PANNING FOR GOLD AND
Eleanora I. Robbins and John
U.S. Geological Survey
National Center MS 956
Reston, VA 22092
Level: Elementary school
Anticipated Learning Outcomes
- Students will learn field skills such as making observations
under field conditions and watching out for poison ivy.
- Students will see the effects of stream flow on sediments
and observe sedimentary structures such as stream bars and islands.
- Students will observe that different sizes of sediment
are located in different parts of the stream.
- Students will distinguish between different sizes of
- Students will recognize that different minerals are different
- Students will estimate and weigh the content of magnetite
- Students will observe crystal shapes of some of the mineral
- Students will discuss why magnets pick up magnetite but
not nonmagnetic grains.
Materials Needed: IN FIELD
- Wear long pants and boots or old tennis shoes that can
- Gold pans and pie pans
- Small shovels and big spoons
- A sheet of newspaper for each student or team
- A small magnet for each
- Magnifying lenses for each
- A ziplock plastic bag for each
- Waterproof magic markers
CAUTION: Ask about known allergies and ask permission
to spray children against poison ivy or poison oak. Tell children what
these plants look like (three leaves; central leaflet has a longer stem;
sometimes, the leaves are reddish and glossy; one poison ivy variety climbs
trees, and another is on the ground; the big hairy vines seen climbing
trees are the other variety.) It has been discovered that the aluminum
chlorhydrate in antiperspirants will stop poson ivy rash. Best use is to
spray the antiperspirant on legs and rub between fingers. Have children
wash their hands when they get back to school, and tell them to wash really
well when they get home and to take their clothes off inside out so as
not to infect the person who does the laundry.
Materials Needed: AT SCHOOL
- Scale for weighing concentrate
- Metal probe, such as a dull knife, edge of ruler, or
- Go to a stream that is not moving very fast.
- Fill the pan not quite full of different sizes of sediment:
gravel, sand, and silt.
- Walk into the stream just until the water comes to the
top of their shoes.
- Face downstream, which is the direction the water flows.
- Tilt the pan so it faces slightly upstream.
- Ask students to predict which sediment will wash out
first and which will remain. Knead the sediment with your hands to thoroughly
soak it and to wash out the clay.
- Shake the pan a little.
- Knead and shake, knead and shake, knead and shake, knead
and shake to wash out the silt and light (usually white) mineral grains.
The light minerals are the ones that come to the surface when you shake
the pan. The heavy minerals are the ones that stay on the bottom of the
- Keep pushing out of the pan all of the rocks, twigs,
and light colored minerals. When only heavy minerals (usually the black
grains) remain in the pan, pour out the water slowly, and then push the
minerals out of the pan onto the newspaper to dry.
- Let the concentrate dry in the sun for approximately
- After the concentrate is dry, put the magnet under the
paper, and move all the magnetite away into a separate pile. Does your
stream contain magnetite? How much of the concentrate is magnetite? What
color is it?
- Look with the magnifying lens for gold in the minerals
that remain behind. If gold is present, it will be as tiny flakes. Is gold
present? What color is it? What is the color of the other heavy minerals?
- Label the plastic bag with the name and the location
of the stream, mix the minerals back together again, pour them into the
bag, and stick the magnet outside the bag so it is attached to the magnetite
inside the bag and does not get lost. Is there enough magnetite in the
stream to hold the magnet?
- Back at school, separate out the magnetite by using the
same procedure as step 11 and weigh the magnetic and nonmagnetic fractions.
Which is heavier? Look more carefully at the other minerals. How many different
colors do you see?
- Gold is a soft metal, softer than most other metals.
How can you test if a mineral is gold? Try a metal probe. Gold has different
colors because it mixes with different impurities. Yellow gold is very,
very heavy and will be with the gravel. Black gold is very heavy and will
be with the sand. White gold is heavy and will be with the silt.
- Every stream carries a different suite of heavy minerals
because streams have different rocks weathering in their watersheds. Besides
gold and magnetite, many streams carry the semiprecious minerals zircon
(slim, narrow, clear crystals), garnet (usually pink or red, 12-sided crystals),
monazite (flat, short, stubby, yellow crystals), and corundum (gray blades;
if the blades are red--ruby, if the blades are dark blue--sapphire).
- Many streams in the United States contain gold, especially
in the East and the West. You can check at the library if gold was mined
near your city or town.
- During the Gold Rush in California and Alaska, prospectors
searched for gold by using these same techniques.
- If there is no readily accessible stream, this exercise
can be done in the school yard by using a hose, buckets, or a child's swimming
pool. Do not pan sediment over a sink because the sediment will fill the
- Gold is part of our everyday life. We see it in gold
jewelry and in dental fillings. The newspaper lists the daily change in
the price of gold.