GEO 303 Introduction to Geology

Laurie Schuur Duncan,
University of Texas at Austin, Jackson School of Geosciences


GEO 303 is a comprehensive survey of geological science that includes physical and historical geology in one semester. Emeritus UT geology professor, Leon E. Long, designed GEO 303 and has taught the course in our department for more than forty years. The course is a well-oiled machine that introduces about 800 undergraduates to geology each year, and it is unique to professor Long's captivating teaching style and high level of scholarship. As the current co-professor of GEO 303, my challenge for the future is to take advantage of new instructional techniques and technology to serve our multitude of students while still preserving the effective pedagogy of GEO 303.

Course Type: Intro Level:Earth Science
Course Size:
greater than 150

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:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

GEO 303 is a gateway course at the University of Texas. It is an in-depth introductory course with a required lab component that is taken by about 400 students each semester. Typically, about 60% of GEO 303 students are engineering and natural science majors, and about 50% are freshmen and sophomores. The course is suggested for non-majors, but nevertheless a majority of UT geology majors take GEO 303 as their required entry-level course. Each semester, a handful of GEO 303 students decide to switch to geology after being exposed to the topic for the first time in the course.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses?
Yes. The UT Department of Geological Sciences offers two large introductory geology courses, GEO 303 and GEO 401. GEO 303 is a comprehensive semester of geological science that includes a paleontology sequence in addition to physical geology; GEO 401 covers physical geology only. Either course fulfills the entry level course requirement for geology and petroleum engineering students at UT Austin, but geology majors are advised to take GEO 401.

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:

The course is a full survey of geosciences that introduces students to our planet's cosmic origins, minerals and rocks, geologic time, the history and development of life on the earth, geophysics, plate tectonics, depositional systems, climate, and resources. In lab, students learn to identify rocks and minerals, visualize geologic structures, and create and interpret topographic, geologic and hydrogeologic maps. The course emphasizes Texas geology, and examples and activities in lecture and lab focus on our local and regional geology. Students go on two required lab field trips and they are invited to attend an optional day-long field trip to the Llano Uplift.

Course Goals:

We want GEO 303 students to be able to:
  1. think like geologists;
  2. understand Earth systems, processes and materials;
  3. challenge pre-concieved notions of such topics as the origin of life, resource use, and anthropogenic climate change, and to make reasoned judgements of their own.
What are the main features of the course that help students achieve these goals?

We teach in traditional lecture/lab format, with a few twists. Each GEO 303 student attends two 1-hour lectures per week, and one 2-hour lab, which is taught by a graduate teaching assistant. We communicate with our students and provide our lecture powerpoint files, review materials and interesting supporting material to our students via the Canvas learning management system. We use the iClicker audience response system to interact with students during lecture and to assign participation credit. Lab exercises focus on hands-on group learning and fundamental field/lab techniques. All GEO 303 students participate in two lab field trips, and they are invited on an optional day-long excursion to field sites within the Llano Uplift. We also invite the students to a brown bag discussion of geology and religion each semester.

The key to our success is communication among our team of two professors and 8 graduate TAs so that we are able to maintain consistent pedagogy, high quality instruction, and fair student evaluation for students in 23 separate lab sections (~17-18 students each) and two large lecture sections (~200 students each).


GEO 303 is statistical entity unto itself. It is such a large class and it has been taught for so long that we can use our past grade data to spot trends and discrepancies in student performance over decades, years, semesters and even from one assignment to the next. We also collect feedback from students on an "in-house" evaluation form at the end of each semester, and encourage our TAs to contribute their suggestions for improving the course. Last, but probably most important, we who teach GEO 303 perpetuate a long course tradition of getting to know our students personally and welcoming their feedback. We work together to constantly improve our teaching and to provide our multitude of students with the instructional attention that they would receive in a much smaller intro class.


S14_syllabus_revised (Acrobat (PDF) 107kB Mar3 14)

Teaching Materials:

Long, L. E., 2011, GEOLOGY: 15th ed., Pearson Learning Solutions, 600 pages.
This text, which was written by Leon Long himself, is a custom one-stop shop for our introductory geology course. It is a combined textbook and lab manual in a single volume, complete with exercises on tear-out pages. The material has been carefully curated to have consistent terminology, up-to-date and correct science, and to ensure integration of material and learning sequence between lecture and lab. Leon is currently working on the 16th edition of the text, which will be offered in electronic format as well as its traditional paperback version. The new version will contain the lab reference materials, but not the student exercises.

References and Notes:

Other Supporting Materials:
GEO 303 Lab Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 70kB Mar3 14)