General Geology

Pete Stelling
Western Washington University


General Geology is a survey of the many facets of geology and Earth Science, from the formation of the Universe and Solar System to rocks and minerals to geologic processes and hazards. The course design is based on Earth cycles (rock cycle, hydrologic cycle, hazard cycles) and has three blatantly recurring themes: recruiting majors, improving students' road trips, and ensuring that students never buy/rent a house in a geologically unsafe area.

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 is taught by the professor and the lab is taught by TAs.

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

This in an introductory course with algebra as the only prerequisite. More than 95% of the students take this course to fulfill their General University Requirement for a science course with a lab. The lab portion of the class is required. Students who decide to major in geology must take a subsequent course in Physical Geology, or, students with a B or better grade in General Geology may take the Physical Geology lab only, and combined with General Geology this is equivalent to the Physical Geology course

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? yes
Yes, Geology 101 (non-majors, 4 credits) and Geology 211 (majors and other scientists, 5 credits) cover the same material. Both 101 and 211 have three 1-hour lecture sessions per week. Geo. 101 has one 2-hour lab per week, and 211 has two 2-hour lab sessions per week.
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:

The course focuses on Geology. My course also includes discussions of planetary geology and climate change. Extra credit assignments are used to encourage students to make observations and interpretations. The lab portion of the course includes campus field trips and exercises covering rock ID, stream tables, the wave tank, groundwater, and local natural hazards (landslide and slope stability, liquefaction, and volcanic hazards).

Course Goals:

After taking this course, student should:
1) Be able to understand the science section of the New York Times.
2) Be better informed voters by understanding the scientific aspects of political issues.
3) Have better road trips
4) Have and recognize "geek moments", when they realize they understand some aspect of geology in the world around them that they wouldn't have understood before this class.
5) Never buy/rent a home in a geologically stupid location, and identify the language used to sell those homes.
6) Have a better understanding of the vastness of geologic time.

Course Features:

To instill a sense of geologic time, I base the course out of 4.57 billion points. This is awkward but is extremely effective when talking about "active" volcanoes, or when the dinosaurs died out. Repeated references are made in class to reinforce the point.

For Geek Moments, I offer an extra credit assignment near the end of the quarter where students write a narrative about their own geek moments. This is a very popular assignment.

Course Philosophy:

These are issues about which I am passionate. If I can build a course around my passions, it keeps student interest high, as well as my own.


The geek moment exercise is designed specifically to assess students' newfound appreciation for the active world around them. Even if the moments are made up, the student gets the idea of how a true geek moment might occur, and brings geology into their everyday life.

With regard to poor housing choices, I occasionally offer an assignment in which students select five real estate listings that describe geologically stupid locations. Students must highlight the text that tipped them off to the locations' unsuitability.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) PRIVATE FILE 34kB May7 08)

References and Notes:

Course text: Marshak (Essentials of Geology)
Good figures, good description to go along with it. The full text is too much. Essentials is just right. Plus, it now comes with a suite of Google Earth tours and placemarks and a workbook with Google Earth exercises.
I write my own lab manual for the department.