Earth Science

David Steer
, The University of Akron


This course uses an assessment-based approach for teaching earth science to non-majors in 160-student sections. Concepts are covered using short lectures (5-10 minutes) punctuated by formative group work throughout the class.

Course Type: Intro Level Earth Science
Course Size:
greater than 150

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This is an introductory course that has no prerequisites and is primarily for non-science majors. Because our institution is open enrollment, many of the students in this course have additional academic challenges. Approximately 50% of the students are enrolled in developmental math and ~35% are enrolled in developmental English. Students who later decide to major in geology must take a separate 1-credit lab course.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? yes
Introductory courses are split into Physical and Historical Geology for majors. Non-majors take Earth Science, Environmental Geology or Introduction to Oceans.
If students take a "non-majors" course, and then decide to become a major, do they have to go back and take an additional introductory course? no

Course Content:

This Earth Science course covers concepts associated with the nature of science, near-earth objects, plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains, rocks and minerals, geologic time, streams, groundwater, oceans, atmosphere, weather, climate and global change. There are no labs, though students frequently engage in condensed lab-like activities in class.

Course Goals:

- Evaluate a scenario to determine how it relates to the characteristics of the scientific method.
- Evaluate the risk associated with near-earth objects that might collide with Earth.
- Predict the locations of earthquakes, trenches, mountains and volcanoes for tectonic maps not previously analyzed.
- Predict directions of relative plate motion, age of the seafloor and draw lithospheric cross sections for tectonic maps not previously analyzed.
- Predict the rock forming processes and/or the type of rocks associated with various plate tectonic settings.
- Apply concepts of numerical time to calculate rock ages.
- Synthesize the rock cycle with relative time principles to draw cross sections based on rock descriptions.
- Predict flood frequency and evaluate a scenario by constructing recurrence interval graphs.
- Apply concepts of groundwater flow to design chemical spill mitigation plans.
- Apply concepts related to ocean circulation, currents and tides to shoreline development.
- Apply concepts related to the atmosphere to predict the weather based on a temperature/pressure map not previously discussed in class.
- Relate climate to global climate change and link human actions to possible consequences.

Course Features:

Students are supposed to read about the concepts prior to class and come prepared to apply that information in class. Examples are provided in the text, student complete similar activities in class and later on exams.

Course Philosophy:

This assessment-based approach was developed over several years as a way to better engage non-majors. Attendance is up, attrition is down and more students successfully complete the class than when lecture was the primary mode of instruction. Students quickly learn that they must attend to be successful. They value the work in class because they know it will help them on exams.


Multiple formative and summative assessments throughout the course.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 35kB May7 08)

Teaching Materials:

Assignments (Excel 27kB May14 08)
Activity sheet for a relative time exercise

References and Notes:

Course text:
The Good Earth, McConnell, Steer, Knight, Park and Owens, 2007
I helped write the course text that has integrated formative assessments.

Pedagogic references:
Classroom Assessment Techniques, Angelo and Cross, 1993.
College Pathways to the Science Education Standards, NSTA Press, 2001.
Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Boyer, 1990.
Science Education Standards, NRC Press, 1999.
Effective Grading, Woodward and Anderson eds., 1998.
Targeting Students' Science Misconceptions, Stephans, 2003.
Classroom Research, Cross and Steadman, 1996.
How People Learn, NRC Press, 2000.