Risa Madoff: Using Surface Process Hazards in Introduction to Geology at University of North Dakota-Main Campus

About this Course

An introductory first course in Geology, open to majors and non-majors, serving as a Math-Science-Technology Essential Studies (General Education) unit and a first course required for all Geology majors.
Four 2 hour sessions per week

Introduction to Geology Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 270kB Aug24 16)

Introduction to the dynamics of Earth – volcanoes, earthquakes, plate tectonics, streams, groundwater, glaciers, waves, wind, and landslides, with emphasis on the environmental applications of these processes. Introduction to the tools of the geologist – minerals, rocks, maps, and aerial photographs.
The lecture course is required for all Geology majors. For non-majors, it serves as one of many possible General Education requirements for the Math-Science-Technology unit in Essential Studies. As the content portion of the unit, topics include the ones given in the catalogue description and are intended to prepare majors for more advanced courses and to provide a survey breadth of the field for those considering the major. Learning goals include comprehension of fundamental physical concepts central to an understanding of the traditional topics for a survey introductory to Geology. The one credit lab is taught separately, yet complements the lecture course, and it also is required for the major. Learning goals are regularly assessed by a university committee on "Essential Studies" that decides whether it is meeting certain criteria for thinking and reasoning and breadth of knowledge.

A Success Story in Advancing Science Learning at a Public University

The highlight of the module was that students experienced the building on previously learned concepts and skills. They were forced to make connections in order to progress through the following unit. Watching this happen in action, over the short period of time given by the abbreviated term, was particularly interesting.

The value of the module turned out to be more about the students learning how to approach problems and challenges. They learned to ask relevant questions and even had a short time of collaboration when preparing for the final unit.

My Experience Teaching with GETSI Materials

The activities in the module were not modified, except that units 3-5 were given as homework, as class time had run out.

Relationship of GETSI Materials to my Course

This particular session was an accelerated 6-week summer term. The module began at the end of the 4th week and ran through the 5th week. Before the module was implemented, the topics of Earth as a planet, plate tectonics, minerals, and igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks, and structures were introduced. The module was referenced during presentation of rivers and streams and glaciers when relating to topographic patterns resulting from those processes and how they appear on topographic maps. Explaining the flow behavior of mountain glaciers referenced some of the physics that was used to explain mass wasting.

Unit 1

  • Students were asked to read both case studies
  • Each student was assigned 3 questions (plus the last) of the 12 questions relating to the readings
  • A portion of class was spent discussing their responses to questions.
  • I realized that students had merely searched the text for what seemed to answer their 3 questions
  • The following day I went over how to read a geologic case study and scientific information in order to gain comprehensive understanding.
  • I thought this unit was a good exercise, but in the future I would consider going over how to read the material with the students before assigning it.

Unit 2

  • The PowerPoint in module was presented
  • Stations with the sets of maps with corresponding questions were set up
  • In the time allotted each students finished 2-3 of the 6 sets of maps.
  • I answered questions as students raised them while answering the questions.
  • The students turned in their work and I noted common topics raised in each set that the students completed and used them as points of reference in future presentations
  • The students were asked to complete the exercise using Yosemite maps as homework.
  • I gave the students a couple of days to turn in the homework so that they could come in with questions to be discussed in class

Unit 3

  • Nearly the entire 2 hour session had to be taken going over the PowerPoints given in the module. While they were not intended to take that long, it took that long to go over ideas in the presentation, as the students never encountered the two topics together – math/physics and hillslopes and their materials. They were baffled by the idea of angle of repose, that different materials had different angles, and that this played out in natural hillslopes.
  • I would recommend re-naming the title of this unit, because many students tune-out just by seeing and hearing the word "physics." Perhaps, simply naming it, "Understanding the Factors that Shape Hillslopes" or "Why some hillslopes are steeper than others?"
  • I gave the exercises as homework and, again, gave them a couple of days to go over it and come in with questions to be discussed in class.
  • The students did not use the "The Math You Need, When You Need It." Again, for a many students, the thought of reviewing "Math" is really daunting, and they often feel insulted that they are being told they "should" know something that they feel they do not or never really learned.
  • In the future I would select out or modify some of the key exercises, giving much simpler ones to students taking the Introduction to Geology course. However, the subject of quantitative skills needs to be something discussed as a department, otherwise, if the skills are not developed throughout a major, every course might need to start from the beginning reviewing basic quantitative skills. Also, every section of the same course should cover the same sort of quantitative skills, otherwise students can respond very negatively if they know that other students taking the same course are not doing quantitative exercises.

Unit 4

  • The questions and components of this lab were gone over to point out what the individual parts showed and then how to connect them together to understand a real slip event.
  • I also explained how the different data sets shown in the maps where giving elevations (data) at different times and therefore showing how the land surface was changing. Because the changes, as shown by the data, matched the results shown in the model of a slip event, I explained that the data provides the evidence that supports the interpretation of a certain geological occurrence.
  • They were given the exercise to complete as homework.
  • The advantage of explaining exercises in overview in class and then assigning them as homework to be turned in and graded is that students are forced to read and figure out what is being asked. When exercises are done all in class, the students perform much less independently and look to the instructor to set out more of the answers. When they cannot figure something out, also, they are forced to ask, if they want to complete the assignment.

Unit 5

  • This last module was to be used as the final assessment to show how well material was learned from the earlier units. The students were told that this unit would become incorporated into the total grade in their final exam
  • The unit was given out at the start of the last week, after the module was considered complete. They were given the first hour of the next day to review unit 5 on their own and to meet together to discuss it among themselves. I returned after the second hour to answer their questions about the format, how to use, analyze, and synthesize the data and the maps.
  • They asked several questions about which maps to use and how to illustrate on the map, but they seemed to understand what to do.
  • I role-modelled somewhat how to think through integrating the data and the maps, as they seemed to become anxious about using the resource links and thinking about the reflection questions.


The first 4 units were used as part of the participation in class activities percentage of the students' grade. All had taken the full time given in class to work through the presented unit and all had turned in completed homework assignments. Completion of the summative assessment was incorporated into their final exam grade. The students felt uncertain about exactly how points were being added or subtracted and how it would affect their grades. With this group, the uncertainty motivated them to do their best at completing the assignments. Future modifications, particularly for sections of 30 or more, would include reducing and simplifying the exercises and distributing similar exercises throughout the course content and having students take them as quizzes or for homework. In this way, they would receive some basic exposure to reasoning through what is hopefully a simpler problem that would allow them to experience success more independently.


I had hoped students would experience scientific thinking as it is applied to geology, something which is missed when multiple choice questions are administered. On the one hand, they did experience what I had hoped for. They were actively engaged with Earth science data, and they know that they had learned a lot that was not just abstracted and detached information. Yet, they grew reluctant to incorporate the components of what they were learning, even though they expressed an awareness of what was going on in the unit exercises. As far as learning science is concerned, students come in with strong preconceptions and attitudes about science and their relation to it, much of which may be acquired through cultural messages. Their negative or uninformed dispositions toward reasoning as it relates to science are not easily dispelled, even with group discussions and examples of scientists expressing the excitement and enthusiasm for the wonder. This should warrant a need to integrate more such modules into a department's curriculum as well as into a university's general education program, even if students express resistance during isolated attempts in experimental courses.