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Evolution of Western North America

Mark Schmitz and Karen Viskupic
Boise State University


This course is designed to provide future geoscientists with a basic understanding of how geological processes have shaped the structure and evolution of the western North American continent. The study of the geology of western North America in turn serves as a means of introduction to the nature of scientific investigation, and the research methods geologists apply to formulate and test geological hypotheses. A laboratory component emphasizing field methods and local geologic mapping provides students with practical experience with the process of science.

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.

Course Context:

This is a sophomore-level course that may be the second geoscience course students take after the a university-serving 100-level introductory geology or environmental geology course. Likely, all students in this class are majors in Geoscience (geology or hydrology track) or in Earth Science Education. This is one course in our relatively new "sophomore core" that also includes courses Water in the West (focus on hydrology) and Seeing the Unseen (focus on geophysics). The course was taught in this format for the first time in Fall, 2008.

Course Content:

Course Goals:

Students will:
  • Develop an understanding of the principles and mechanics of the scientific method, as used by geoscientists to study geological phenomena
  • Be able to apply concepts from physics, chemistry, and mathematics to understand geological processes.
  • Be able to apply geochemical knowledge and critical thinking skills to address a range of geological problems.
  • Utilize computers and software to aid in solving geological problems.
  • Be familiar with sources of scientific information and be able to utilize scientific literature.

Course Features:

Teaching the Process of Science

This is something we need to work on. During the first class, students received a copy of "The Nature of Science and the Scientific Method," by Christine V. McLelland, The Geological Society of America. The class discussed this article as a group and the instructor addressed misconceptions about the nature of science.

The main feature of the course that teaches students about the process of science is conducting scientific investigations in the field–making observations, forming hypotheses, deciding what data to collect, etc. There is also a focus on demonstrating how data collected from the different branches of the geosciences are used together to support or reject hypotheses.


Content was assessed with two exams, a few problem sets, a few lab activities and the results of field mapping exercises.

Process was assessed with the Science Attitude Inventory II. Reference is:
  • Moore R. and Foy R. (1997) The Scientific Attitude Inventory: A revision (SAI ii). Journal of Research in Science Teaching, v. 34, no. 4, p. 327-336.


Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

  • The Geoscience Handbook, AGU Data Sheets, Fourth Edition, edited by J.D. Walker and H.A. Cohen, published by American Geological Institute
It provides a compilation of practical information for geoscientists, is easy to use and is something students can reference throughout their studies and careers.