Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Virtual Workshop 2014 > Course Descriptions > Geology 102: Introduction to Geology

Geology 102: Introduction to Geology

Scott Johnston,
California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo


This is a lecture-based course in which students are introduced to the broad field of geology including processes related to plate tectonics, petrology, and geomorphology. This class is supported by weekly discussion sections that serve as a mini-lab where students get experience working with minerals, rocks, and maps.

Course Type:
Entry Level:Physical Geology

Course Size:
greater than 150

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:

This is a quarter-long, 4-hour entry level course that does not have any prerequisites. Greater than 80% of the enrolled students take this class to fulfill the physical science general education requirement at Cal Poly. Although an introductory level lab is also offered for majors, less than 5% of students enrolled in this class take the lab concurrently. Majors that take this class can substitute credit for this class in place of the 3-hour introductory geology class designed for majors.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses?
Yes. Majors and non-majors are required to take two different classes that cover approximately the same material. The primary difference between the two classes is that the major class meets for three hours per week and moves at a slightly faster pace, while the non-major class meets for four hours per week. This difference in these classes was designed to accommodate majors that are required to take an introductory geology course, but that also have very tight unit restrictions.

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?

Course Content:

This course covers a broad spectrum of geologic subdisciplines. Although the depth into each subdiscipline varies with the attending professor, topics covered include plate tectonics, mineralogy, petrology, deformation and mountain building, earthquakes, groundwater hydrology, geomorphology, glacial geology, and climate change. Weekly discussion sections are designed to give students experience with mineral and rock hand sample observations and identification, map interpretation, and simple data analysis. Throughout the course, students develop the geologic background necessary to understand and evaluate current events directly related to geologic processes.

Course Goals:

  1. Use tectonic maps to draw lithospheric-scale cross sections and describe significant igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic processes that occur in different tectonic settings.
  2. Make and communicate descriptive observations of rocks and minerals in hand sample; differentiate between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks in hand sample.
  3. Improve ability to interpret graphical representations of data.

What are the main features of the course that help students achieve these goals?
Ninety-minute lectures are broken up by break-out sessions in which students work in small groups with their neighbors to complete a series of tutorials that utilize maps, outcrop photographs, and graphs designed to reinforce lecture concepts. Lecture tutorials are published as course readers that are purchased from the bookstore and can be used by students as study guides for exams and for future reference. Discussion sections are limited to 30 students and provide an opportunity for one-on-one interaction between students and professors, while students gain experience making descriptive observations and interpreting data working through tutorials that accompany hand samples, maps and graphs. Homework assignments are designed to make students apply concepts learned in lectures and discussions to introductory level science articles (e.g., from periodicals like Scientific American).


Student assessment is achieved through a series of on-line quizzes that test understanding of material covered in discussions and on homework assignments. These quizzes are punctuated by two midterms and a final that test understanding of concepts covered in lecture, discussion and homework.


Syllabus-Geol102_Winter2014 (Acrobat (PDF) 15kB Feb24 14)

Teaching Materials:

Essentials of Geology by Marshak
High quality illustrations, department precedent.

References and Notes: