Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Course Descriptions > Geology and the Environment

Geology and the Environment

Angela M. Moore
, Guilford College


Geology and the Environment course focuses on the fundamentals of physical geology, and also integrates significant material pertaining to human interactions with their environment. The course is open to majors and non-majors, and includes a required lab session that gives students the opportunity to observe and study geologic processes both in the lab and out in the field. This course satisfies the natural science general education requirement for Guilford College.

Course Type:
Entry Level Physical Geology

Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

Geology and the Environment is an introductory course with no pre-requisites, but it does serve as a pre-requisite course for upper division geology courses. This course has a required lab, and satisfies the natural science requirement for the general education curriculum; non-majors comprise approximately 80-90% of the students taking the class.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? no

If students take a "non-majors" course, and then decide to become a major, do they have to go back and take an additional introductory course? yes

Course Content:

Geology and the Environment course focuses on the fundamentals of physical geology (rock types, mineral identification, plate tectonics, etc.), but also includes significant material pertaining to human interaction with their environment. This course emphasizes learning through field experiences, and includes a lab and a one day field trip that focus on identifying different types of rocks. Other field experiences include the use topographic maps and GPS units in our campus woods, and a study of soil formation on our campus. Students also participate in an in-depth analysis of a local impacted stream system, which requires them to compare observations and data at four sampling locations and to produce a professional style report. Other topics that are often integrated into the end of the course can vary but may include natural disasters and hazard management, global warming, energy issues, and problems associated with urban and suburban development.

Course Goals:

One course goal for Geology and the Environment is for students to come away with an understanding of fundamental geologic processes such as the rock cycle, hydrologic cycle, and plate tectonics. Skills they will acquire from the course include the application of a systematic, scientific approach to problem solving; procedures for the collection of scientific data , graphical and statistical presentation of data, and analysis of field information; the ability to read and interpret topographic maps, and a knowledge of how geological information can help in understanding the major environmental issues facing the world today.

Course Features:

The course has an intensive field based lab near the end of the semester which involves collection of field data from a local impacted stream. Students use provided resources (handout), maps, aerial photographs, city GIS maps of land use, and data from previous years to write a professional report about the stream characteristics. Students learn to use spreadsheets to generate basic graphs, and to do the required calculations. Each student must also come up with an additional hypothesis of their own, that they then test against the available data and present in the final report.

One specific feature that several of us use in the lecture part of the course is the 'smart board' technology. We teach a class size of up to 48 students, which is the largest course taught on our campus; this leads to several challenges, particularly since our students are not used to this 'large' class size. The smart board technology allows us to use a Powerpoint projection as our 'chalkboard', and we can write our notes directly on the screen. This is awesome for sketching figures, and it is projected so everything can be clearly seen by everyone in the room. In addition, you have the flexibility of interspersing great pictures of rocks in the field or images from the textbook, without having to toggle from screen back to the board. This approach with written notes has been much more integrative, and helps to break the mold of the boring Powerpoint presentation and passive students; we will often incorporate a group-based image analysis or exercise into each lecture, to help break things up and to promote student learning. Simple examples include pictures of igneous rocks, and asking students to identify rock type and where they were formed, or perhaps interpreting the geologic history of a real (or sketched) outcrop.

Course Philosophy:

This course design was already in place when I arrived, after much teamwork and input from previous members of the department. I love it, because I believe that getting students outside and into the 'real world' helps to grab and hold the interest of non-majors.


We definitely focus a great deal on the capstone lab assignment, which focuses on the process of developing and investigating hypotheses, and has a very practical component involving the collection, analysis, and presentation of scientific data. Lab scores and performance on exam questions are also used for assessment.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 146kB May7 08)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Course text: Understanding Earth, John Grotzinger, Thomas H. Jordan, Frank Press, Raymond Siever
This textbook is very easy to read and understand, and has excellent graphics. We've looked at other books, but this one has been well received by the majority of students in the course.

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