Geology of the National Parks

Bill Hirt
College of the Siskiyous

Author Profile


Geology of the National Parks uses global tectonics as a framework to help students to learn about the processes that are shaping Earth today by exploring the landscapes of parklands situated in a variety of plate boundary and hotspot settings. It also affords students an opportunity to learn about the geologic history of North America, to look at how the processes that have shaped the continent might affect their lives through a number of interactive activities, and to examine how data and conclusions are related in science by abstracting two articles from the recent literature.

Institution Type
Two Year College

Course Size


Grade Level
College Lower (13-14):College Introductory

Course Context

This is an introductory course for which College Composition and Beginning Algebra are advisories (see "Student Success" in the syllabus for additional information). It does not serve as a prerequisite for any other courses, and nearly all of the students who take it do so to fulfill their general education requirement for a non-lab physical science. The course draws students largely from Siskiyou and adjoining rural counties in northern California. These students represent a wide cross-section of the community and commonly include working adults.

Course Content

Topics and concepts:
  • Plate tectonic principles and plate boundary processes
  • Principles of geologic dating, crustal deformation, earth materials, volcanism, and seismicity
  • Geologic processes and features typical of continental rift and passive margin settings
  • Geologic processes and features typical of subduction and continental collision zones
  • Geologic processes and features typical of transform plate boundaries
  • Geologic processes and features typical of oceanic and continental hotspots
  • Geologic history of North America: geologic relations in the craton, stable platform, and deformed platform
  • Geologic processes and features typical of accreted terranes

Numerous geoscience concepts, from relative dating and isostasy to elastic rebound and slope stability, are interwoven with the topics listed above. To see how an individual concept is integrated into the course, check out the learning objectives at the beginning of each lesson (under "Resources" in the course website).

Much of Earth's geologic record can be understood by applying a relatively few unifying principles.
Geologic features typical of parklands formed in different tectonic settings record how the stresses and temperatures of the lithosphere have evolved over time.
Geologists develop models for geologic processes based on data gathered from observations and experiments, and change these models if new data demand it.

Function effectively in an online environment by accessing information and instructions, carrying out computer-based assignments, and participating substantively in class discussions.
Apply basic mathematical and critical thinking skills to solve problems relevant to introductory geology
Analyze the key conclusions and supporting evidence in a scientific presentation and effectively communicate your analysis to others.

Geology of the National Parks has never been offered as a face-to-face course at College of the Siskiyous. Some potential differences between online and face-to-face versions are discussed below, however, under "Teaching Notes".

Course Goals

Upon successful completion of this course students are expected to be able to:
  • Infer the likely tectonic setting of a national park from a knowledge of regional geologic structures and processes, and relate this setting to potential geologic hazards within or near the park;
  • Interpret the origins of geologic features in America's national parks in terms of the interplay between tectonic, volcanic, and erosional processes;
  • Outline the major events that have shaped North America's geologic history and describe parklands where features related to these events could be observed;
  • Correctly formulate, solve, and interpret the results of a variety of problems relevant to introductory geology;
  • Determine whether or not a proposed explanation, experimental result, or observation is consistent with a scientific hypothesis for a natural phenomenon and effectively communicate that analysis to others.


There are no separate discussion sections in this course. The discussions that take place are those that arise naturally out of student questions and comments about each week's lesson.


Students' scores on exercises, quizzes, and the final exam are used to assess how well they have met both the weekly learning objectives and the first four course outcomes. Student success meeting the fifth outcome is assessed from the writing assignments using rubrics that are available with the assignment (click on Scores).

Teaching Notes

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

Although Geology of the National Parks has only been offered online at College of the Siskiyous, comparing it to similar face-to-face courses points up three key adaptations:

First, use activities to engage students and enable them to practice what they're learning each week. In my face-to-face classes students work together on in-class activities and then receive near-real-time feedback using clickers. In online classes, activities coupled with class discussions can simulate some of this interactivity. My online students routinely tell me that activities are the part of the class they enjoy most.

Second, encourage students who are able to come in or call and talk with you from time to time. I find that this helps me get to know my students in a way that I can't when we only interact online. I can often clarify a concept or instruction in person or over the phone in a fraction of the time it takes to write about it. (Also, if they're able to come in there's no substitute for being able to hand your student a rock sample or point out a feature on a map.) For me, encouraging student visits and calls means setting up extended "office hours". For example, I typically tell my students that I'll be available in my office Tuesday afternoons and Thursday evenings if they want to stop by or call. If something else comes up, I post an announcement to reschedule that week's time.

Third, write all of your instructions down as clearly as you can. Until I began to teach online I hadn't realized how much of my communication with students was spontaneous and non-verbal. If someone had a puzzled look on their face during an in-class discussion I could ask them what was unclear and then offer an alternate explanation. Online, however, students only have my written instructions to work from and I can't tell what they don't understand unless they post questions (or do poorly on an assignment). So, I try to write explanations and instructions that are as complete and clear as possible and still keep them short enough that students won't "tune them out".

The most successful elements of this course are:

Interactive activities (like Earthquake from Virtual Courseware or the Volcanic Hazard Assessment from Hazard City) that support each week's lesson by letting the student do something with what they're learning. I know because of student feedback.

Recommendations for faculty who teach a course like this:

First, timing is important. I find that being consistent with the timing of lessons and assignments is helpful to my students. Each of the lessons in Geology of the National Parks opens at 9:00 AM on Monday morning and closes one week later (when the next one opens). If your assignments are of varied lengths, a detailed course calendar is a must. Students who work during the week tell me that they really appreciate having weekends to complete their assignments. Also, I encourage everyone to get started early during the assignment period so that if problems arise (anything from crashed computers to misunderstood instructions) we can iron them out before the work becomes overdue.

Second, post a list of course guidelines and required materials well before the semester begins. It seems that many of my students begin checking out the course as soon as they enroll, and those who are "on top of it" purchase their books and CDs well before the rush at the beginning of the term. Even with the guidelines and materials list posted, however, some of my students are not "ready to go" on the first day because they delay purchasing their texts till their first financial aid checks arrive. As a result, I've made the first week of class an "orientation" that acquaints students with the course website and the course management system (Etudes) and gives them a little breathing room to get their materials before we "hit the ground running" in week 2.

Third, find a way to keep students current on how they're doing in the class...and why. Sometimes my online students can be distant in more ways than one. Many are non-traditional students who have a lot on their plates, and finding time to do well on an assignment or post a thoughtful question to the discussion board just doesn't seem to be a high priority. Without the discipline afforded by a regular class meeting they fall behind. I routinely contact any student whose assignment is late, but sometimes receive no response. When the student reappears a week later and asks, "How am I doing?" I steer him or her straight to the online gradebook (click Gradebook on the course website). Armed with his or her PIN a student can check assignment scores, see how he or she is doing relative to classmates, and see how class participation is affecting his or her performance. Sometimes seeing these data help the students get back on track...and sometimes not. I routinely post data like these for all my courses, but because being successful in online courses requires at least as much personal discipline as in face-to-face courses I think making this information readily available to our online students is crucial.



Course website


Parks and Plates by Robert Lillie (ISBN 0-393-92407-6)

Other References

CD-ROM (required): Hazard City: Assignments in Applied Geology, 3rd ed. by King, Carpenter, and Wilson (ISBN 0-13-156682-2)

Geology of the National Parks --Discussion  

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