Desert Landscapes and Dynamics

James King,
Indiana University-Bloomington


This course is designed as a 15-week 3-hour per week lecture and in-class lab focused on the group-learning of desert landscape processes, its interaction with humans, and dynamics with past and future climates. It focuses on the relative contributions, nature and operation of geomorphological processes in deserts, with case studies of human-physical interactions.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Integrated lecture and lab

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is a junior-level course with no prerequisites and does not serve as a prerequisite for other courses. Typically 50% of the students will have a science background looking for a geoscience applications course, while the other 50% is made up from the other colleges taking the course to satisfy a general education requirement.

Course Content:

Through a combination of seminars, class exercises (producing a course wiki) and lecture, this course will review the current processes that shape desert landscapes and explore how different methods can inform us about what these lands looked like in the past. Through this journey we will highlight the role of biodiversity in these extreme regions and discuss current threats to these fragile yet tolerant ecosystems. Focusing on mainly hot deserts we will explore arid regions around the globe with some focus on US deserts. Lastly we will examine their effects of human activities and the impact of humans on environmental processes and systems.

Course Goals:

  1. Students will be able to evaluate the nature and operation of geomorphological processes in deserts and have an understanding for the relative importance of different process systems.
  2. They will formulate how physical characteristics limit human activities and be able to predict human-physical interactions within deserts.
  3. Students will develop excitement about learning the diversity and complexities of desert environments.
  4. Skills expected to be fostered during this course include: critical analysis of primary research, discovery of group-based wiki creation, peer-teaching and presentation skills.

Course Features:

The course is centered around a wiki that will be developed by the students as a summary of the course curriculum, blog content developed towards a group-based project and host virtual field trips designed to complement in-class content. This will all be set in the framework as a general public resource emphasizing a science journalism writing style and promoting a deep understanding of the course material.

Course Philosophy:

As the course has no prerequisites the use of wiki enables students with different strengths to take command of different parts of its development throughout the curriculum. In addition, the wiki (when properly moderated) provides a strong resource for all students in preparation for any tests (in addition to the assigned textbook). Although I am primarily a field researcher, but there are no deserts near enough to make this course field-based at its intended teaching level so the use of virtual labs (via google earth, NASA imagery and personal videos via YouTube) is the easiest route that gives students a great insight to the desert environment. The addition of a group project is intended to reinforce the wiki-style collaborative learning, while enabling students to develop their communication skills through the assigned seminar.


An Exam worth 20% will be given testing the key curriculum in the course using a combination of multiple-choice and short answer questions.

Group Project and Individual paper worth 30%. The group project includes a 30 minute seminar and summary blog entry on a hazards topic. While, the individual paper will be based on peer-reviewed literature, based on one aspect of the group project topic and be submitted at the end of the semester.

Quizzes and participation are graded at 20%. There are six quizzes that are given online before the beginning of a new section to keep students on top of the reading requirements.

Wiki entries are worth 20%. The Wiki content of each student will be tracked and marked based on a cumulative rubric that balances the grade between original entries and constructive edits. Although students are encouraged to frequently update the wiki, six assignments are spread throughout the semester to help achieve the objectives of this component.


Desert Landscapes and Dynamics Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 250kB Jun6 14)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Arid Zone Geomorphology: Process, Form and Change in Drylands, (Ed.) D.S.G. Thomas, 3rd Edition,Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester. 624p.
This recent rewrite on what was already a key resource for arid region researchers provides the perfect background material for a general introduction course as it blends classic fundamental literature with new exciting developments in research and methodologies.