Geology of the National Parks

Melissa (Lisa) Lamb
, University of St. Thomas


This is an introductory physical geology course for 64-100 mainly non-science students that uses the National Parks as the focus. Modules are built around a geology theme, such as structure or sedimentary rocks, and use 2-3 parks as examples.

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

Course Context:

Typically, 100% of the students are taking it only to fulfill the requirement and avoid the "hard and/or scary science courses." A handful will discover they love science and go on to major in geology. Lab sections have 16 students and are required. Our students are from the upper-Midwest and are very career-focused; they often work 15-30 hours/week while attending school and are not used to doing much homework (unless they are science majors.)

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
This course fulfills the one lab science requirement all students must take.

Course Content:

The modules focus on plate tectonics, rock-forming processes, geologic time, structural geology, geologic history, earth surface processes and global change. Labs are designed to teach basic map reading and rock interpretation skills.

Course Goals:

What should you be able to do at the end of the course?
- Go to a new park, read the geo-tourist literature and understand it
- Go to a new park, identify the rocks, and be able to interpret part of the history
- Go to a new park, view the landscape and be able to interpret part of the history and/or identify some of the current processes at work
- Be able to describe some of the current research occurring in the national parks and its importance to society
- Be able to describe how we know the geological history of a new park when reading the literature

Course Features:

I include many short in-class activities that are designed to give students practice in working with new concepts and skills. They are also meant to build upon lab activities. We have 2-3 outdoor labs to local outcrops to practice observation and interpretation skills.

Course Philosophy:

I have always LOVED the National Parks; they made me become a geologist. I had always wanted to teach this course. However, this course is NOT appropriate for my audience: upper-Midwest folks who rarely travel outside of MN. I no longer teach this course and am in the process of designing a new one with more of a focus on MN and business (20% of students major in business). I think this course would work much better if I taught in the West where National Parks are in folks back yards, although I realize few folks anywhere go out into nature.


Through lab and lecture exams mainly; lab activities also.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 75kB Jun25 08)

Teaching Materials:

Instructor spreadsheet of semester schedule (Excel 57kB Jun25 08)
Example of short in-class activity: Western US plate tectonic recent history (Microsoft Word 49kB Jun25 08)
Short in-class activity on structure: Grand Teton NP map and cross-section (Microsoft Word 2.3MB Jun25 08)

References and Notes:

Course text: Parks and Plates.
There are few National Parks text and this one is the best one available.
In addition, I use in-house developed labs that use local geology and geologic materials from the parks for each module. I bought many sets of geologic maps and cross-sections from the key parks I use and designed activities around those.
I supplement with geology books that have a park focus and are written for the lay person. Wendall Duffield's Chasing Lava is fun to read and incorporates great information and stories about "doing science."

I originally designed the course drawing heavily upon NAGT workshop materials and ideas.