Geology and Human Events in North Africa and the Middle East

Barbara Tewksbury
, Hamilton College


A seminar-style course in which students analyze the underlying (i.e., beyond obvious hazards and disasters) influence of geology and geologic processes on human events in the context of North Africa and the Middle East. The course also has a major GIS component threaded throughout the course.

Course Type: Intro Level
Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites. The course can count as the required intro course for geology majors. The yield of majors from the course is high (in the past several years, 25-40% of the students in the course have gone on to major in geoscience).

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:

Emphasis is on the influence of bedrock geology on human history, on how geology and society intersect in hydropolicy, and on how the geologic record of climate change helps us explicate human history and make predictions for the future. Students revisit geoscience concepts with increasing complexity as the semester progresses and tackle problems with increasing independence. The course incorporates a field trip that is linked to GIS analysis and focuses on the relative resistance of rocks and fluvial processes, providing students with first hand experience that they use as a basis for interpreting aspects of North Africa and the Middle East.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to analyze the underlying influence of geology and geologic processes on culture, politics, history, pre-history, economics, & international relations
Students will be able to analyze the role of geology and geologic processes in recovering our human past, analyzing the present, and predicting the future.
Students will be able to analyze spatially-referenced data using computerized GIS.

Course Features:

The course is not a lecture-based course, and I use a wide variety of teaching strategies in class, including jigsaw, gallery walk, discussion, individual and group work, GIS lab work, and so on. Students complete several major synthesis assignments during the semester (e.g., each student writes an article for Saudi Aramco World Magazine analyzing the evidence for Holocene climate change in the Sahara and its role in the rise of Egyptian civilization; students also use GIS to 1) analyze the overflow lakes in the Toshka Depression and evaluate the New Valley Project in Egypt, 2) analyze the connection between bedrock geology and the development of Egyptian civilization, and 3) complete a final GIS project in which they evaluate a proposed solar-hydroelectric power generation project in the Qattara Depression of Egypt). By agreement among the geoscience faculty, the course must also incorporate aspects of rock forming processes, geologic time, plate tectonics, and Earth systems as they relate to the topic of the course.

Course Philosophy:

I expect students to take responsibility for their own learning, and I hold them accountable for out-of-class preparation for nearly every class meeting. This allows students to move forward and do something interesting and significant in each class period, rather than spend class time being introduced to material. The course meets three times a week for 2 hours each class.


Each assignment (including pre-class preparation) is designed to address progress toward the goals and has an assessment built into it. There are no exams in this course, although there is a final project and a final set of analytical essays.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 7.1MB Jul11 08)

References and Notes:

I have used a variety of physical geology texts in different years (Chernicoff/Whitney, Marshak, Reynolds et al).
I look for outstanding illustrations and accurate text. The bulk of the reading that students do in this course, however, is in supplemental materials

Impossible to generalize because they are in a variety of sources, including the professional geologic literature, Scientific American, various sociological, historical and anthropological sources, and web resources.