Geologic Disasters & the Environment

Mesa Community College


This class teaches the essentials of geologic disasters and environmental geology to non-major students. Students examine human interactions with Earth and vice versa. This course is taught through a case study approach with a metacurriculum approach that integrates student understanding of content with the process of science.

Course URL:
Course Type: Intro Level:Geologic Hazards
Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in separate lecture and lab components. 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 pre-requisites. This course is primarily populated by students that need a science requirement for graduation, however we do also get a fair amount (~25-40% of the class) of pre-service early and secondary education majors. Most students sign up for this class because they think it sounds more interesting than their other science options (the "least" of the evils).

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:

Students will understand how humans and Earth interact by examining plate tectonics and the processes associated and the water cycle and the processes associated. Students enroll in a separate lab course that helps them to develop map reading skills and quantitative analysis of geologic problems.

Course Goals:

Educational Goals: effective oral & written communication, collaborative group skills, reflecting on learning, & thinking through problems by connecting the smaller ideas to larger concepts.
Geology Goals: analyze past earthquakes to assess future risks and recommend appropriate mitigation efforts, evaluate valid claims on earthquake prediction (and discriminate from those that are not valid), assess volcanic eruption likelihood and severity in order to recommend appropriate actions, evaluate risk factors of a given landslide system based on a given setting, asses how the water cycle plays a role in pollutants in their own drinking water, determine a "safe" place to live in a geologically dynamic location, make connections between the content and how the process of science is done in the geosciences.

Course Features:

There are two critical facets to my approach for teaching:

Course management system: I use a student notebook system that requires students to put all class material into a "science" notebook. They are required to organize these materials with a table of contents and page numbers. Activities are organized into topics and have prompts for reflection and self-evaluation. Student notebooks are graded and provide valuable feedback for both instructor and student. Two example activities are the Mercalli Earthquake Activity and the Earthquake Case Study.

Case Based Study Approach: students evaluate content in the context of real disasters that have occurred in the past. It puts a more human component to the class with a clear link to personal relevance. It also requires students to analyze real data and appreciate the complexities of Earth beyond a superficial overview of course topics. In addition, at the end (and throughout) each "disaster unit" students are asked to reflect on how their experiences relate to the process of science [metacurriculum] and their own learning [metacognition] with specific prompts such as, "We have now examined both earthquakes and volcanoes, with all that we've done to this point, consider the following: How important is communication (spoken & written) in the success of aiding scientific understanding? [metacurriculum] What forms of communication are used and to what purpose do they serve? Provide examples. [metacurriculum] What forms of communication have you used to increase your own understanding? [metacognition] Specify what types of communication you used and how it helped your own understanding. [metacognition]"

Course Philosophy:

Many of my students are entering college for the first time. Many of them are underprepared to enter the college classroom. Providing a management system forces them to learn organizational skills as well as learning principles that may help them to mature and if used well will assure success in future classes (such as metacognition).

Research supports that students are more motivated to learn a topic when they see the relevance of the content. Enrolling in a science course is already an uphill battle since their initial ideas are resistance to science. By approaching this course from a case based study, they are able to see a human element to the content and start to understand the relevance in general, if not specifically to them. More importantly, it also provides a framework for understanding the process of science, which is essentially why this course satisfies a general education credit.

Many students tell me they love to watch the disaster channels (National Geographic, Discovery, etc...), but they're not prepared to do anything more than just sit back and wait to be "amazed." By creating an interactive classroom setting, students are no long able to have the "armchair" approach to their education. They must examine the content beyond a superficial level. Recent brain research supports that this will lead to deeper learning.


Students are assessed in multiple delivery methods:
-Written Assignments (that undergo a peer review revision process)
- Group Poster sessions in which students much teach each other (modeling a real scientific conference)
- Traditional content assessment
- Notebook evaluations: organization, activity completion, and metacognition are assessed

Examples of how this process is completed can be seen from a presentation at the Introductory Course Workshop (Summer '08)

References and Notes:

We use an in-house manual, by Robert Leighty & Donna Benson, that was created by my colleagues on campus. Our labs are taught by faculty, but students enrolled in my lab may be in someone else's lecture and vice versa. So a consistent lab manual assures consistent delivery.

Other readings:
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
Surviving Galeras, Williams & Montaigne

Pedagogic References:
How People Learn, by National Research Council
Writing & Learning in the Science Classroom, Wallace, Hand & Prain

This course has supplemental information submitted as part of the VisionLearning Process of Science workshop in July 2009.

This course has supplemental information submitted as part of the InTeGrate Teaching the Methods of Geoscience workshop in June 2012.