Karen Gran,
University of Minnesota-Duluth


Geomorphology is a mid-level core geology course, required for geology majors and minors. I teach it as a primarily field-based lab course, with one 4-hour lab and 2-50 minute lectures each week. One of my goals is to give students tools necessary to conduct basic research inquiries into geomorphology, with an emphasis on societal relevance.

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:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

The only requirements for geomorphology are introductory geology and pre-calculus. Most of the students are geology majors, with about 20% coming from other majors (usually either geology minors or science education students). The lab is required and forms the core of the class. While geomorphology can be taken by sophomores, lately it has been filling with mostly seniors and juniors.

While I employ a lot of group work in class and in lab, I find that most of my students are employed outside of school and have great difficulty working on group projects outside of class time. I therefore build in time in lab to work on joint projects and allow for individual write-ups even when data are collected together during lab.

Course Content:

The course is focused primarily on surface processes that sculpt our landscape in the upper Midwest. We cover soils; hillslope, fluvial and glacial processes; coastal, aeolian, and tectonic geomorphology; basic physical and numerical modeling in geomorphology; and environmental restoration. The course runs around a 4-hour lab each week, with lectures designed to give enough background to be able to do the lab. The first ~8 labs are in the field and generally focus on field data collection, with further analyses undertaken after lab. The non-field labs introduce GIS concepts, numerical and physical modeling, and topographic maps. All students complete a group final research project that is woven into the last half of the semester, with adequate time given during scheduled labs to allow students to collect data in groups.

Course Goals:

These are the primary goals.
By the of the course students should be able to:
  1. Link process with form. They should be able to look at any landscape on Earth and be able to describe which processes likely shaped the features seen and how each feature was formed.
  2. Read a topographic map, interpret an air photo, use Google Earth, and use ArcGIS for simple spatial analyses.
  3. Describe the geomorphic processes operating in the Duluth area and be able to link past environments to present landforms.
  4. Collect and analyze field data pertaining to fluvial, hillslope, and soil processes.
  5. Set up and solve basic quantitative problems, estimate order of magnitude importance, and interpret graphical data.
  6. Learn the structure and organization of a scientific paper, and write a full scientific paper.

Course Features:

Students are assessed based on A) weekly lab assignments, B) three exams, and C) a final project. The final project is a multi-week small group, independent research project. Each group of 2-3 students is responsible for writing a research proposal, carrying out ~4 hours of data collection, analyzing the data, and presenting the results as a presentation and a scientific paper. The research part of the final project gives students the opportunity to apply tools and understanding developed in earlier labs on their project. The paper is a culmination of several shorter assignments in which students learned the mechanics of writing a scientific paper.

By deliberately setting up many of my labs to involve data collection and analysis using a variety of tools (field, GIS, modeling), students have the chance to build a skill-set that they can then apply to their final projects.

Some years the final projects are left wide-open. Ideas are given, but students can choose their own project, too. Other years, we bring the whole class to one site and groups each tackle a different research question at that site. Many of the ideas are linked to societal issues. One year, for instance, I partnered with a local non-profit, and they handed over a list of sites where landowners had questions the students could tackle for their final projects (issues like slope stability and flooding). Another year, we worked at a state park that had experienced a major flood and were able to reconstruct and document what had happened during a levee breach there.

Course Philosophy:

I want my students to build their skill-set while addressing real problems in the landscape. They learn data collection techniques in the field or in the lab and then analyze real (often very messy) datasets for their lab assignments. I organized the class with a 4-hour lab section in order to give us time to accomplish this. By having the students do a research project in the end, they get a chance to apply their skills to a new problem. By partnering with local organizations on various projects, I give the students real-world problems to address.


Students are assessed based on A) weekly lab assignments, B) three exams, and C) a final project.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Jun6 14)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Process Geomorphology by Ritter, Kochel, and Miller
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