerical results. For example, the former involves observing the crystal systems and structure of minerals and rocks and evaluating them relative to each other to find the answer (geometry, e.g., crystalscience). The latter utilizes computers to find answers as numbers (algebra, e.g., instrument analysis). In our practice, students were able to determine the forms of minerals, the types and content of the constituent minerals (no numerical calculations in this case; relative assessments). The next goal of this practice is to measure and calculate their angles and frequencies numerically, which can be applied to algebra.


          This study shows that an Earth and Space STEM education specific to Asian geology is viable. The students were able to base their activities on rock science research methods (observation and comparison). For example, they were able to use technology (microscopes and Google Earth) to seek geological conclusions (T), consider issues and observations (E), and compared the shape and frequency of minerals and rocks (M). In the end, the children were able to summarize their conclusions in writing, thinking about them from the observational data.

          Minerals are of diverse value in geology, mineralogy, resource-engineering (economic geology) and engineering perspectives. STEM education is the approach that makes a difference in children's learning. For example, in this case we approached it from a geological perspective, but it could also be approached from the perspective of local industrial ores, local glassware, or local ecosystems and geology. Our research results show that STEM education in Asia can be developed by focusing on the unique nature of Asian and Southeast Asian countries in the future. It is a fascinating and important part of science education in order for children to have a rich understanding of the country and region in
which they live.


I would like to offer my special thanks to the following people: Noda, O. (Director of the Niijima Glass Center), Prof. Emeritus Enjoji, M. (Waseda University), Mr. Kato, R., Mr. Sasaki, H., and Mr. Haruta, K. (Waseda University and Shizuoka University), Shizuoka Fuzoku JHS attached to Shizuoka University, STEM academy in Shizuoka, Japan, Mr. Hakamada, H. (Shimizu Takabe-East ES). – T.T.

Tomohiro Takebayashi has a Ph.D. in Science Education from the Graduate School of Science and Technology, Shizuoka University. He now is a Ph. D. candidate in Earth Science at Nagoya University. His research interests are
Petrology of Ultra High Pressure Metamorphic rocks at Nagoya University, and Earth and Space science STEM education, focusing on rocks and minerals at STEAM institution of Shizuoka University. Dr. Takebayashi is also a committee member of Earth Science Week Japan.

Yoshisuke Kumano is a professor of science education at Shizuoka University where he teaches Curriculum Studies, Science Education Methods, Seminar in Science Education, and others. He had the honor of receiving a full time
Fulbright grant from 1989 to 1991 and 2012 for education research in the U.S. Dr. Kumano received his Ph.D. in science education from the University of Iowa in 1993. His research now focuses mainly on STEM education reforms
for Japan, working with his Ph.D. students as well as students in other courses. He is the current President of the East Asian Association for Science Education (EASE).


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