Geological Disasters: Agents of Chaos

Lawrence Malinconico
Lafayette College


Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, and asteroid impacts are all part of the geologic evolution of the earth. For many different reasons, humans are exposed to the often severe consequences of living in areas vulnerable to the violence of nature. This course examines these processes from both scientific and personal perspectives to understand why and where they occur and how human activity has interfered with natural processes, perhaps making the planet more prone to disaster.

Course URL:
Course Type: Intro Level Geologic Hazards
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:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites. It can be used to satisfy the general education requirement of a lab-science course. It can also be used by majors to satisfy the requirement of at least one course in the area of physical geology. Usually 80 to 90% of the students in the course are there to satisfy their lab-science requirement. The laboratory component is requires and is an integral part of the course. Students who major in geology must take an additional course to satisfy the introductory historical component.

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? yes

Course Content:

Using natural disasters as a focus, this course covers basic concepts of physical geology including earth materials, plate tectonics, deformation and mountain building, some earth surface processes. The geologic hazards covered include earthquakes, volcanism, flooding and mass movements and impact events. There is a laboratory component which is required and used to reinforce, through hands-on exercises and field trips, the material covered in class.

Course Goals:

On completion of the course, students are expected to have a mastery of basic geologic concepts and more detailed understanding of several specific geologic hazards. They should be able to relate the specifics of each hazard to general earth science processes like plate tectonics and geologic time. In addition they should be able to evaluate the scientific validity of hazards as they are presented in popular media and the news.

Course Features:

In addition to in-class learning and readings, there are several specific assignments designed to reinforce this learning. They have to read and evaluate reports of geologic hazards found in print media and evaluate the scientific presentation of two different hazards in movies. There is a three-week long small group (two students) project completed outside of class and lab time where each team designs and builds an earthquake resistant building which is then tested on a shaker table.

Course Philosophy:

While there is still a lot (perhaps too much) lecture material presented in this course, I believe that the best way to reinforce the learning is by having the students research specific disasters or related topics on their own and then write about them. The writing is the critical element in reinforcing the learning.


I have started to give a short quiz at the start of the course that covers many of the concepts that I consider most important for the students to master. Then throughout the term, these questions are repeated (usually in different form) as embedded questions in exams, or as concepts in their writing and laboratory assignments.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 104kB Jul11 08)

Teaching Materials:

Course Schedule (Microsoft Word 42kB Jul11 08)

References and Notes:

Course text: Natural Hazards and Disasters; Hyndman and Hyndman
This book has excellent graphics - I feel that if students can grasp the concepts being presented in the graphics in a textbook, then they probably have a good start towards mastering the material.
I use an in-house lab manual, and provide web-based resources for all the topics covered in the lecture and lab portions of the course.