Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Course Descriptions > Introduction to Physical Geology (unofficially called Geology for Engineers)

Introduction to Physical Geology (unofficially called Geology for Engineers)

Leslie Gertsch
, Missouri University of Science and Technology


This intro geology course for engineers attempts to engage the often-unwilling students who take few if any additional geology classes, yet require an understanding of the geologic processes and materials with which they will work.

Course Type:
Entry Level Physical Geology

Course Size:

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites, and is a pre-requisite for many other courses in several majors. This course is required for those non-geology/geophysics majors who need basic geological knowledge (e.g., geological engineering, mining engineering, civil engineering, petroleum engineering, environmental engineering). This course is sometimes taken as a lab science elective by other majors (including mathematics, computer science, psychology, chemical engineering, architectural engineering, mechanical engineering, information science & technology, economics, and history).

Course Content:

This course focuses on geologic concepts that are important to the fields of geological, mining, civil, petroleum, and environmental engineering. As such, it covers the rock cycle (including the main rock types and processes) and geologic time (relative and absolute) in addition to surface water, groundwater, energy, minerals, and planetary geology. Lab exercises focus on basic engineering applications (map interpretation, site characterization, engineering properties, earthquake hazard analysis, etc.) as well as mineral and rock identification.

Course Goals:

The students must meet the objectives listed in Blackboard for every topic we study. For example, the objectives for the first week of the course (introduction) are:
  1. Define geology and describe the difference between its two broad sub-areas-physical geology and historical geology.
  2. Identify many of the major areas of geologic study.
  3. Discuss the difference between catastrophism and uniformitarianism, and know when modern geology began.
  4. Describe the geologic time scale from Era to Periods, in chronological order, and how long ago each of the Eons and Eras began and ended.
  5. List and describe the internal structure of planet Earth, both according to chemical composition and according to the physical properties of the materials.
  6. Explain the Earth system, its four interacting subsystems, and the two main sources of energy that power it.
  7. Describe the rock cycle, the various geologic processes that transform one rock type into another, and how they all fit together.
  8. Identify and describe the two principal divisions of Earth's surface, and be able to differentiate their major features.

The students must define "engineering" and "engineer" to a Nobel laureate and an interested 10-year-old.
The students must describe an example of geology that is related to their major (or any campus major) to these same two people.

Course Features:

Every week has either a homework, an in-class exercise, a quiz, or a midterm exam to allow/force the students to "do something" with the concepts they are reading and hearing about. The precise nature of what is done depends on the concept being emphasized.

Course Philosophy:

I enjoy the rich variety of the material, and try to make the course as interesting for the students as it is for me. Likewise, demonstrating the ongoing investigative nature of physical geology combats their perception of dead, dry material figured out long ago. If they see that there are still many questions to be answered yet, and that geologic events happen every day instead of only in the distant past, they can infer the vitality of the field and its relevance to their own lives/careers.


Statistical evaluation of their scores on homework, quiz, lab exercise, and exam questions that pertain to each particular goal. This is done by a two-part process: Questions are assigned to goal categories during exam creation (to ensure balance), and then student scores are recorded on a per-question basis (improves scoring accuracy). From these data it is simple to analyze the average class response to each question, and thus to each goal.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 55kB Mar7 08)
The course website is restricted access only.

Teaching Materials:

Topic schedule (Acrobat (PDF) 8kB Mar7 08) (modified as the semester goes on)
Activity description and files for an exam review activity

References and Notes:

Required textbooks are Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology by Tarbuck and Lutgens (9th ed) for the lecture portion and Laboratory Manual in Physical Geology by AGI and NAGT (edited by Busch, 7th ed) for the laboratory. The homeworks, in-class exercises, lab exercises, quizzes, and exams are created from combinations of selected material from my personal library. When we were using the 8th edition of Tarbuck & Lutgens, I assigned many of the online quizzes on the associated website (http://wps.prenhall.com/esm_tarbuck_earth_8/) as homework; however, logistical difficulties forced us to adopt a local (Blackboard) approach.