Geoscience in Two-year Colleges > Courses > Oceanography (an introduction)

Oceanography (an introduction)

Katryn Wiese
City College of San Francisco
Author Profile


Lecture class that meets 3 hrs per week (either 3 hrs/once a week at night or 1.5 hrs/twice a week) and covers the following topics. The ocean environment. Physical, chemical, biological, geological, and ecological aspects of the oceans, including the origin and extent of the oceans; nature of ocean basins and crust; causes and effects of currents, waves, and tides; biogeochemical cycles; plant and animal life in the sea; marine ecology.

Course URL:
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only (there is a lab that is a separate class but is designed to go alongside this one)

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no prerequisites. Most of the students in this class are satisfying their physical science elective for transfer to a 4-yr college. The course has an optional lab. Students at City College have an average age of 28. Many students are older and already with degrees. It's a diverse audience. The class contains both majors and nonmajors.

Course Content:

This lecture course covers the basics of physical, biological, geological, and chemical oceanography – covered at a level sufficient for majors (so nonmajors will get a good dose of science). There are optional field trips throughout the semester – usually 10-15 students will attend.
The class covers the ocean's origins in relation to planet Earth and its formation, the extent and economic importance of the oceans, plate tectonics and how it creates and modifies ocean floor features, ocean crust formation, seafloor sediment sources and processes, seawater chemistry and physics, air-sea interactions, ocean circulation, causes and effects of currents, waves, and tides, shorelines and coastal processes, biogeochemical cycles, and marine ecology – the interactions of all of these areas with the biological systems present in or living off the ocean. The class applies these processes and principles to features of western North America, as well as other locations globally. Students who complete this class will have a better understanding of important oceanographic issues that affect the entire globe and feel more of a connection with what is happeing in other countries
in regards to ocean use, natural disasters, natural resources, sea level changes, and environment stewardship. Students will be able to scientifically analyze the consequences of human infrastructure built in and around coastlines. Students will understand the important role that the ocean has played and will continue to play in global environmental processes.

Course Goals:

A. Analyze and evaluate the model of Plate Tectonics.
B. Apply the plate tectonics theory to the origin, evolution, and features of ocean basins.
C. Classify and analyze the stratigraphy of ocean floor rocks and sediment (ophiolites).
D. Analyze and interpret the origin, distribution, and evolution of ocean sediment.
E. Demonstrate and explain the unique properties of water and their application to the oceans
(surface tension, heat capacity, density-temperature curve, dissolving power).
F. Evaluate the effects of temperature, pressure, and salinity on the density, layering, and dynamics
of the oceans.
G. Examine the origin of, impacts on, and consequences of the ocean's salinity and dissolved gas
H. Integrate and evaluate the general circulation of the atmosphere and oceans.
I. Analyze and assess the origin and effects of waves, tides, and ocean currents.
J. Analyze and interpret basic beach processes, including variations in sediment size, coastal
sediment erosional, transportational, and depositional processes.
K. Examine and illustrate the origin and foundations of life in the oceans, including photosynthesis,
nutrients, nutrient cycling, and traits adapted specifically to marine organisms.
L. Analyze and evaluate the interactions and effects of the biological, physical, and chemical
components of the oceans.
M. Classify and analyze the pelagic and benthic environments of the ocean.
N. Classify and analyze the basic characteristics and general varieties of phytoplankton and
O. Classify and analyze the basic characteristics, general varieties, and interdependence of marine

Course Features:

Students are required to read chapters before they attend class (weekly quizzes at the start of class check on this). They are also required to review weekly (weekly quizzes also check this). Because of the introductory nature of the course and the wide range of students, my primary focus is to develop a course structure that requires outside reading and preparation/review, that provides regular open study sessions for students to help each other or receive help from tutors, and that thus makes the classroom experience as dynamic as possible with group work, in-class exercises, and discussion. To achieve this focus, I use weekly quizzes, handouts that need completion as tickets to take exams, regular study sessions led by student mentors, and in-class interactive activities and discussion.

Course Philosophy:

It's essential for me to set expectations with my students at the very start of the semester that they will be required to work and they will be treated as adults. As such, reading before class is mandatory. Only in this way can we use valuable class time for activities and interactions that make the content more alive and dynamic and memorable. I continually stress with my students that class time is for strengthening understanding, looking at concepts from multiple angles, and poking at holes in the foundations of understanding, NOT in teaching basics they can teach themselves as adults.


1. In-class responses to discussion questions (iClickers)
2. Weekly quizzes
3. In-Class activities (Concept sketches, Jigsaws, Minilabs, and more)
4. Four written exams (including a written final exam)
5. Instructor- and section-specific evaluation forms for students to complete and instructors to
review after the end of the semester (mostly about their experience).
6. End-of-Semester SLO Exam


Syllabus for Oceanography 1 (Acrobat (PDF) 151kB Jun4 13)

Teaching Materials:

Class website:

References and Notes:

All other materials are provided to students online. See website above.
Note: I also allow students to use previous editions of the textbook. I do all I can to help students have access to an affordable textbook.

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