Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Course Descriptions > Introduction to Geology

Introduction to Geology

Fred Winkler
, California State University San Bernardino


An introduction to the study of the earth, particularly the structure, composition, distribution and modification of earth materials, and processes that shape the surface of the earth. Four hours lecture and three hours laboratory.

Course Type:
Entry Level Physical Geology

Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

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

Introductory Geology at CSUSB is one of the Physical Science General Education courses, of which all students must take one. Science majors generally do not take this course, as they fulfill that GE category with chemistry or physics. Approximately 20-25% of all students at CSUSB take this course for that GE requirement. It is also the entry course for geology majors, although students transferring from community colleges generally come in having already taken it.

For many of the GE students, they choose to take Introductory Geology because they are afraid of chemistry, physics, or science in general. Thus, they often put off taking this course as long as possible, and come in with considerable trepidation. Considering that this may be the only science course these students will ever take, we see an obligation to improve their attitude towards science, and convey something of the larger picture of what science is and does.

Course Content:

Introductory Geology 101 begins with a discussion of the Scientific Method and Continental drift as it has contributed to the development of the Plate Tectonic Theory. The following topics are covered in the course and are referenced within the general framework of Plate Tectonics: ocean floor evidence, boundary processes, earthquakes, the earth's interior, atoms elements and bonding, minerals and their physical properties, intrusive and extrusive igneous activity, mechanical weathering, chemical weathering, mass wasting, erosion, sedimentary rocks, groundwater, metamorphic rocks, relative and absolute geologic time.

Course Goals:

Content goals are as listed on the Course Syllabus. Overarching concepts we hope to convey are an understanding of the scientific method, and practice in using critical thinking skills. We also aim to help them make informed decisions on matters pertaining to interactions between geology and society.

Course Features:

We coordinate lecture (two sections) and lab (seven to nine sections) so that regardless of which combination of lecture and lab a student is in, he/she will get reinforcement of the topics being presented that week between the lecture and lab components of the course. We start the course with plate tectonics, to give students the big picture right away, and then repeatedly relate back to those ideas as more specific information is presented. This repetition, we find, is valuable in keeping the students oriented with respect to what has been covered and what is coming up, and why each is important.

We use as much hands-on as possible, mostly in the lab, as tangible materials and activities are most effective in conveying understanding of the processes being presented.

We also take advantage of our location (immediately adjacent to the San Andreas fault in particular, and in southern California in general) to reinforce the importance of earthquake awareness and preparedness. One of the labs consists of a hike to the fault, along with some lab calculations about earthquake recurrence intervals and magnitudes. Also, we devote one lab period to groundwater processes, as this region depends on groundwater reservoirs for most of its water supply. Several contamination plumes have been identified, and as residents (therefore voters, taxpayers, etc.) these students need to have a basic understanding of groundwater occurrence and behavior.

Course Philosophy:

We originally chose this particular design because it is a traditional college teaching method. This year, however, we are in the process of revising the course to utilize the exciting new approach used by Exploring Geology, by Reynolds, Johnson, Kelly, Morin, and Carter. This text uses recent research on thinking and learning to deliver information in a much more accessible manner than traditional textbooks. This text is centered on illustrations, with all text integrated with them. Information is organized into self-contained two-page spreads within chapters, which will enable us to focus much more effectively on those sections we wish to emphasize in the larger topics. This text has over 2.5 times the number of illustrations that conventional geology texts have, conveying a wealth of information visually.

Each chapter is organized into an opening spread, several topical spreads, then an application spread, and closes with an investigation spread. The opening spread focuses on a location that illustrates the processes discussed in that chapter. The topical spreads describe aspects of the chapter topic, with a "Before you leave this page be able to" box highlighting major concepts the student should have mastered from that spread. In the Application spread, the concepts and processes presented earlier are integrated and applied to a real-life situation. The Investigation spread is an exercise for the students, where they can practice applying the concepts they learned in the chapter. Integrated with the print text are an array of support resources available to instructors that provide, in addition to the usual image bank, question bank, etc., interactive 3D images and animations.


Currently we use traditional tests in lecture and four quizzes in lab. The course culminates in a comprehensive lecture final exam.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 78kB Jun25 08)

References and Notes:

Old Text: Physical Geology, 11th ed. By Plummer and McGeary; New Text: Exploring Geology, by Reynolds, Johnson, Kelly, Morin, and Carter
The old text was selected because it was written by California-based authors and the text used many illustrations and photographs taken in California.
The new text was selected because uses it uses recent research on thinking and learning to deliver information in a much more accessible manner than traditional textbooks.

Introductory Geology Lab Manual by Dr. Joan Fryxell
It was written by the courses' original creator to accompany the course lecture.