Chemistry of Earth Systems

Jeff Niemitz

Dickinson College
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


The course covers thermodynamics and kinetics of earth systems as it relates to earth surface environments. Much of the course examines the geochemistry of the different "spheres" and the fluxes and mass balances between them.

The lab is analytical instrumentation heavy with short class projects to show the usefulness and limitations of an instrument to collect different kinds of geochemical data. Data precision and accuracy are key aspects in all these projects. There is a final class project on a local geochemical problem (differs each year with everything from water chemistry to the differentiation of diabase dikes and sills and country rock metamorphism).

This course is mainly low temperature geochemistry (high temp is covered in our min/pet course) and helps with understanding of environmental geochemical issues.

Course URL:
Course Size:

less than 15

Course Context:

This is an upper-level (300) course required for all tracks in the Earth Science major. It has 3 hours of lecture and 3 hours of lab but there is significant time spent outside the classroom on lab projects.

Course Goals:

There are three major learning objectives in the course:
1) Student should gain a deeper understanding of the thermodynamics and kinetics of earth systems.
2) Students should develop a facility with analytical instrumentation for collecting precise and accurate geochemical data; data analysis via a local, semester-long geochemical research problem
3) Student should leave with a deep understanding of the geochemistry of the rock, water and tectonic cycles and the connections between the "spheres".

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

Lectures are augmented with "classic" geochemical literature to show the process of using geochemical data to gain a deeper understanding of a geological process (e.g. papers on experiments with seawater and basalt interaction to understand hydrothermal activity at MOR's and its affect on ocean chemistry and ore deposit formation)
Labs emphasize the care needed in sample preparation for instrumental analysis and data interpretation by engaging in small "research" projects.

Skills Goals

-analytical writing
-quantitative abilities/problem solving
-reading and analysis of literature
-analytical chemical skills
-data interpretation
-making broader connections to other types of data
-working in groups

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

Lab and lecture are designed with focussed redundancy to hone these skills over the course of the semester. Hence, for example, the lab projects are formative assessments of sample prep and interpretation, analytical writing, and quantitative reasoning in the context of a real world problem. The final class project is more of a summative evaluation of their gained skills. Quantitative reasoning is addressed with weekly problem sets based on the past week's content. The final exam tests both the understanding of basic geochemical principles and the geochemical connections between spheres.

Attitudinal Goals

One goal is to build confidence in use of chemistry and math in earth sciences so that students can use these skills in their capstone experience.

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

Problem sets and lab projects build that confidence with a lot of out of class help from me to get them to reason through the rough spots


Problem sets
Short lab projects
Final lab research problem
Analytical writing
Final Exam with quantitative problems and essays on the connections


Syllabus (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 51kB Mar10 11)

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