Our Geologic Environment (GSCI 100)

Dori Farthing
, SUNY Geneseo


This is a physical geology/Earth science course aimed at non-science majors. In the lecture students learn basic geological concepts and are encouraged to see how these ideas apply to their own lives. The course itself is a mixture of lecture and class participation and is supported by the labs, which give students hands-on experience with some of the lecture concepts.

Course Type: Intro Level:Earth Science Intro Level Physical Geology
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:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an intro course without prerequisites. We teach two sections of this course every semester, with ~130 students in each section. Students take it to fulfill 1/2 of their science-based general education requirement. Students interested in the geology major or who have declared a major in another science take a separate course. Students who fall in love with geology through my course can jump into the major's track.

The lab portion is required and mixes together students from both lecture sections. The labs are taught by myself and other faculty with the help of T.A.'s. The lab constitutes 25% of the entire geology grade.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? yes

The two courses do cover similar materials though the course for non-majors includes more information about energy and climate change than the course for majors. The Major's intro course also covers physical geology topics in greater depth and because there are fewer students, it involves at least 1 field trip.
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 course is designed to investigate in detail 3 of the 4 spheres that make up the Earth's dynamic system--the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the geosphere. The course acknowledges that humans, as part of the biosphere, impact and are impacted by other spheres.

Students in the lab learn (or are re-introduced to) some of the basic tools of the geologist such as math, maps, and models. They also practice observational techniques when studying rocks, minerals, and relative time relationships. Two example laboratory activities are: Rock-Tectonics Synthesis Lab and Spring Break-Weathering Homework.

Course Goals:

Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to...
1) Demonstrate an understanding of the Earth as a system and identify and discuss interactions between the geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere (specifically those that include humans and their environment).
2) Discuss the meaning of "science" and identify how it plays a role in their lives.
3) Extract information from geologic materials (e.g. graphs, rocks, maps, etc.) and use their observations to synthesize reasonable conclusions.

Course Features:

This course is taught so that it incorporates hands-on experiences with lecture concepts. This integration is done through the lab as well as through interactive lectures where students can play an active role in the learning process.

In addition, my lecture style attempts to address learning preferences that would not be tapped in a typical lecture setting.

Course Philosophy:

My lecture is taught in an "interactive lecture" style. I cold call students guiltlessly and also have no qualms about getting students out of their seats to get them to experience a geological analogy (i.e., be a glacier or a rock in an earthquake). In a class of 130, this style of teaching keeps people awake and also can help those who dread science.

To help with the science phobic students, I use the power of analogy heavily (think of the rats in Ratatouille being like a glacier going around a nunatak). Compared to other sciences, geology has the great ability to click with visual learners...lab and other active learning techniques help click concepts with the kinesthetic learners.

I want students to walk out of the class and to see geological concepts around them. They have questions about this link on exams; they also have a homework assignment that requires them to go seeking geology in their real life setting. Unlike other sciences, there are clear aspects of geology that are touchable and see-able and the more I can bring that into the classroom, the better students will do with achieving the learning goals.


Students have a weekly pop quiz as well as 2 exams and a final. My students also have 1 homework assignment.

In the lab, students are assessed through weekly quizzes, 2 lab exams, lab exercises, and prelabs. The lab exercises and the prelabs are graded for completeness not correctness. Students are responsible for correcting their work using a provided key.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 30kB May7 08)

Teaching Materials:

lecture schedule with reading assignments (Excel 21kB May7 08) lab syllabus (Microsoft Word 35kB May7 08)

References and Notes:

Exploring Geology by Reynolds, Johnson, Kelly, Morin, and Carter
My colleagues and I really like the 2 page spreads and the concentration on images. We also like the notion that it doesn't have a glossary and so students have to go reading and looking when we ask them to define a term for a pre-lab. One of my colleagues also uses concept sketches and this book dovetails very well with concept sketch use.