Physical Geology

Vince Cronin
, Baylor University


This is a rather standard course in physical geology, except that some common topics are omitted (deserts, coastlines, marine geology), shortened (glaciers), or included/expanded (geologic time, the history of life on Earth and human evolution). It occurs in a new lecture hall with fixed seating on a steeply-raking stepped floor, suitable for a lecture course from the 1800s. I have full control over the lecture. Graduate TAs are the teachers of record in the labs and report to a staff person. The lectures and labs are no longer coupled.

Course URL: the server is being replaced, so I have taken down the web pages
Course Type: Intro Level:Physical Geology Intro Level
Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in separate lecture and lab components. 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 was once the course that all geology majors were required to take, but that is no longer the case. In my current class of 70, 11% are geoscience majors, 19% are business majors, and no other major represents more than a few percent. Most students take this course to satisfy a laboratory-science general-education requirement. The lab is currently part of the course, but will soon be separated because control of undergraduate labs has been given to graduate teaching assistants as teachers of record.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? no
We have introductory courses in World Oceans, Physical Geology, Environmental Geology, Physical Geography, Earthquakes and Volcanoes, and Earth Science. There is substantial overlap among these courses, each of which has a different emphasis overall.
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:

We do not do field trips, because the budget for this was cut years ago and the university is evasive about the liability assumed by the teacher in charge of field trips. We cover the nature of science, the broad structure of Earth and related issues of plate tectonics, the building blocks of matter, minerals, igneous rocks and volcanoes, weathering and sedimentary rocks, metamorphic rocks, geologic time, the history of life on Earth, climate/ice ages/glaciers, ground water, surface water, earthquakes and seismology, and Earth's resources. I try to incorporate recent information from IRIS, EarthScope, UNAVCO, and other data sources available online. Two activities used in this course are Where is that chunk of crust going? and Incomprehensibly Small and Incomprehensibly Large.

Course Goals:

I want to share my passion for Earth, and some of what I know about our home. I want students to understand what science is, what important words used by scientists mean, and what it means when a scientist says that she is seeking truth. "Truth is what stands the test of experience." I want to start students on a journey of learning that they can pursue their whole lives, on topics like "where did we come from -- what is our history."

Course Features:

My main trick has always been to use a lot of stories and humor, and while they are not looking I slip in some quantitative material, make fun of it, and we do the problems together. I give them short quizzes each week over material from the previous week, plus a midterm and a final exam. They have the option to read a book from a list I provide, and write a book report structured around some specific questions that I pose. Usually, up to a third of the class does a book report.

Course Philosophy:

I am constrained by the limitations of the space in which I teach. The administration of my department, college and university have made it clear that we are to spend as little time as possible on tasks related to teaching undergraduates, and as much time as possible on doctoral students, publishing peer-reviewed papers, and securing external funds that include institutional overhead. So I find myself going into that lecture hall 2-3 times a week to have some of the only fulfilling experiences in my current career as a university educator. My students and I have a running conversation about our home planet.


My students and I put up with the necessity of multiple-choice quizzes and exams. I provide them with questions that I would like them to be able to answer, tell them where/how to seek answers in their books or elsewhere, and ask them the same questions on quizzes. The course is very predictable, by design.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 207kB May7 08)

Teaching Materials:

Extra-credit book list (Acrobat (PDF) 83kB May7 08)

References and Notes:

In the past years, I have used texts by Hamblin and Christiansen, Reynolds et al., and will be using "How does Earth work" by Smith and Pun next year. Hamblin and Christiansen seemed comprehensive, but I found that students did not read any of it. Reynolds et al. had good information and nice artwork, but it irritated some students who wanted more text and it was difficult for me to use in teaching. Smith and Pun is more text-based but has nice imagery, but it could be stronger intellectually.

For the past decade I have used my own lab book, based on group projects and hands-on learning. I plan to make that material available on the SERC website. Next year, someone else will be choosing the lab book.

I created and used my own lab book because it was less expensive for students, it was more completely used by students (no skipped chapters), it was based on sound principles of group learning and hands-on learning, it was quantitative, it effectively prevented graduate students from lecturing in lab (because there was not enough time if the projects were to be completed), and it was very well received by students.