Phillip G. Resor: Using GPS, Strain, and Earthquakes in Structural Geology at Wesleyan University

About this Course

Semster-long core course for the Earth and Environmental Science majors

Two 80-minute meetings and 3-hour lab

Four-year college

Resor's Structural Geology (E&ES 223) syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 1.8MB Nov23 16)

Structural geology is the study of the physical evidence and processes of rock deformation including jointing, faulting, folding, and flow. These structures provide insight into the evolution of the earth's crust, geologic hazards (earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides), and distribution of natural resources and contaminants. This course introduces the theoretical foundations, observational techniques, and analytical methods used in modern structural geology. Geologic structures are studied in the field and from published data sets and are analyzed to understand fundamental processes.
At the end of the course students should be able to:

  • Approach an unfamiliar outcrop, ask appropriate questions, make observations and collect data, analyze and interpret their data, and make decisions about how to proceed in order to infer the geologic and deformational history of an area.
  • Synthesize observations from hand samples, outcrops, and geologic maps of unfamiliar geologic structures, generate hypotheses to explain the formation of the observed structures and test these hypotheses using physical or numerical models.
  • Evaluate the significance of an unfamiliar geologic structure to problems in volcanology, hydrology, energy resources, earthquake hazards, and planetary science.
  • Students should also develop proficiency in a number of non-discipline-specific goals
    • Spatial Thinking
    • Quantitative problem-solving
    • Reading and writing about the scientific literature

Using Earthquake Cycle Deformation and Earthquake Hazards to Teach Strain to Undergraduate Majors

My course is one of several core courses that students can choose from when completing the Earth and Environmental Science major at Wesleyan. The course integrates field and laboratory exercises, quantitative analyses, and readings from the primary literature to teach students about rock deformation and its importance to a variety of societally relevant problems. I taught the GPS, Strain, and Earthquakes module about midway through the course after students had been introduced to concepts of deformation, mapping and measurement of geologic structures, and quantification of stress. The connections to earthquakes and earthquake hazards really animated our class discussions throughout the module.

My students were surprised by the magnitudes of static ground displacements associated with the Great Tohoku Earthquake. This opening activity provided a great hook and motivated students throughout the module.

My Experience Teaching with GETSI Materials

I used the materials as designed, but because my class meets twice a week for 80 minutes I split Unit 2 between the first and second meetings. I dedicated entire 80-minute sessions to Units 4, 5, and 6, which allowed for more discussion and in-class work on these units.

Relationship of GETSI Materials to My Course

My course is 13 weeks long and the module was taught in weeks 8 and 9. Prior to the module students were introduce to qualitative description of deformation, field mapping, description of faults and fault zones, stress and rock strength. Students applied the module materials later in the course to fold-thrust belts and in their final projects investigating a geologic structure of their choice.

Unit 1
  • I used Unit 1 as written. I had students submit the pre-class assignment through our classroom management platform and then added links to several of the videos students submitted on slide 4 of the presentation. I used these videos in class to help illustrate points of the broader discussion. The nuclear disaster slide requires some additional explanation or time for exploration as the figure is complicated.
Unit 2
  • I used the basic version of the activity and split the unit between the end of the first class meeting (1D deformation) and the beginning of the second (2D deformation).
Unit 3
  • I used the activity as written. Students were able to download data from two stations in class.
Unit 4
  • I introduced this activity at the end of Unit 3 and had students download the data prior to class. The activity was completed in class as written.
Unit 5
  • I used the activity as written. Student discussion of the background material took ~20 minutes. Time ran short. I would suggest giving the students the velocity/offset and strain rate/strain data and have them spend their time on the earthquake cycle aspect, which is the new material in this unit.
Unit 6
  • I used the activity as written. Students enjoyed presenting their case studies, and there were many questions and comments from the class. I would suggest discussing the rubric with students prior to final presentations so that they are clear on the time limit (and that it will be enforced) as well as the required elements of the assignment. You may want to provide an example outline slide set of appropriate length with all of the necessary elements.


Students were assessed in a formative way by the work they did throughout the module. Summative assessments included the final project calculations, presentations, and slides. I also included questions on their exam based on interpretation of deformation from schematic velocity vectors (similar to Unit 2 figures) and an example from Vancouver Island that included strain quantification (1D) as well as descriptive and hazard analysis.


I envisioned students using this module to not only learn how we calculate strain from displacements (or strain rates from velocities) but to appreciate why we might want to do this. The student's enthusiasm for and execution of their final projects indicated that the module was a success.