Earth and the Environment

Bruce Rueger
, Colby College


Environmental issues begin with Earth materials and processes. Provides the conceptual framework for understanding Earth systems and how these operate over the short term (generational lifespan) and long term (geological time frame). The importance of understanding geologic systems as they pertain to human endeavors will be a theme throughout, including geologic hazards, resource exploitation, land-use planning, waste management, and potential solutions to environmental problems.

Course URL:
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:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites. It is a pre-requisite for most upper level geology courses and is the entry course to the geology major. Generally 90% of the students take the course to satisfy their laboratory science requirement. The lab is required for the course.

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:

As indicated in the course description, this course focuses on the interaction between people and the Earth concentrating on the physical processes that act within and on the surface of the planet. Students will learn conceptual information in the lecture portion of the course and will apply that information in the laboratory portion of the course. The lab consists of a 12 week sequence that includes topographic maps, rocks and minerals, plate tectonics, stratigraphy, sediment size analysis, and seismology. Field trips will include a visit to a sanitary landfill, a sewage treatment plant, a glacially-influenced landscape and a stream to determine stream discharge and flood recurrence interval. In the field, students will learn how to observe geologic processes and record their observations and will be exposed to facilities that have environmental implications to their lifestyles.

Course Goals:

The goals of this course include the following:

The mastery of the subject knowledge
An understanding of how geologic processes work
An understanding of scientific method
How to collect data
How to analyze data
How to categorize, organize and identify earth materials
The environmental consequences of their chosen lifestyle
An understanding and appreciation of geologic hazards
An appreciation for the outdoors
The ability to read and understand geologic literature
Knowledge of the regional geology of the United States
Overcoming the fear of science

Course Features:

Because of the larger size of this course, large scale projects are difficult to construct. The laboratory does have an extensive hands-on component where students practice geology. They classify and identify rocks and minerals. The students collect data, form hypotheses, make interpretations and arrive at conclusions. They are exposed to a variety of computer applications and the internet. The lab requires them to organize their exercises in a weekly report that generally has some sort of mathematical component. During the lecture portion of the course they are given additional exercises that allow them to think about geologic processes either by writing or reading. There are also some back of the envelope calculations required as part of some of the exercises. I also ask them to email me photographs over the course of the semester of places that they have visited or that exist in their hometown that they are curious about. Then those photos are used to introduce the various topics during the semester. The students are also expected to learn something about their hometown by investigating where their water comes from, where their trash goes, how their sewage is processed and how much electricity and water cost. I also do a lot of demonstrations in the lecture to keep their interest and to get them involved.

Course Philosophy:

The design was chosen primarily because of the larger size. In the first lecture of the course I pass out a brief questionnaire asking students why they took the course, where they live, what interests them about the Earth etc. Then I try to incorporate those locations and interests in the lecture material. I try to keep the lecture and lab very informal and inviting to get as much participation as possible. In smaller sections, the exercises are more interactive during the lecture and there are more assignments. Additionally, in smaller courses, I let the students have more input to course content.


Students are given a variety of homework exercises that involve map interpretation, looking for information on the WWW, creative writing that focuses on geologic processes such as earthquakes and volcanoes, and reading newspaper and magazine articles on geology of their interest, local and global interests. They are also given three exams in the lecture portion of the course. In lab their lab exercises are evaluated and they have an exam at the end of the semester.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 34kB May7 08)

Teaching Materials:

Example assignment handouts:
Determining the age of minerals within a rock (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 22kB May7 08)
An account of a volcanic eruption (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 22kB May8 08)

Example laboratory exercises:
Calculation of Stream Discharge
Introduction to Earthquake Seismology Methods

References and Notes:

Course text: Geology by Stanley Chernicoff
Laboratory Manual for Geology 141; Bruce Rueger and Robert Nelson
It focuses on the topics we have considered to be essential foundational items for general students and majors. It also allows the flexibility for change and applications to local geology for field trips.

Additional readings:
Newspaper and magazine articles on geology.
Very readable geologic literature.

Pedagogic inspiration:
Value of student involvement in course material.
Development of a strong foundation that other courses can build on.
Explaining and demonstrating how the "tools" in the "toolbox" work.
Letting students work together to attack problems.
Writing and oral presentations
Teachable moments