Physical Geology

Sara Rutzky
, Wake Technical Community College


This course provides a study of the structure and composition of the earth's crust. Emphasis is placed on processes that affect the crust including plate tectonics, weathering, deposition, volcanism, mountain building forces, rocks and minerals, and structural changes. Upon completion, students should be able to explain the structure, composition, and formation of the earth's crust.

Course Type: Intro Level:Physical Geology Intro Level
Course Size:

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

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no college-level prerequisites. It is a prerequisite for both Environmental Geology and Historical Geology, two other geology courses taught at our institution, and transfers to four-year institutions as an equivalent for their introductory geology courses. The students who take this course come from a wide variety of backgrounds and places in life, and are generally interested in taking the course as an alternative science credit to biology or physics. Most students use the credit to transfer to a four-year institution. Despite many student's initial reluctance about science and the course, several students each semester go on to take the higher level courses offered in our department. The course comes with an accompanying lab.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? no

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 physical geology course covers the majors topics in physical geology including (but not limited to): the scientific method, plate tectonics, minerals, rocks and their formation processes, solid earth processes, natural disasters, surface processes, climate change, and geologic time. Students are taught in a socratic style, most weeks include a class-activity or demonstration as part of lecture, and critical thinking skills are emphasized. No field trips are currently offered for this course. Instead, students learn how to read maps, identify rocks, and think like a geologist in lab with hand samples and computer simulations. Two example activities are Weekly Reflections and Stream Table Lab.

Course Goals:

After successful completion of the course, students will be able to:
1. Define selected vocabulary from the assigned chapters and employ them in understanding and explaining topics.
2. Discuss the basic principles of scientific inquiry and apply them to current research and to past discoveries of theories.
3. Differentiate between the three types of plate boundaries by noting common geologic features and processes. Summarize how these boundaries form.
4. Classify common physical properties and differentiate minerals and rocks.
5. Summarize the relationship between the chemical and physical properties of minerals.
6. Analyze igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks to determine how they formed.
7. Compare how different types of magma form and explain their relationship to the formation of intrusive and volcanic igneous features.
8. Compare and contrast weathering among different rock types and different environments.
9. Identify strata, faults, and folds in geologic sections and summarize the forces and tectonic settings that lead to their formation.
10. Apply the principles of relative dating to interpret the geologic history of a cross-section. Understand the application of radiometric dating to the geologic time scale.
11. Explain what causes earthquakes and earthquake destruction, and apply the correct procedures to locate the source and calculate the magnitude of an earthquake.
12. Differentiate the internal structure and composition of the Earth.
13. Compare and contrast depositional and erosional environments, features, and processes associated with streams and shorelines.
14. Explain the various parts of the hydrologic cycle including the interaction of surface and groundwater with the solid Earth.

Course Features:

This course has a lecture and a lab component. Lecture is worth 75% of the final grade, and lab is worth 25%. Lectures and labs are taught separately, but information learned in both venues are included in the course objectives. In both lecture and lab, students participate in in-class activities, discussions, and demonstrations that focus content-wise on the course objectives.

Course Philosophy:

The design of the course is set department-wide, since this is an introductory course that transfers to other institutions. The in-class activities, class discussions, and interactive elements are added in order to encourage participation, retention of material, and critical thinking.


Students are assessed through several term exams and a final exam. Each exam (including the final) contains common questions chosen by the instructors that directly relate to the course objectives. Students' performance on these questions indicates the extent to which they have achieved the goals of the course.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 134kB May7 08)

References and Notes:

Course texts:
Exploring Geology. Reynolds, Johnson, Kelly, Morin, and Carter. McGraw Hill, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. 2008.
It is a very visual text, and is set up to encourage student learning and is written with cognitive processes in mind.
Geology 120 - Physical Geology Laboratory Manual, Fourth Edition, Wake Technical Community College.
This lab manual is written by the instructors in our department.