Physical Geology

Simon Kattenhorn,
University of Idaho


Formation of the Earth and its evolution through geologic time. Physical processes within and on the Earth.

Course URL:
Course Type: Intro Level Physical Geology
Course Size:
greater than 150

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:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory science core option course for non-majors, but often brings in new majors. There are no prerequisites and it is one of the highest enrollment courses at the university (often >300). The majority of students take an accompanying lab component.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? yes
They cover the same basic topics but are presented at a more advanced level for science and engineering majors.
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:

The course covers cosmology and Earth formation, minerals, different rock types, sedimentary processes, volcanoes, geologic time, plate tectonics and crustal deformation, earthquakes, surface processes of erosion, weathering and mass wasting in different geologic environments, climate change at different time scales, economic resources, and the geology of other bodies in the solar system. Two example activities I use in this course are Physical Geology: Idaho Field Trip and Physical Geology: Amazing GeoRace.

Course Goals:

A recurring theme in the course is for non-scientists and non-majors to gain an appreciation for the processes at work on the Earth and how they may impact on their lives personally, especially in terms of geologic hazards.

Course Features:

Geology is a very visual topic therefore the course presentation format (Powerpoint presentations) makes liberal use of visuals. Also, each lecture is accompanied by a set of "fill-in-the-blank" style notes that allow students to pay attention to the content of the lecture, only needing to write down key points (presented in a particular color on presentation slides for ease of identification). This approach generally results in students being more attentive to lecture content.

Course Philosophy:

I wanted students to be less concerned about writing down everything I say or show, and be more attentive to the topic matter. This also allows me to be more interactive with the students as they spend more time looking up towards the front of the class than down at their notes. This provides more time to look at the visuals on presentation slides while listening to my oral descriptions and explanations.


Given the size of the class, exam grades are the only metric for course goal achievement (four exams over the course of the semester; no comprehensive exams).


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 83kB May7 08)

References and Notes:

Course text - Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology (Tarbuck and Lutgens)
Excellent visuals and thorough explanations at a level appropriate for non-majors.

Lab manual - In-house lab manual.
It provides income for the department to support lab facilities. It drastically reduces costs to the student.
Students are encouraged to make good use of the course website, which is updated almost daily and includes many supplementary materials.