Initial Publication Date: May 29, 2015

Course profile: GeoJourney

Bowling Green State University

Entry level course, 16-30 students

Information for this profile was provided by Joe Elkins in 2007.
Map of the route for Bowling Green State University's GeoJourney field course. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Jump down to Overview and Context * Course Content * Connecting to the Future of Science * Goals and Assessment * References and Resources * Additional Materials

Overview and Context

This is an introductory-level general education course with no prerequisites. It is taught entirely in the field over nine-weeks at 30 national parks on a 14,500 mile field trip. Students earn 18 semester credit hours of general education credit. It consists primarily of incoming freshmen and sophomores from a variety of backgrounds; few know that geology is a subject they can major in. The course is writing intensive, requiring daily entries in a field notebook at each field site, essays and laboratory reports, and written exams. The students and staff camp in tents every night, sharing the responsibility of camp chores in a communal living environment.

Course Content

GeoJourney consists of five courses that are co-requisite as part of an interdisciplinary field program that uses field sites in national parks, regional museums and visitors centers, road cuts and outcrops, industrial sites and large-scale civil engineering projects, Indian reservations, archeological sites, privately-owned natural attractions, and wildlife preserves in 24 states as the field sites to learn concepts in physical and historical geology, Native American culture, environmental studies, and critical thinking. Daily excursions to field sites and museums place introductory concepts in context. At night campfire discussions and lectures enhance the educational experience. With so much travel time during the nine-week period (14,500 mi/60 mph = 240 hours), we incorporated hand-held personal media players (such as the iPod) as platforms to give students access to educational documentaries, lecture podcasts, images, animations, audio books, Native American music, and e-text. The primary use of electronic course materials is to prepare the students for up-coming field sites as we travel in vehicles. Basic geologic mapping projects, water sampling and analysis, archeological excavations, examination of outcrops, topographic exercises, and geologic hazard assessment projects serve as the "labs" and are the focus of the field trip. Students learn how to identify rocks, minerals, fossils, landforms, and artifacts. They also obtain experience with topographic maps, aerial photographs, satellite images, and the maintenance of field notebooks. Interdisciplinary concepts are correlated according to geography where regions of the country are studied in terms of geomorphic provinces, ecological biome, and Native American cultural regions.

Connecting to the Future of Science

The course content is taught in an interdisciplinary format where traditional disciplinary boundaries are intentionally blurred in order to frame geoscience concepts in relevance to "big-picture" societal issues concerning energy and water and mineral resources, agriculture, land-use, global warming, and geologic hazards. The program gives introductory students experience in a wide variety of geologic settings and connects geologic concepts to "text-book" localities in national parks across the country. The interdisciplinary curriculum also introduces basic geoscience concepts to students in terms of societal considerations and engages students by challenging them to consider their own values when making choices pertaining to course content as part of a democratic society. Students come away from the experience with an understanding of how scientific evidence is collected and how it can be used to make decisions concerning societal issues. The experience also illustrates the role geoscientists play in managing natural resources and land use which furthers student understanding of what geoscientist do for a living through first-hand encounters. Ultimately, students express interest in pursuing geoscience as an area of academic interest and potential career path: 25% go on to major in geology and 60% minor in it.

Goals and Assessment


Field-based Physical Geology introduces students to the scientific method, the principles of geology (such as plate tectonics and age dating techniques), the development and identification of geologic materials, structures, and landforms, and regional environmental issues and geologic hazards. Ultimately, students are able to:
  • Use the scientific process to evaluate the natural world
  • Use geologic tools such as hand lenses, maps and photographs, and field measurements to effectively analyze and identify geologic samples and landforms
  • Synthesize geological issues, such as water quality and supply, energy supply, and mineral resource exploitation within the United States and globally
Field-based Historical Geology builds on the foundational material covered in physical geology by contextualizing the occurrence of specific rock types, fossils, and landforms and their development through geologic time. The course also introduces the principles, concepts, and methods to interpret a region's geologic history, the tectonic and climatic changes of earth throughout its history, and the history of life on the planet. Ultimately, students can:
  • Summarize evolutionary theory and its evidence
  • Identify major phyla in the fossil record and interpret their paleoenvironment
  • Relate climate change to eustatic change
  • Compare the geology of North America to that of the planet
Indigenous Cultures of North America overviews a variety of indigenous North American cultures, both past and present, with emphasis on the archaeological record to interpret a culture's interaction with the physical and biological world. Specifically, students utilize evidence from the archaeological record, historical record, field observations, interactions with modern cultural groups, and contemporary writings to evaluate the impact of Native Americans on modern America's landscape and culture. Ultimately, students can:
  • Recognize the historical and present diversity of cultures in North America and how they have contributed to modern cultural and physical landscapes
  • Synthesize the complex relationships between dominant cultures and the cultures they replace and/or assimilate
  • Evaluate the effects of mode of production and socio-political organization on the physical landscape
Environmental Studies provides an overview of environmental concepts in the context of the ecological, cultural, social, economic, and political spaces in which they occur. The course is divided into three general categories: principles of ecology (how the ecosphere works), the human "life-support" system (how humans physically survive in the ecosphere), and human social management of these two systems from 1492-present. Ultimately, students can:
  • Recognize the basic characteristics of ecosystems
  • Synthesize the complexity of human-environment interactions
  • Evaluate the impacts of human population pressures and how they relate to decision-making over land use and natural resources
  • Interpret social, economic, political, and ethical issues as they relate to the environment


Student performances in achieving the objectives of the courses on GeoJourney are assessed frequently in a variety of ways to frame student understanding in terms of the interrelatedness of the subject areas. In order to assess students' understanding of the subject areas relevant to the regions visited, student-driven "wrap-up" discussions are held on the last night we spend in a region, in which students articulate the major issues within the region and relate the field stops we have visited to those issues. Over the course of the program, students synthesize the objectives of multiple field stops into an increasingly coherent picture of regional and inter-regional issues.

A second method we use to assess student performance toward the course objectives is the regular collection and review of student entries in their field notebook. Each student is required to record their observations, answer focus questions, and sketch relevant landscapes and materials for every field site. Improvements in the quality of the synthesis of observations and relevance of notations in the field notebook entries suggests students increase their ability to use geological tools and understanding of the scientific process. Field notebook entries also provide an opportunity for students to synthesize relationships between various field sites; the frequency of entries mentioning these conceptual and geographic relationships increases over time.

Written exams are another method by which we assess students' understanding of not only concepts within each of the subject areas, but also the interdisciplinary nature of the four subjects. Specifically, written exams focus on assessing the students' ability to integrate concepts from one or more of the courses. For example, an exam question might read: "Discuss the role of water in the development of civilizations on the Colorado Plateau. Include in your discussion the sources, abundance, and acquisition of water for prehistoric, historic and modern civilizations, as well as any relevant impacts the acquisition of water had on the environment." While students generally find the exams difficult, over the course of the program scores on the exams show improvement, particularly in the students' ability to articulate relationships between concepts such as geologic time and the geologic evolution of North America.

Additionally, students' skills at field mapping, orienteering, basic identification of rocks and minerals, and their understanding of the scientific process are assessed through written reports and maps, which are required for major geologic field stops, such as the Grand Canyon. A typical report is in the style of a scientific paper, including introduction, methods, results, etc. and is interdisciplinary in focus. For example, at Yellowstone National Park students write a report describing the methodology and results of their sampling of various hydrothermal features and why the chemistry of those features varies throughout the park. In the discussion portion of the report, students are able to discuss the relationship between the water chemistry within the park and the impacts this has on wildlife, such as the microorganisms. The Native American culture studies course requires similar synthesis of hands-on experiences and activities, such as in student journal entries relating articles about Native American lifeways to observations made on Native American reservations, like Pine Ridge, SD. Student reports and journal entries demonstrate increased understanding of geologic concepts and human relationships to the landscape from the beginnings of the GeoJourney program to the end.

GeoJourney students voluntarily participated in ongoing geoscience education research aimed at assessing the efficacy of field-based geoscience courses. Thus far, we have used a mixed methods approach involving student interviews and the use of the Geoscience Concept Inventory to evaluate student learning. Students were made aware of the purposes of the assessments per the protocol established by the Bowling Green State University Human Subjects Review Board. Students were also informed that their participation in the study was not required nor would their results have any effect on their course grades. Results of these assessments suggest that field-based learning environments can effect positive change in student attitudes toward geoscience and can improve geoscience concept knowledge beyond what has been demonstrated in the traditional classroom setting- See Elkins, J. and Elkins, N.M.L. "Teaching Geology in the Field: Significant geoscience concept gains in entirely field-based introductory geology courses" Journal of Geoscience Education (March, 2007).

References and Resources

  • Earth: Geologic Principles and History, Chernicoff, Fox, and Tanner
  • Native American Heritage, Garbarino and Sasso
  • The Ecological Indian, Shepard Krech III
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
  • Struggle for Land, Ward Churchill
  • The State of Native America, Annette Jaimes, ed.
  • Ecocide of Native America, Grinde and Johansen
  • The New Resource Wars, Al Gedicks
  • Ishmael, Daniel Quinn
  • Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner
  • Sharing the Earth: Cross-Cultural Experiences in Population, Wildlife and the Environment edited by Patricia Waak and Kenneth Strom

Additional Materials

Download the field trip itinerary (Microsoft Word 126kB Apr9 07) for 2004.