Introduction to Physical Geology

Lynsey LeMay
Thomas Nelson Community College


Introduction to Physical Geology is a broad, first-level science course appropriate for all students needing to complete science coursework. Basic topics in physical geology are covered with real-world data assignments and current events discussions supplementing readings and other assessments for content comprehension.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Online course

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This is an introductory course which serves as a prerequisite for Historical Geology. If required by an individual student's placement examination, Algebra I (MTH 03) and Reading Improvement II (ENG 05) are the only prerequisites for this course. Many students take this course to satisfy a general education requirement, although a large number of those students are current or future teachers taking science classes to complete preparations for licensure or because they are career switchers.

Course Content:

In this introductory geology course, students learn about the structure and materials of the Earth, processes that operate on the surface of the Earth as well as in Earth's interior, the methods geologists use to interpret geologic history, and the importance and relevance of geology in understanding societal issues. Specific topics include plate tectonics, formation of minerals and rocks, weathering and erosion, earthquake hazards, volcanoes, crustal deformation, stream and river processes, and glacial processes. As an online class, laboratory assignments are included in the coursework and virtual field experiences are included as guided tours, with accompanying questions, in Google Earth.

Course Goals:

  • The student will develop an understanding of Earth processes, both internally and at the Earth's surface. This includes processes associated with mineral and rock formation, volcanoes, plate tectonics, earthquakes, crustal deformation, rivers and streams, glaciers, deserts, and groundwater.
  • The student will be able to identify basic rock forming minerals and common igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks.
  • The student will learn about the geologic record and the geologic time scale, and be able to apply relative and absolute dating techniques.
  • The student will be able to do basic calculations associated with length, area, volume, density, velocity, discharge, recurrence interval and gradient.
  • The student will develop topographic map and geologic map skills.
  • The student will demonstrate a proficiency in geology topics through quizzes, discussion boards, and research projects.

Course Features:

As an online course, students must complete a number of assignments to assess content comprehension. A number of these assignments are designed to provide students the opportunity to virtually visit locations of geologic interest as well as incorporate actual data. Students must also complete a final project that allows students to research the geology of a place of interest to them that ties together many of the topics studied throughout the semester. To do this, students must use maps and published research, not relying entirely on internet sources.

Course Philosophy:

Demonstrating the importance and relevance of geology in student's lives is important. As an online class, I make extensive use of internet resources. Many students also seem to find geology interesting after a field trip, or other similar experience, where geology is actually tangible. Because we cannot go in the field, I try to bring the field to the students by using Google Earth.


Course assessment is based on:
  • Weekly quizzes based on readings
  • Problem sets and laboratory assignments
  • Posts and replies to the online discussion board with topics including geology in the news, mineral resources, and locations of geologic interest to the students
  • Geotour assignments using Google Earth
  • A group project where students research and present the geology of a place of interest
  • Final exam


References and Notes:

Earth: Essentials of Geology by Stephen Marshak (3rd editiion)
Laboratory Manual in Physical Geology, edited by Richard Busch (8th edition)