Geology and the Environment

Karin Kirk
SUNY Empire State College
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This online course covers the basic elements of environmental geology including natural hazards, land use, resource use and climate change. The course is taught asynchronously and has 7 modules, each lasting 1-3 weeks. Interactivity takes place via robust course discussions and a 3-week capstone project about environmental behaviors.

Institution Type
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Size


Grade Level

Course Context

This is an introductory course for non-majors. Many of the students are adult learners and they tend to be highly motivated. Most people take this course out of an interest in the natural world or environmental issues. A significant portion of the students are pre-service or in-service teachers.

Course Content

The first module introduces the idea of using the internet to obtain credible information and also involves identifying data vs observations within a scientific website.

The next 3 modules cover rocks and minerals, plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanoes. The second half of the course delves into environmental issues such as land use, water, resource use and climate change.

A theme throughout the course is the use of data and I incorporate data in a scaffolded manner. Students first use simple datasets (the relationship between earthquakes and plate boundaries), then messy ones (Atlantic hurricane frequency over the past 100 years), then they are asked to go out and find their own data to support their position (about climate change, so that is a fun one).

I emphasize data because the course lends itself to internet-based research and there is so much misinformation out there. Looking for datasets and learning to understand data helps students inform their own positions on issues, rather than relying on media coverage.

Course Goals

During this course students will learn to:

  • Read a graph and explain what it shows.
  • Articulate the theory of plate tectonics including how this theory predicts the location and type of earthquakes and volcanoes.
  • Articulate the difference between anthropogenic climate change and natural climate cycles.
  • Measure your own use of water, energy and food and your production of waste.
  • Discuss and rigorously defend positions regarding how society interacts with the Earth, including land use, climate change and resource use.
  • Use information from multiple sources to complete course assignments.

By the end of the course student should be able to:

  • Perform basic research on earth science and environmental topics.
  • Understand how earth processes work, including plate tectonics, the rock cycle, the hydrologic cycle, earth's climate system and where energy resources come from.
  • Understand what data is and use data to understand course topics.
  • Gain a sense of appreciation for the complex relationship between humans and the earth.
  • Understand the effects of your own actions on the earth system.
  • Differentiate scientific information from policy decisions and understand the role of both science and policy.


The discussions are the heart and soul of the course. A complete description of this aspect of the course can be found here: Online Discussions in an Environmental Geology Course.


Each module concludes with a written assignment. These are assessed using Excel spreadsheets which I create for each student. The spreadsheets contain complete answers to the questions so students can see what I was looking for or what they may have been missing. The point values are flexible so that students can earn the full amount of points a variety of ways. I also write in a lot of comments and follow up with email if necessary. The Excel sheets took me several iterations to dial in, but now they are effective for my own assessment purposes as well as for the students to check their understanding.

If I find pasted text in a written assignment the student earns a zero for that question. If pasted text appears more than once in an assignment the whole assignment gets a zero. That said, the best way to avoid pasted text is to construct questions that are not readily answered via a Google search.

Discussions count for the largest proportion of the course grade (50%). The method for assessment is described on this page Online Discussions in an Environmental Geology Course.

Teaching Notes

Adaptations have been made that allow this course to be successful in an online environment

Because there are no lectures, I cannot breeze through material the way I can in a face to face course. So I am more selective about the topics we cover and I've had to be much more creative to find ways to get students to interact with the material. Simple written questions invariably result in a lot of pasted text that students find on the web. Successful assignments ask students to work with datasets, use visualizations to answer questions, ask them to relate topics to their own hometown, or employ a case study approach.

The most successful elements of this course are:

The two most effective elements of the course are the discussions and the Lifestyle Project.

The discussions provide much of the course content and keep the students engaged and interacting with each other while synthesizing the course topics. I observe higher levels of cognitive engagement in the discussion than with the written assignments. (more about discussions in this course)

The Lifestyle Project is used as a capstone project and gives the students a chance to take the science concepts they've learned and translate them into their personal actions. Because of the personal nature of this project, students feel they get to know each other during this shared challenge.

End-of-course evaluations indicate students enjoy the engagement in the discussions, they like that the instructor is active in the discussions, they think the written assignments are challenging but doable, and they find the Lifestyle Project has left them with an indelible awareness of their personal connection to environmental decisions.

Recommendations for faculty who teach a course like this:

  • Assessments are challenging, so plan the assessments as you create the assignments.
  • Content delivery is not the same as a face to face course. Tactics that work well are case studies, data-rich activities, visualizations and anything that brings in interactivity and inquiry.
  • Plan on improving the course steadily each time you teach it.


Syllabus for Geology and the Environment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB Jun11 10)



Course text: Geology and the Environment, Pipkin, Trent, Hazlett and Bierman

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