Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Course Descriptions > Physical Geology (The Earth)

Physical Geology (The Earth)

Christopher D. Condit
University of Massachusetts - Amherst


This is a Physical Geology course aimed at science majors. The intent is to give you an understanding of the processes that produce the planet on which we live. The weekly three-hour lab lab includes five field excursions. The background you need includes a basic high school chemistry course (we'll briefly review what you need from that class when we use it in this course), math through pre calculus and the ability to write clear, concise English.

Course Type:
Entry Level Physical Geology

Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture is taught by the professor and the lab is taught by TAs.

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an introductory course, aimed at science majors, with weekly three hour labs, and is the ideal entry course for a geology major. The background needed includes a basic high school chemistry course, math through pre-calculus and the ability to write clear, concise English.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? yes
They don't cover the same topics - e.g. Physical Geology (GeoSci 101), for science majors with labs includes a pretty thorough battery of topics that any geology major should visit. Our GeoSci 105 is more a "shake & bake" course that visits earthquakes, volcanoes, geologic hazards, with less intent to be inclusive, and has no weekly lab.
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?Yes, if a student takes either 3-credit hour lecture-only GeoSci 103 (Oceanography) or Geo-Sci 105 (Earthquakes and Volcanoes) as an entry geology course, they must then after declaring a major, take the physical geology lab as an independent one-hour, 1 credit course (listed as Geo-Sci 131, a three-hour a week lab that normally is included in the 4-credit hour GeoSci-101 course).

Course Content:

The content includes the nature and origin of the earth; volcanism; minerals and rocks; earthquakes; plate tectonics; mountain belts; geologic time scales; wave, river, glacial, and wind action in modification of landscape and atmosphere; genesis of non-renewable resources, hydrogeology; geologic basis for environmental decision making; global change; the asteroid impact hypotheses and planetary geology.

Course Goals:

The goal of this course is to inspire interest and understanding of the features and processes that shape our global physical landscape, and to provide an overview and basis for understanding physical geology.

Course Features:

The course has an associated three-hour lab, including 4 field trips, in which the students apply the principles discussed in class.

Course Philosophy:

Topics covered include those needed for a broad understanding of geology, by both geology majors and associated science majors, including those in environmental science, forestry and landscape architecture.


25% labs, 45% three-hour pyramid exams, 10% all-day field trip report, 10% final cumulative (pyramid) exam, 10% in-class exercises.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 85kB May15 08)

References and Notes:

Course text:
Earth: Portrait of a Planet, Second Edition, by Stephen Marshak
I like the content & order in which it is presented

Lab manual:
Laboratory Manual in Physical Geology, 6th Edition by AGI/NAGT, Richard Busch, Editor.
It works well with our labs

I also assign weekly "geology" in the news reports by students