Teach the Earth > Oceanography > Course Descriptions > Oceanography


Kent Syverson

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire,
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


Catalog description: Survey of the world oceans with emphasis on geologic processes. Also includes chemical, physical, and biological aspects of the sea. Investigates human interaction with the marine environment.

Subject: Geoscience:Oceanography
Resource Type: Course Information
Grade Level: College Lower (13-14)
Earth System Topics: Oceans
Theme: Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Oceanography
Course Size:

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no prerequisites and does not serve as a prerequisite for other courses. The course does not have a lab or discussion section. Generally I teach a class of 150 students and another class of 50 students during a semester. Most students are taking the class to fulfill part of their natural science general education requirement (and to avoid chemistry and physics).

Course Goals:

  • Students should be able to evaluate evidence for the age of the earth using the scientific method.
  • Students should be able to evaluate and analyze processes, earthquake signatures, and landforms at unfamiliar plate boundaries.
  • Students should be able to integrate foundational concepts of science (i.e. temperature, density, hydrogen bonding, gravity) to predict processes involving plate tectonics, wind patterns, ocean currents, physical properties of water, waves, and tides.
  • Students should be able to evaluate how oceanographic processes impact humans and the environment.
  • Students should be able to interpret how changes in marine environments will impact biological systems.
  • Students should be able to use scientific logic to defend their predictions.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Although the course sections are very large (50-150 students), I pepper students with questions and ask them to defend their answers logically. (In fact, I have had students with a visitor talk to me before class and introduce the visitor so the visitor isn't "grilled" during the lecture!) If a student provides an incorrect answer, I try to go back to concepts of geology, chemistry, physics, and/or biology to help them determine where they went wrong. In many cases I will ask other students to work through the logical steps necessary to answer the question correctly. This helps me assess student learning as we go.

I have integrated concepts that I learned from Dr. Barbara Tewksbury, Hamilton College (NY), about effective means of helping students apply concepts during class time. Once I have introduced a topic and we have worked through some examples, students work in pairs to evaluate new data/situations. As an incentive, they are told that groups will be selected to come down to the front of the classroom and teach the concept to the class. (That tends to get them interested!) Then I select groups to teach the class under my watchful eye. If they make mistakes along the way, I guide them to the appropriate concepts of geology, chemistry, physics, and/or biology so they can use their critical-thinking skills to determine the proper answer. I also use four pop quizzes where students can work in groups to use foundational scientific concepts to evaluate oceanographic processes.

Office hours are used extensively to develop critical thinking skills. I find that students want to memorize garbage rather than understanding concepts. Quizzing students in the office about oceanographic concepts is a major component of the class. I tell students that questions are not required in order to utilize my office hours. They also can come to my office for quizzing, and many students accept this offer during the 1-2 weeks before exams.

Multiple choice exam questions are written to avoid the memorization of garbage. Test questions require students to apply foundational scientific concepts in order to answer the questions correctly.

Skills Goals

  • Break a complex problem into discrete parts
  • Use scientific concepts and logic to critically evaluate the problem.
  • Enhance student confidence to "think on their feet" and communicate orally.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

See section "Statement about achieving goals." As they achieve the course goals, they will also be helping student achieve the skills goals.

Attitudinal Goals

  • Changing students' view of science. Science is a way to investigate the earth in a logical way, not a collection of dusty "facts."
  • Helping students see that all the sciences are necessary to understand the complex oceans.
  • Enhancing students' confidence to break apart complex problems and apply logic to solve the problems.
  • Enhancing students' curiosity and interest about the world and how earth systems operate. (My statement to students – if they find themselves thinking about Geology when they are not required to do so, I win!)

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

I use current oceanographic events (earthquakes, tsunamis, El Nino, etc.) to stress the relevance of our course material. Students analyze these "new" situations by using their foundational scientific principles and explain what happened and why. This builds student confidence.

Each Friday I start the period with an oceanography tour that pertains to our topic for the day. These tours may focus on a national park that illustrates an oceanographic concept, a dangerous sea creature, a sea storm/wave story, etc. One example is the amazing story of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance. I use the gripping story of the Endurance to illustrate how the pack ice contributed to the formation of Antarctic Bottom Water [ABW].

Whenever possible, I integrate other disciplines such as history, politics, and economics to enhance course relevance.


My major means of assessing these attitudinal goals is through a pre-class and an end-of-the-semester essay. The post-class essay is as follows:

"You have nearly completed this course in Oceanography (Geology 102). You probably won't become a professional oceanographer. However, how do you see this course fitting into your entire educational experience at UW-Eau Claire? What have you learned in this course that will benefit you as an educated person ten years after you have graduated from college?

Don't tell me if you liked the course, if I'm a jerk, etc.! That will be done in the official course evaluation! I want you to reflect on how this class fits into the "big picture" with regards to your education – and life."


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