Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Course Descriptions > Introduction to Oceanography

Introduction to Oceanography

Petra Dekens
, San Francisco State University


Principles and components of the dynamic ocean system. Formation of ocean basins, oceanic influences on climate; currents; waves and tides; human relationship to and impact on the ocean; resources. Designed for non-science majors.

Course Type:
Entry Level:Oceanography Entry Level

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites. Most of the students are taking the course to fulfill a GE requirement. About half of the students are Freshmen. We also offer an oceanography lab, but it has no connection to the lecture. Students in the lab are required to have already taken the lecture or be concurrently enrolled. About half the students in the lecture are also enrolled in lab.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? yes

In some ways, the answer is yes and no. We have a 100 level course that fulfills a GE requirement, but also serves as an introduction to the major. We also have a 200 level course, which is designed to be more quantitative, but without calculus. The 200 level course is required for majors
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:

The introduction to Oceanography course attempts to provide a broad survey of oceanography. I cover topics in geology (plate tectonics, formation of ocean basins, sediments, the San Andreas Fault), atmospheric circulation (convection, circulation cells, wind patterns), physical oceanography (wind driven circulation, coriolis, Ekmann spiral, pressure gradient force, geostrophic currents, waves and tides), chemical oceanography (salinity, density, nutrient distribution in the water column), and some brief biological oceanography (phytoplankton, zooplankton, primary productivity patterns). The class also discusses human impacts on the ocean and climate change.

Course Goals:

The student will have been exposed to a general coverage of the topic.

The student will understand the role of density differences in driving physical movement of the atmosphere and ocean.

The student will understand how uneven heating of the earth surface drives atmospheric and oceanic circulation

Students will understand the relationship between atmospheric wind patterns and gyre circulation

The student will develop an appreciation the interdisciplinary nature of oceanography, and for the some of the "cutting edge" research currently underway in the field.

Course Features:

The course uses exams and quizzes to assess if the learning objectives have been met. In addition, I use "clickers" in class to assess if the material is understood as it is being taught. I also use short activities during lecture.

Course Philosophy:

The current design of the course is ready for revisions and improvement! This was my first semester teaching the course, and the lecture format, with an optional lab that has no connection to the lecture, is the format that is currently in place in my department. I am eager to try new things. But I struggle with the balance between more creative pedagogy, time in lecture to cover key topics, and time to grade the different forms of assessment.


Mostly exams, although I use electronic clickers during lectures to assess if the material is being understood.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 32kB May7 08)

References and Notes:

Text: Oceanography by Tom Garrison
This was the text being used by the lecturers in the department. Also, I personally find that most of the oceanography books are really similar.

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