World Natural Environments

Shelly A. Rayback

University of Vermont
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs


World Natural Environments is an entry level introduction to physical geography course, covering weather/climate, geomorphology, hydrology and biogeography. The course is based on five case studies (Weather and Climate of Vermont, Hurricane Katrina, the 1993 Flood of the Mississippi River, Continental Glaciation in New England and the 1980 Eruption of Mount Saint Helens).

Course URL:
Subject: Environmental Science, Geography:Physical, Human/Cultural, Environmental Science:Natural Hazards, Geography
Resource Type: Course Information:Goals/Syllabi, Course Information
Special Interest: Hazards, Complex Systems, Quantitative:Quantitative Literacy, Local Issue
Grade Level: College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level, College Lower (13-14)
Ready for Use: Course Goals Only
Course Type: Intro Level:Physical Geography
Earth System Topics: Human Dimensions:Natural Hazards, Human Dimensions, Geography
Theme: Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Environmental Science, Teach the Earth:Incorporating Societal Issues:Hazards
Course Size:


Course Context:

World Natural Environments is a requirement for Geography majors, but it also satisfies a general education requirement for the College of Arts and Sciences. The class is composed of 100 students (first-years to seniors) and is taught in a large auditorium. There are no labs for this course.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to develop models showing the flow of energy and mass within and between earth's systems and predict outcomes based on different starting points or disturbances within and between systems.

Students will be able to interpret an unfamiliar image/map/landscape and assess what physical and biotic processes might have created, modified or maintained it.

Students will be able to predict and evaluate the influence of climate, hydrology, geomorphology, and ecology on the severity of natural disasters and their impacts on human populations.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

The course structure is framed around five case studies in which students will cover topics related to weather and climate, hydrology, geomorphology and biogeography. The five case studies link physical geography concepts to the student's real-world experience (Vermont, New England) or to events the student may be familiar with (eruption of Mount St. Helens). Course activities, such as think-pair-share, jigsaw, short writing assignments, concept sketches and maps, and graphing and analysis of real world data will actively engage students in the learning process despite being in a large lecture class. Course activities are repeated multiple time over the duration of the semester to give students practice at mastering the stated goals of the course.

Skills Goals

Critical reading of general scientific articles.
Concise writing skills.
2-D and 3-D visualization and map reading skills.
Numerical literacy.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

In-class and outside-of-class course activities emphasize one or more skill goals in each assignment. The student will be provided with multiple opportunities during the semester to practice the skill goals (i.e., 3 short critical reading and writing assignments or multiple graphing exercises using real-world data). The course structure of five case studies allows students to practice and apply new course skills to newly learned knowledge. Students will be assessed informally on their performance on in-class assignments. Students will also be assessed formally based on clear and concise grading rubrics.

Attitudinal Goals

Building students' confidence in using numerical skills.
Developing students' critical thinking and question formulation skills.
Developing students' critical reading skills.
Deveoping students' writing skills.
Increasing student's curiosity and awareness of geoscience issues.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Course activites and structure are designed to facilitate the development and practice of critical thinking, reading, writing and analytical skills. Students progress in attaining these goals will be followed over the course of the semester.


Student will be assessed formally via a grading rubric. The grading rubric for each exercise, exam, etc. will clearly state what the student must have mastered for the exercise.

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