Teach the Earth > Introductory Courses > Virtual Workshop 2014 > Course Descriptions > Introduction to Earth and Environmental Science (SIO 50)

Introduction to Earth and Environmental Science (SIO 50)

Geoffrey Cook,
University of California-San Diego


The course is an introduction to how our planet works, focusing on the formation and evolution of the solid earth, the dynamic nature of earth systems, and the environmental issues pertinent to society. Students are encouraged to think about the interconnectedness of the Earth as a system, and the interdisciplinary nature of geoscience is emphasized throughout the course. Laboratories and field components complement and extend the lecture material.

Course Type:
Entry Level:Earth Science

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:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

SIO 50 is an introductory course with no prerequisites. It serves as the gateway class to the Earth Science major at UCSD, which is taught and administered by faculty from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). Although SIO is a fundamentally a research institution, it functions as an academic department within the University of California, San Diego; the core group of geoscientists working at SIO are responsible for teaching and running the Earth Science program.

SIO 50 is a prerequisite for all of the upper division Earth Science classes at UCSD. Typically, about 50% of the class is comprised of Earth Science majors, while the remainder is students from a wide array of disciplines looking to fulfill general education requirements. The course has a required lab that meets twice a week. Students are introduced to the field in several lab settings and on one weekend field trip (overnight). The class serves as an optional elective for the Marine Biology major and the Environmental Systems major.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses?
Yes. SIO 10 (The Earth) is a lecture-only class (no lab component) with similar content to SIO 50 (Introduction to Earth and Environmental Science). The content in SIO 50 is an expanded version of what is presented in SIO 10, goes into more depth, and as the class has an added lab-section, the experience is more rigorous. SIO 10 is intended for students with a passing interest in Earth Science; SIO 50 is intended for majors and students desiring a more comprehensive experience.

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. We have discussed this at length in our department and have come to the conclusion that students need the lab-based component of SIO 50 and thus must take that class before progressing along in the major regardless of having taken SIO 10.

Course Content:

Students are introduced to cosmology and the formation of the Earth, plate tectonics, Earth materials, volcanoes, geologic time, geologic structures, surface processes (streams, glaciers, mass-wasting), hydrology, energy resources, climate change and its associated issues, sustainability, and a variety of pertinent, current environmental issues.

In lab students receive more hands-on, experiential learning opportunities, including a substantial amount of field experience in the La Jolla area and in the Mojave Desert of southern California (overnight camping trip). Students are required to use critical thinking skills, work with others in groups of various sizes, and utilize and develop quantitative skills. Overall, students are encouraged and taught to sharpen their observational skills with the overall goal of becoming more adept at placing geologic evidence in an appropriate context and unraveling geologic puzzles.

Course Goals:

The students will be able to:
  • Identify common earth materials and suggest in what geological settings they would be likely to be found.
  • Describe various geologic processes that shape the surface of the earth and the implications these processes have for society, the environment, and the evolution of our planet.
  • Assess the extraction and use of various natural resources and the impact these resources have on society.
  • Appreciate Earth as a complex, ever-changing system in the context of the vastness of geologic time.
  • Recognize the multidisciplinary nature of geology as a science and synthesize geologic knowledge to holistically view, assess, and interpret geologic materials, processes, and situations.
What are the main features of the course that help students achieve these goals?
Our major is designed to be significantly field-based, and we try to incorporate field experiences whenever possible. This is true in our introductory class as well as in our upper division classes. We take students out to visit local outcrops and geologic features in lab meetings and conduct a weekend field excursion to visit the Salton Sea, the San Andreas fault, and the Mojave Desert of Southern California.

In addition, the course content is carefully selected and sequenced in such a way as to provide students taking the class with significant breadth of knowledge and concepts in a logical progression, but not in an overwhelmingly or unnecessarily complicated manner. The main objective of the class is to give students an appreciation for the complexity of the Earth as a system and to arm them with the knowledge and skills necessary to move forward (if they so desire) in the Earth Science major. I feel that an understanding of an appropriate level of content and information, coupled with careful emphasis of important concepts, is one of the best ways that we can help students achieve stated learning goals.


Students are assessed through a variety of homework exercises, in-class assignments in which they may work either individually or with others (depending on the exercise), exams, and numerous laboratory exercises that they complete on a weekly basis. If student understanding of concepts is lacking, the assortment of assessments typically catches any misconceptions or issues. In addition, I routinely conduct large and small group discussions in lectures with an eye towards evaluating students' understanding of concepts. Assignments (in-class and homework) are designed to be purposeful and keyed to the content with the overall goal of reinforcing student understanding while at the same time providing the instructor with a metric for measuring levels of understanding.


SIO 50 syllabus- Fall 2013 (Acrobat (PDF) 82kB Mar6 14)

Teaching Materials:

Earth 4th ed. (Marshak)
I like the organization of the text and I feel that it is the most robust from a content standpoint. Obviously, there is more in the text than can be reasonably covered in a single 10-week quarter. However, I believe that it is the best introductory text out there, and I have tried a number of them.

Laboratory Manual for Introductory Geology 2nd ed, (Ludman and Marshak)
It is more or less paired with the textbook; I like the flow of the chapters and the exercises are pertinent and useful.

References and Notes: