Earth Surface Processes

Amanda Schmidt,
Oberlin College


This course takes a watershed approach to surface processes starting with making sediment, routing it down hillslopes, and into rivers. The class meets three times a week (2x80 min, 1x3 hr) - 80 minutes are used for reviewing content gained from the textbook, 80 minutes for computer based work to solidify concepts, apply concepts to locations outside northern Ohio, or prepare for field work, and 3 hrs for primarily field-based lab exercises. Students work in teams to collect and then process lab data. Each week one student on the team writes a formal lab report on the results (other students make concept sketches or edit the lab report).

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:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is one of 4 required 200-level courses for the geology major. The required courses can be taken in any order and at any time. The only pre-requisite is our physical geology course. Thus, there are students ranging from first to fourth year in the class. Most are majors or intended majors, though a few minors, archaeology majors, and environmental studies majors do take the class.

Course Content:

This course primarily focuses on hillslope and fluvial geomorphology, with a short unit on glaciers and an introductory week on tools in geomorphology. We finish the semester with landscape evolution. We use the new Key Concepts in Geomorphology text (Bierman and Montgomery). Students learn the process of conducting geomorphology research.

Course Goals:

  1. Collect and analyze survey data
  2. Use Excel to run simple numerical models, analyze data, and create figures displaying the data
  3. Conduct geomorphic investigations by:
    1. Asking questions
    2. Formulating hypotheses relevant to the questions
    3. Determining how to test the hypothesis
    4. Collecting data necessary to test the hypothesis
    5. Analyzing the data collected
    6. Communicating results of the analysis in a formal lab report
  4. Read and summarize academic papers
  5. Assess landscapes and identify processes that shape Earth's surface
  6. Identify the setting and temporal period of different geomorphic processes

Course Features:

  • Weekly lab activities where students collect and analyze data to answer geomorphic questions.
  • A final project where they ask a question, plan their data collection process, collect the data, analyze the results, and present the project as a poster and a formal lab report.
  • Weekly computer lab sessions where students use google earth or numeric models to investigate concepts covered in the reading for the week.

Course Philosophy:

I want students to learn the process of doing geomorphology in my course and simply lecturing to them and then having them to worksheet-style labs would not teach them that process. Because geomorphology is everywhere, I am uniquely able to take them into the field for most labs (though the weather is often bad). I used to do a variety of different activities during the second class period each week but the students needed more structure on how to process lab data, so we now take advantage of a new computer lab adjacent to where I teach the class. Students struggle with my teaching style being quite different from others in the department but they generally are happy to have learned to write geology-style papers and to have collected and analyzed original data. The final project is a big hit.


I grade all lab reports, concept sketches, and editor's work using a rubric that is fixed for the entire semester. The students and I work together to come up with the lab report rubric based on reading labs from previous classes. They also complete a comprehensive mid-semester concept sketch. Their final poster and paper are graded. The paper is graded on a nearly identical rubric (just worth more) to their lab reports.


Syllabus and Topic Schedule (Acrobat (PDF) 292kB May27 14)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Key Concepts in Geomorphology (Bierman and Montgomery)
It presents material at an appropriate level for my undergraduate students, figures are great, chapters are an appropriate length to expect students to do the reading, it is process-based, and it organizes content into a watershed approach, which is what I Do.