Sarah Hall: Using Surface Process Hazards in Geology and Humanity at College of the Atlantic

About this Course

Introductory, no prerequisites, all students welcome, fulfills requirement for intermediate-level geoscience courses.
Two 85-minute classes and one 1.5-hour work session per week

Geology and Humanity Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 134kB Jul19 16)

In this course we will explore how geology has played a major role in human history and culture over multiple temporal and spatial scales. We will explore the underlying geological processes forming and influencing our environment and how this relates to human migration and settlement patterns, political boundaries, geohazards, resources, the modern landscape, and agriculture. This course will appeal to students interested in exploring connections between geology and other subject areas, or who are curious about humanity's place in geologic time. This course will implement readings from a range of sources: geologic textbooks, excerpts from short historical texts, and scientific journal articles. We will use class time in a variety of ways: lecture-based, seminar-style discussion, and laboratories spent visiting local field sites. Students will be evaluated based on their performance on weekly problem sets or writing assignments, a midterm quiz, as well as a term project with both oral and written presentation components. Level: Introductory. Prerequisites: none. Class limit: 16. Meets the following degree requirements: ES
Learning Goals:
1) Be able to describe important Earth systems and how they interact
2) Be able to read and use topographic and geologic maps as well as identify landforms using remote data (e.g. aerial images).
3) Be able to discuss how past geologic environments and events influence today's surface morphology, resource distribution, geohazards potential, settlement/trade networks, and climate.
4) Be able to critically evaluate societal issues that involve a connection to Earth Science and Geologic Time.

The course I taught is an introductory geoscience course called Geology and Humanity. There is quite a bit of emphasis on the environment, geohazards, and natural resources as this course is designed to both introduce students to principles of geology but also help them realize the connections between geology and human society. We meet twice a week, usually with one 1.5 hour lecture and one 1.5 hour activity period. Students also meet for ~1-1.5 hours per week outside of class to continue working on the activity with myself or a TA. While we did have a few labs involving rock ID and map reading, much of this course was text based. Students used a general introductory geology textbook, but also read multiple selections from scientific papers, news articles, and popular science literature. We had regular class discussions around the reading material.

I used this module towards the end of my course as a capstone project because it involved many of the topics we touched on briefly during the course. The students enjoyed the regular activity as this module contains both some lecture material as well as a great deal of in-class work material. They were engaged during the class periods and were happy to work through the material at their own pace and with classmates. When talking about the future, students are not very optimistic given the certain issues associated with population growth, climate change, etc., but this module helped them see what we are currently doing to plan, prevent, and prepare for certain geohazards. They told me they felt empowered by their new awareness of both the potential for mass-wasting in different environments the advances in scientific understanding and community planning occurring in response.

I enjoyed watching the students gain confidence and identify as scientists as they learned to recognize landscape features using different types of remote data and ask important questions about potential mass-wasting hazards for specific regions.

My Experience Teaching with GETSI Materials

I usually supplemented the module material with local/regional examples that students were familiar with. I used hillshade, aspect, relief, topographic and aerial imagery of our region to facilitate landform identification.

Relationship of GETSI Materials to my Course

My course was 10 weeks long. I implemented the module in the last 3 weeks of the course. We briefly covered rock types, geologic maps, topographic maps, earthquakes, volcanoes, climate and natural resources in the weeks prior to implementation of this module. We talked a lot about geohazards and population growth in the weeks preceding the module. These topics were revisiting while moving through the module. The first four units we completed in class together, the fifth unit (summative assessment) the students completed on their own outside of class.

Unit 1
  • I introduced the module topic to students near the end of a class prior to starting the module. I showed them a video of a recent mass-wasting event (in the news at the time) and talked a bit about how it is important to recognize the different types of hazards that are common in different regions. I asked them to read the Unit 1 case studies and and answer the questions for discussion before coming to class. They did not have to type up the answers, but make notes and be ready to talk about them at the beginning of the next class. We did begin class by discussing Unit 1 and then followed with beginning Unit 2.
Unit 2
  • We started class by discussing the Unit 1 reading. I used all three parts of Unit 2 in class, although they finished the third part (Yosemite Activity) outside of class on their own. They got through about ½ of it in class working together. I used their Yosemite exercises (part 3) as the summative assessment and I started the next class with a quick summative (of unit 2) by asking students to describe what they think it looks like on the ground in a new map area (used local/regional area where I have some similar types of maps already made).
    I found I was a bit short on time. I did not print and hang the maps around the room because my entire classroom has sloping walls. Instead I made 4 stations and just printed 8.5"x11" versions of each maps. I had students work in groups of 3-4 to work through the questions/maps in part 2. While I had intended to have the students work through at least 2 regions (as I did when I informally tested this module last term in a different class – worked well), I didn't have time to do that in this case. Instead I had the students do a "pop-up" presentation – just 2 minutes – where they pointed out a few of the main types of landforms and described the regional landscape to their classmates. This turned out to be great because students helped each other identify similar (and different) characteristics in the different landscapes. For example, they did a great job identifying the many different styles of glacial landforms present in these map areas.

    The students enjoyed looking at all the different maps at one time. They liked having so many options for how to figure out what a landscape feature was. I'm glad I let them spend a lot of time with one location because I think they really took the time to look at a feature on all the different maps (lidar, hillshade, aerial, and topographic). Then when we moved on to Part 3, Yosemite activity, they were very ready to begin and immediately engaged in the first part of the activity. However, they stalled at the topographic profile part of the activity. We covered profiling about 7 weeks ago, so I had to do a refresher in the middle of the exercise. It would help to have a slightly larger or more zoomed in topographic map so the students can read the points easily. But they were okay once I pointed out that the index contours are 250m apart (rather than let them struggle to figure it out). It was very important to tell them it was okay to locate the tie point on the nearest contour line rather than struggle with getting the exact elevation (impossible).
    If I had it to do over I'd plan time to review topographic profiling. When I taught this lesson informally before I had already talked about lidar and other methods of collecting remote data. It was a lot for them to learn what remote data is, how it is collected, and how we use it all in one lesson. It might be a good idea to suggest talking about some remote data collection BEFORE starting this unit. Although the slides were helpful. The topographic maps of MDI in the slide presentation were REALLY hard to use, these need to be updated or not used.
Unit 3
  • I started class by reviewing bits of Unit 2. I asked them to use similar maps (aerial, hillshade, slope, and aspect) to identify features of our local region as well as imagine what a profile would look like in different valleys (U-shaped vs V-shaped). They did okay with some help.

    I used the powerpoints for Part 1 and 2 of unit 3 as well as the in-class exercise on Physical Factors and the follow-up exercise on Strength in class. I went through the first few slides, then had them work through problems 1-7 on the Part 1 activity, then stop working and I went through the rest of the Part 1 ppt slides. They needed A LOT of help with very basic math. I told them to have a calculator with them, which most did, but many didn't understand how to use it. This is a non-majors intro-level class where many students are using this course to get their Environmental Science requirement filled. As such, we did not get through much of the material in this unit. They finished the part 1 activity and we got through the first part of the Part 2 exercises. We stopped before the mapping activity. They will do that outside of class with the help of the TA.

    I chose to use all of the material because I thought I was suppose to as a tester. If I had it to do over, I'd only select bits from the first two exercises and spend MUCH MORE of the time working with the maps. I think there should be a stronger connection to the Unit 2 landscape analysis rather than introducing the quantitative bits and disrupting the momentum with the landscape work. It frustrated the students a bit as well.
    Engagement: Some were very excited when they did make it through the math and understood what they did. Others glazed over and did not want even try to engage as soon as they saw F=ma. Working in groups helped. I also let each group of students just choose one rock type to work with, then we wrote all the class data on the board and talked about what it meant. They seemed to begin to remember what density is at this point – lots of "OOOoooohhhs" coming out! One student also explained stress to another student by sayings something like: 'I feel stress because I'm graduating in a few weeks. It is increasing every day. The area of me, my body, isn't changing, but the work, the forces are increasing. Since stress is force/area, and the force, in the numerator, is increasing, but the area, in the denominator, is staying the same, I'm feeling MORE stress!' I thought this was a breakthrough. I was happy to hear the students helping each other through the math. Although it did turn into more of a math lesson than a surface process lesson. This would be good for my more quantitative classes, or maybe as a supplemental bit, but I wish I stuck with the landscape analysis instead.

    Part 2 is very repetitive in parts. Students struggled to see the difference between some of the questions. There were also many words on the exercise that were not covered in the ppt (e.g.porosity). I think there might be a way to streamline the content/information with fewer calculations/button-pushing on the calculator. The "friction" of the calculations and page flipping distracted the students.

    When I taught this lesson before, informally before the testing,it was in a quantitative geomorphology course and this unit went much smoother. We got through ALL of the material and I gave the students the assignment to research one of the mass-wasting events to give a 5min presentation on it as a summative assessment before Unit 4. This worked VERY WELL. I was not able to do this during the testing period because of the time constraint. I think hearing about the components of the different slide events is MORE IMPORTANT and engaging for the students than making all of these calculations, and I think helps us to connect to the societal importance. I did a quick presentation of the different slide areas before we started on the Unit 4 material.
Unit 4
  • Since we took a long time to get through the in-class activity and Part 1 of the second activity in Unit 3, we started unit 4 by finishing Part 2 of unit 3 (the mapping exercise). The students took about 30 min to annotate their maps with High, Med, and Low potential for landslides. Following that activity, we had a brief discussion of potential driving forces, natural and anthropogenic and what we might do to mitigate/plan for them. I gave a brief (5 -10 min?) power point presentation where I introduced the components of a complex slide, reviewed how lidar data is collected, and reminded students what "geodetic data" is. We briefly discussed how we could make our own "difference" maps with Google Earth or before and after photography. Finally I showed them images of the major slide events in each of the 5 areas. I ended with Oso and introduced the Unit 4 activity. Some students began work on the Unit 4 activity (excited!), others took it to start on their own out of class. I began the next class finishing up the in-class activities that go with unit 4.

    I did not do a plate tectonic activity with the students because we already did a similar activity a few weeks prior when we talked about earthquake hazards. We used the UNAVCO GPS cards and mapped the motion of the NA plates. Prior to that (~7 weeks ago) we did a plate tectonic activity where the students figured out the motion of the Pacific Plate based on types of plate boundaries at its margins. As part of the discussion about driving forces during the unit 4 class period we talked about how the Pacific Northwest (WA, OR, CA, and AK) all have increased seismic hazards and, in some places, volcanic hazards. Students brought up climate on their own, so we did not do the climate data plotting activity, but during our summative discussion at the beginning of next class I showed them already plotted precipitation data and we talked about seasonality.

    Students were happy to have a class period to catch up as the quantitative bits of Unit 3 really bogged them down. They seem to enjoy the mapping parts most as they are now familiar with landscape features. They talk among themselves and tell stories organically...."this one time...there was this crazy storm....and..." Students were also engaged when I showed them images of the various slide areas. I had planned to show them how to use the "historical imagery" tool in Google Earth, but they assured me they already know about it. However, they didn't realize how it could be used to see landscape change (e.g. mass changes), they said they had only used it to see seasonal changes, vegetation growth, or different cars in their neighborhood!

    They moved through the in-class activity easily. I'm VERY happy I talked about GPS and Lidar data earlier in the term as it made the transition from Units 3 to 4 more welcomed as it seems we returned to something they felt a bit more confident about having heard it before. This unit was much easier for the students than unit 3. There is probably a better ways to either print the pages or rearrange the maps so students don't have to do so much page flipping.
Unit 5
  • The students gathered all of their Units 2-4 material before the class where I introduced unit 5. We talked about the bits that were useful, unclear, confusing, etc. I picked one specific area (Oso as it had been used as the example site in Unit 4) and showed them some of the online materials available to citizens to help them assess mass-wasting risks and prepare for a potential hazardous situation. I gave them the materials for unit 5 and we talked about all of the components. I reminded them about how their are both local AND region implications for damage in a given event (e.g. in the Oso event, the town was buried, a lake was created, and materials polluted the downstream areas). This is important to make them aware of before Unit 5 because the Boulder (city)area is threatened by the upstream mass-wasting issues. The students seemed confident and ready to take on the task of unit 5.

    I assessed their unit 5 work using the provided rubric. I found it to be effective. I think the instructions should be more explicit about asking students to use references, both in-line and in a reference section, could help with the quality of the report. Perhaps including a table like that used for the risk factors only instead for planning/preparedness measures might help them do a better job with this part of the paper. I also think they could be asked to report briefly on 1 historical event from this drainage.


For units 1 - 4 we began each class discussing the work completed in the previous unit. I assessed on the fly during the class time by walking around and asking them questions about their work. I had students do "pop-up" presentations, just 2-3 minutes to report out what their group had discussed or found on a map area. This saved time and allowed for students to be taught/assessed by their peers.


I wanted the students to be able to describe landscape features based on various remote data and then link the landscape type to distinct regional geologic forces (climate and tectonics) and suggest types of hazards that region might be prone to. I do think this goal/vision was achieved, although through both this module and work we did during the rest of the course. I envisioned students doing a bit more research on one of these map areas (a case study of one of the slide events), but we didn't have time for this. Through researching a case study of an event, students would be exposed to different types of literature (news, scientific, blogs, photos, maps) and enjoy a well-rounded view of the connections between society and geology. I will reformat unit 3-4 in the future to make time for this bit.

Overall, the students seemed to be engaged and interested most of the time during the module. They reported that their eyes were opened to regional hazards that they had never thought about before. They appreciated that geohazards do not have to be sensationalized to have a major impact on society. Many of them said their only experience with mass-wasting was through Hollywood films! Overall, this was a success and I'd use this module again.