Donald T. Rodbell

Union College
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


An introductory course on surface processes and landforms, with an emphasis on landforms and processes the are or have been dominant in the vicinity of Union College (eastern NY state)

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Context:

The only prerequisite for this course is one introductory geology course. For many students, this is their second geology course. The course is taken by geology majors and minors, and by environmental science majors and minors. There is a required 3-4 hour lab each week.

Course Goals:

recognize a variety of landforms in their future travels, and from aerial photographs, and DEM

have some appreciation for the rates of surface processes--their range and the necessary data need to estimate rates of change

to be able to use aerial photographs and satellite images to map landforms and recognize active surface processes on the earths surface,
be able to write a carefully and efficiently prepared scientific paper that is complete with figures, tables and references. A paper that is scientific in its approach, logical, and well organized

be able to present orally the results of a field study in a logical and well organized manner, in the style of what one might present someday at a GSA or AGU meeting

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

we cover in lecture and in specific lab assignments landforms and processes associated with fluvial, hillslope, karst, eolian, and soil formation. For each of these components, students collect their own data (often in teams) and process these data or samples, and come up with their own conclusions about the significance of their results.

students orally present 1 lab report to the class and one summary of an article that we have read (which is meant to provide background for an upcoming lab report).

Skills Goals

some quantitative skills, use of spreadsheets
oral communication
working in groups
assessment of the literature (~6 journal articles are read, presented, and discussed in class)

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

Students learn by doing, especially when provided with explicit guidelines and prompt feedback. I think expecting students to write and speak, and think about a data set will develop these skills over time. In addition, the specific ability to recognize landforms in the field or from aerial photos and/or satellite images is a skill that requires lots of practice

Attitudinal Goals

the ability to think, write and speak scientifically
to formulate and test hypotheses
to realize that science is an iterative process-- that we can only reject hypotheses and prove none!
to realize that every published article is based on some assumption(s), which may or may not be valid-- it is up to the reader recognize these assumptions
to gain confidence working in groups and speaking in public
to appreciate that geology (geomorphology) can be very relevant to big issues that society faces today
to have fun doing science--to get ones hands dirty in the field, and then clean up and analyze samples using sophisticated instrumentation, or study images from satellites gives one an appreciation for one's immediate surroundings and the impact that humans can have on these surroundings.

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

it is difficult to predict how students will respond to this course (or any field course). Since it is commonly only the second geology course they have taken, some can be put off by all of the outside work that is required. The course is MUCH more demanding than their introductory course was. Most students really enjoy the field outings (esp. the cave trip), and though they can find plowing through a published article very difficult, many have commented on how much more comfortable they became in reading some of the primary literature. This may be one of the more challenging aspects of the course, and it is important the papers we read and discuss be directly relevant to the lab reports that the students are asked to write,


exams (midterm and final)
lab reports
oral reports


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 79kB Apr18 08)