Earth Systems Science

Kim Hannula
Fort Lewis College


Our Earth Systems Science course is a fairly traditional lecture-style earth science survey course, designed to fulfill a Natural Environment requirement from a defunct general education program. The lab section includes a new group research project that involves a long-term study of a local stream, with each lab section contributing different information to be interpreted by all the lab sections.

Course URL:
Course Type: Intro Level:Earth System Science Intro Level
Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in separate lecture and lab components. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This course is one of the most popular general education lab science courses at Fort Lewis, serving as many as 250 students per year. Two or three lecture sections are taught per semester, and students are able to register for any of the four to six lab sections. Many students have different instructors for lecture and lab. Approximately 2-5% of the students take the course as part of the elementary or secondary education majors. Most of the rest register for the course to fulfill general education requirements, and 25 students per year participate in the class as part of the Nature of Business learning community (a cluster of courses taken by group of new freshmen considering majoring in business). Fewer than 10 students per year decide to major in geology after this class. Those who do switch to a geology major are able to move directly into Historical Geology, without going back and taking Physical Geology.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? yes
Introductory courses for majors (Physical Geology and Earth Systems Science) are broad survey courses with labs. Introductory courses for non-majors are topical (Earth Shock, Oceanography, Geology of the Southwest) and do not have labs.

All students are required to take two science courses (at least one with a lab) as part of their general education requirements, so most of the students in the "majors" courses are not science majors. However, science majors generally do not take the non-lab courses, because they have no trouble fulfilling their science gen ed requirement.

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

Course Content:

Earth Systems Science focuses primarily on geology, with more oceanography, weather, climate, and planetary geology than our Physical Geology course includes. The lab portion of the course includes labs that develop basic skills needed to continue in geology courses (topo maps, minerals, and rocks), labs that simulate inaccessible processes (which includes oceanography at this land-locked school), and a new group research project, which is designed to build the ability to collect, analyze, and synthesize data, and to put that information into a context that included human use of a local stream. Example activities are listed in the teaching materials section below.

Course Goals:

I want students to understand:
  • the basics of geologic time (relative and absolute dating)
  • the role that minerals play in sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic, and surficial processes
  • the basic processes that form sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks
  • the types of plate boundaries, and how they relate to earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain-building, ocean floor bathymetry, and the nature of continental margins
  • the movement of water in the atmosphere, on Earth's surface, and underground
  • the fundamental processes that control weather and climate
Students should be able to:
  • distinguish between a few common rocks and minerals
  • graph data and discuss what it means
  • develop a test for a hypothesis
  • move into Historical Geology or Mineralogy without being overwhelmed, lost, or unreasonably frustrated
Changes in attitude:
  • Students should leave the course more aware of the natural world around them, and curious enough to explore phenomena that they do not understand.

Course Features:

The course is mostly a traditional lecture/lab course. Each faculty member teaches the same group of labs, but each faculty member is free to teach the lecture portion in any style. I generally combine lecture with discussion and small group exercises (think/pair/share, jigsaw).

The lab includes a group research project, which is spread across about five lab periods. The goal of the project is to monitor the water quality of the Florida River, a local stream that is used as the water source for the city of Durango and for irrigation, and which crosses all of the major geologic units and climate zones of the Durango area, and which travels from a wilderness area through ranchland and suburban development into the natural-gas-producing San Juan Basin. To prepare students to collect and interpret data, we integrate the Florida River into a number of other labs. The Florida River basin is used for examples and problem-solving during the topographic maps lab. Students are required to graph existing discharge data by hand, and then to graph past water quality data on Excel (and to discuss observations based on the graphs). Then students are divided into groups to prepare for data collection in four groups (discharge, sediment load, and two water chemistry groups). Groups turn in short papers explaining the type of data collection they will be doing and speculating about the values that they should get. Each lab section is assigned one reach along the river for data collection. After we collect data in the field, one lab period is devoted to discussing the changes in the data between different sites and between different years (and seasons). Finally, each group writes a short paper discussing their data.

See an overview of the Florida River Project.

Course Philosophy:

The course is designed to allow students the maximum amount of flexibility in scheduling both lecture and lab. It also fulfills the state content requirements for teacher education and for a gen ed lab science course. Finally, it is designed to give students enough geology background to succeed in courses in the major.


The assessment in this course is not as effective as I would like! Assessment mostly takes place through exams and through group papers for the final project. The exams deal with the knowledge content of the course, but I don't have a good way of assessing

(I would like to learn more about good assessment techniques. I have thought about using concept inventories, but have not tried yet. I would also like to learn about ways to assess courses using course management software, especially Moodle - with the number of students that we teach, analyzing surveys by hand is very time-consuming.)


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 43kB May7 08)
Lab syllabus (Microsoft Word 40kB May7 08)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Course text: Exploring Geology, by Reynolds, Johnson, Kelly, Morin, and Carter
I selected this text because:
  1. It uses a lot of images from the local area, and we hope to engage the local students (particularly the large Native America population) by using familiar images.
  2. The visually-oriented style looks like it will make it easier to have discussions in class, rather than traditional lectures.
  3. I want to use some of the teaching ideas from the book - the accessory materials involve a lot of interactive teaching ideas.
We have written our own lab manual.

This course has supplemental information submitted as part of the InTeGrate Teaching the Methods of Geoscience workshop in June 2012.