Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Course Descriptions > GEO235: The Physical Earth

GEO235: The Physical Earth

Laurel Goodell
Princeton University


This course is an introduction to physical geology and geological processes. Topics include earth materials and structure, geologic time, internal and surface processes, and current issues in geoscience research. In lab, students apply concepts learned and systematically traverse the geology of New Jersey from Coastal Plain to the Appalachians.

Course Type:
Entry Level Physical Geology

Course Size:

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

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no prerequisites, and serves as a survey of the field and introduction to the Department of Geosciences. There is a mandatory laboratory component. About half the students go on to either major or take other courses in the department.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? yes
The program is flexible. Both majors and non-majors take the introductory course designed for majors. Majors may also substitute a freshman seminar which covers similar material and includes a week-long field trip. Non-majors also take more topical courses such as Natural Hazards or Oceanography.
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? no

Course Content:

This course is an introduction to geology and geological processes. Topics include the physical processes occurring within the earth, including plate tectonics, formation of minerals and rocks, earth structure, earthquakes, faults, and mountain building, as well as the physical processes that transform the earth's surface, including weathering and erosion, flooding, landslides and the development of landscape. Students are also introduced to current issues in geologic research. In lab, students learn skills of observation and interpretation, and apply them on field trips traversing the geology of New Jersey.

Course Goals:

Students should understand earth materials, geologic time, the large-scale internal structure of the earth, and the dynamic interplay of internal and surface processes. They should also understand the evidence on which understanding of these topics is based.

Students should be able to make accurate observations, especially field observations, and interpret them.

Students should be able to read and understand a scientific paper (of an appropriate level) and be exposed to some of the currently active issues in geology.

Course Features:

Students must read assigned textbook chapters before each lecture, and submit (via email) 3 questions from each chapter the night before class. The questions either address topics that are confusing or pose issues that go beyond the information covered in the chapters. These questions are used to guide the lectures.

There are three reserve reading assignments from the literature that relate to topics covered in class. Students must write a 2-page newspaper-type summary of the article and then pose 2 questions about things not understand or things that are intriguing. These are then discussed in class.

The laboratory portion of the course includes 2 day-long field trips that traverse New Jersey geology from the Coastal Plain in the south east, across the Triassic Basin (the Piedmont), and into the Appalachians in the northwest. Based in their observations, students draw a detailed cross section across the local area, then a schematic one across the state.

Course Philosophy:

The course is designed to give students a broad overview of physical geology; a breadth they may not get in their other classes because Princeton does not have a core curriculum for majors, only a required number of courses. It also models for them scientific research, as we address current issues in the literature and run labs that are based on interpreting observations.


Students take a midterm and final exam, both of which have essay questions as well objective ones. They are responsible for laboratory reports, submitting questions based on textbook readings, and summarizing several articles from the current literature.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 89kB May19 08)

References and Notes:

Understanding Earth, by Grotzinger, Jordan, Press and Siever

In the Fall 2007 semester, students read and summarized the following three papers from the current scientific literature:
  • Clark, Marin K. et al. The non-equilibrium landscape of the southern Sierra Nevada, California GSA Today, vol. 15, no. 9, 2005, pp. 4-10
  • Glazner, Allen F. et al. Are plutons assembled over millions of years by amalgamation from small magma chambers? GSA Today, vol. 14, no. 4-5, 2004, pp. 4-11
  • Royer, Dana L. et al. CO2 as a primary driver of Phanerozic climate GSA Today, vol. 14, no. 3, 2004, pp. 4-10

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