Physical Geology (GEOL 121)

Joel Moore,
Towson University


This introductory physical geology course meets the core curriculum (gen ed) requirement for a laboratory science. The lecture portion of the course meets for 3 hours weekly and the laboratory portion meets for 3 hours weekly (recently changed from 2 hours weekly). Key topics covered include plate tectonics along with minerals and rocks.

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:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

Physical Geology is an introductory course with both lecture and laboratory components. It has no prerequisites. It serves as a prerequisite for all upper-level geology courses. Most students (75-80%) taking the course are non-science majors but the course is required for several science majors including geology, environmental science, environmental studies, and earth-space science (for secondary education) as well as being optional for secondary education majors in biology, chemistry, and physics.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses?

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:

Physical Geology is a survey course with the depth and the choice of topics varying somewhat with each individual instructor. That said, all instructors cover minerals, rocks, plate tectonics, and the earth's interior. Labs complement and reinforce topics learned in lecture. One to two labs per semester involve a field trip.

Course Goals:

  1. Students will use the vocabulary and concepts of geology, along with laboratory and field observations, to correlate rocks, sediments, and soils with the conditions under which they form and the tectonic and geomorphic processes that shape them into a landscape.
  2. Students will build from what they have learned to evaluate and predict how the geological history of landscapes affects areas of societal and ethical concerns (e.g., natural hazards, resources such as water and fossil fuels, ecosystem health). As students use geological thinking to assess societal concerns, they will participate in the inherently interdisciplinary nature of geology, which incorporates information from disciplines such as chemistry, physics, and ecology, and applies that knowledge in a unique way with the perspective of geological time to look at complex natural systems and develop hypotheses from incomplete datasets.
  3. Throughout the course, students will learn about and begin to participate in the scientific process and will begin integrating scientific understanding with societal interactions with geological phenomena. Students will participate in discussions and reflection about the tremendous utility of the scientific process in advancing human knowledge and well-being along with discussions of the limits of science.
What are the main features of the course that help students achieve these goals?
I use electronic response systems (aka, clickers) to help students think through and better understand the topics covered in lecture. I also do several in-class exercises that have students process and more deeply engage with topics covered in lecture. For example, students complete a geologic time exercise that has them reconstruct the geologic history of a fictitious region. Also, I have students read and discuss several essays on the nature of (geo)science.


I assess students' progress through their performance on assignments, their responses to electronic response questions, and through multiple-choice and short answer test questions.


GEOL 121 moore syllabus_schedule - fall 2013 (Acrobat (PDF) 300kB Feb24 14)

Teaching Materials:

Marshak, Essentials of Geology
The Marshak textbook contains excellent graphics and online animations that help animate geologic concepts. Also, the Essentials book pares geologic concepts down to the most important ideas, which help keep students from getting overwhelmed.

Lev, Rea, and Herman, Core Ideas in Physical Geology: An inquiry-based approach
This lab manual is the standard at my institution.

References and Notes:

Key Reading Resources:
John McPhee, Atchafalaya
John Sclater, 'Heat flow under the oceans' in Oreskes & Le Grand (2001) Plate Tectonics
Dan McKenzie, 'Plate tectonics: A surprising way to start a scientific career' in Oreskes & Le Grand (2001) Plate Tectonics

Key Pedagogic Resources:
I've read a lot of the pedagogical materials on the SERC website as well as some of the NRC reports on how students learn.