Classroom Activities on Panning for Gold During the Gold Rush

California’s 1849 Gold Rush brought many thousands of migrants from all over the world heading for the gold fields. Students can learn about this exciting and dangerous time through research and discussion, but there are many hands on activities that can help bring the experience to life. Many people still pan for gold as an outdoor hobby, but some are also serious prospectors, hoping to find the rare metal. Gold weighs far more than water and is usually hidden in the sand and gravel at the bottom of streams.

  1. Stake a Mining Claim

    • Set up mining sites in the school yard. Each site should have a plastic tub of water mixed with sand and gravel and fishing weights painted gold. Have teams of students pick the mining site that they think will give them the best chance of finding gold. Once they’ve picked a site, they must register it with the teacher by making a sign that says Mining Claim and every team member should sign it. The first team to register the mining claim gets to pan for gold at their claim. Discuss the importance of mining claims and the trouble that could arise if a claim was ignored.

    Pan for Gold

    • Before sending the students out to their mining claims, give them all metal pie tins and a brief description on how to pan for gold. Have each team member take turns mining their claims. Show each team the basic process: putting sand and gravel in their pans, shaking the pan left to right while underwater to cause the heavier gold to work down to the bottom of the pan, and the lighter sand and gravel to shift out of the pan. Make sure each student gets a turn at panning for gold.

    Is It Really Gold?

    • Show students samples of real gold, copper, and fool’s gold. Have the teams of students perform tests on the metals to determine their composition. The first team can rub the metals across an unglazed porcelain tile. If it leaves a streak of black on the tile, it is iron pyrite or fool’s gold. If the streak is golden yellow, it is real gold. Show the student’s a Moh’s scale, which determines the hardness of the metals. While gold is 2.5 to 3 on Moh’s scale, glass has a hardness of 5.5. Have students scratch the gold against a piece of glass. If it scratches the glass, it isn’t gold or the gold is mixed with other metals.


    • Discuss how gold gets into rivers and streams by showing examples and diagrams of rock weathering by stream water action. Explain the rock cycle and how gold gets deposited into streams from gold deposits inside the Earth. Ask students what natural forces can expose, transport or deposit gold into stream beds. Have students demonstrate the weathering process by using chocolate chip cookies and water. Instruct one student to hold the cookies in a tray while another student pours water over the cookies. Have the students observe and record their observations, describing why the chocolate chips are on the bottom of the tray while the cookie particles float.

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