How Did This Landscape Form? A Field-Based Exercise to Enhance Awareness of the Natural Environment

Lyn Gualtieri, Seattle University
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

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  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


In this activity students will visit a local area and conduct geologic fieldwork in order to ask the question "Why does this landscape look the way it does?" After choosing an area and conducting fieldwork, drawing sketches, and making observations, students will link their observations to published geologic research. Students will present their research in the form of a pre-recorded 3 minute presentation (either powerpoint, video or a combination). Finally, students will recreate the landscape that they studied using edible ingredients. By having students actually go outside and conduct their own fieldwork they hopefully begin to notice and experience geologic processes in their own ecoregion. This can be an important component to developing a sense of place and ultimately, a citizenship of place.

Learning Goals

Using geologic evidence to deduce geologic history

Making observations about the natural environment

Learning how to pose a question

Sketching natural features

Linking observations to published geologic history

Context for Use

This activity can be used at any level, but I usually use it in introductory geology classes as an independent, take-home lab. This works especially well in distance learning classes where class fieldtrips are often not viable. The activity can be ramped up as a final project or scaled down into individual components for separate learning modules for middle or high school.

I often talk to students about the protocol for taking samples and gaining permission to conduct fieldwork on private and public lands. Hammer, chisels, and eye protection can be checked out to the students.

Since a key component of this activity is observation it can be used at any point in the course. I actually do this in a basic form the very first day of class. I break the students up into groups and show them slides of geologic features (a folded mountain belt, an aerial photo of a field of drumlins, mineral thin section for example) and ask them to simply list observations about what they see. Once they start learning more about the processes that created the landforms, they can integrate those ideas into the activity.

Description and Teaching Materials

Student handout for How did this landscape form? (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Aug8 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students often have trouble finding geologic maps of their area or knowing how to search for a geologic map. They need help in understanding that they need to search a regional area and not focus on a very specific field site. For example if a student's site is Snoqualmie Falls they may need to search for the geologic history of the "Cascade foothills" and not just "Snoqualmie Falls".

Students often have trouble relating the entire geologic history to their site. They often focus on just the most recent and often times glacial history of the site.

I stress to the students that researching and picking a site is one of the most important aspects of the project. I encourage them to do research before heading out into the field. For example, can they find any scholarly articles on the geologic history of their field site or region? Introduce the students to geologic databases such as GEOREF or GEOBASE and explain to them that research is more than just typing a phrase into Google. You might want to schedule a visit from your science librarian to outline the steps for conducting scientific research. The science librarian at Seattle University has set up a research guide for environmental science which helps students to find scholarly articles and search databases. The Seattle University research guide can be viewed here:


An instructor or student-made video that actually shows what an appropriate field site is would be helpful for the students when picking their own site. A video that uses local examples of appropriate and inappropriate field sites should help. Even though the assignment explains what a rock outcrop is, students have trouble understanding this.

It is up to you whether you want to show the students examples of past work (student sketches or presentations). Students often don't understand what "include a scale" means in sketches or photos. I sketch on the board an example of an overview sketch and a detailed sketch. I also take them outside so that they can practice making overview and detailed sketches of rocks on campus.

A variation of this activity is to look at the relationship between the geologic origin of the site and the built environment and have the students figure out for themselves why, for example, houses aren't built on impermeable clay.


I use the following checklist and assign point values to each required item that was given in the assignment directions. For example:

Name + picture, date, location = 3 points

Sketches w/scale included = 15 points

Photos with details described = 5 points

Observations and site description = 17 points

Proposed geologic history = 15 points

Geologic map = 7 points

References = 5 points

Presentation quality, flow = 18 points

Edible landscape creativity + accurateness = 15 points

References and Resources Index map for geologic maps of Washington state. USGS website. A starting place for students to search for geologic maps. University of Washington Map Library. Useful information on where to find geologic maps. The Pacific Northwest Center for Geologic Mapping Studies. Puget Sound LIDAR Consortium.

Evergreen State College