Becca Walker: Using Surface Process Hazards in Physical Geology at Mt. San Antonio College

About this Course

Introductory-level. A mix of science majors and non-science majors.

physical geology syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 258kB Jul19 17)
We meet twice per week for 3 hours. The class is an integrated lecture/lab.
Minerals, rocks, earthquakes, volcanoes, and landscapes are presented within a framework of plate tectonics operating in concert with atmospheric and oceanic processes. A required course for students entering geoscience majors. May be taken by non-majors as a transferable physical science plus lab. Required field trips may involve overnight camping.
1) Think critically and solve problems without being told the answer. 2) Describe basic Earth processes to someone without a science background and explain how Earth processes influence the formation and distribution of minerals, rocks, earthquakes, volcanoes, oceans, continents, and landscapes.
3) Understand how Southern California's tectonic setting and geographic location impact its climate, economy, natural hazards, and the lives of its residents.
4) Investigate geologic phenomena on a variety of spatial (size) and temporal (time) scales.
5) Interpret data including graphs, maps, photos, and rock/mineral samples.
6) Become more educated about how your actions impact the environment.
7) Be aware of the amount of work and performance level necessary at a four-year school.
8) Understand the concept of accountability as it applies to success in higher education.

I teach a physical geology class with a diverse group of students with respect to academic background and major. We spend the majority of the semester working with rock and mineral identification, maps, and tectonics, but I wanted to incorporate more of a societal component into this particular course. The surface processes hazards module gave me the opportunity to help students consider the intersection between geologic phenomena and humans.

My students seemed to enjoy working with such a variety of maps and study areas. The collaborative nature of identifying landscape features and ranking areas' mass wasting susceptibility was a great opportunity for interaction, debate, and synthesis of a variety of data sets. They were quite engaged as they put their maps together for the Boulder Creek case study (Unit 5). The incorporation of human modification of the landscape and the implications for mass wasting vulnerability got them thinking about their own neighborhoods in southern California.

The module provided the opportunity to "read a landscape" and think qualitatively and quantitatively about why some areas are more prone to mass wasting than others. The decision-making necessary to complete some of the module activities gave students a sense of ownership of their products.

My Experience Teaching with GETSI Materials

Due to time constraints, I spent significantly less time on Unit 4 than I planned. Since I assigned Unit 5 as a final project, I did not offer any class time to complete Unit 5.

Relationship of GETSI Materials to my Course

I piloted the module during a 16-week semester during the last 2 weeks of the semester. Earlier in the semester, students had worked with topographic map reading and interpretation but had never looked at any of the other types of maps utilized in the surface processes module.

Unit 1
  • Students had been assigned the articles during the previous class meeting. They worked in groups of three for Unit 1, which consumed 45-50 minutes of class time. I wrote the gallery walk questions on index cards and distributed them among the six tables in the classroom. There were also blank index cards on each table. Students rotated from table to table and responded to the questions on the blank index cards. There was no time limit or order of questions. When students had finished answering the questions, we spent roughly 10 minutes discussing (as a group) their responses to the questions.
  • Tips and what I would change: I wish that I had had more time for the group discussion at the end of the gallery walk. Students had been given hard copies of the articles, and the figures were in black and white. In hindsight, I should have provided them with color figures.
Unit 2
  • The first hour of class was a lecture/discussion to introduce some geomorphology concepts and get students ready to work with the data sets. We discussed the concepts of relief, slope (including some trigonometry), the azimuthal concept of aspect, north and south-facing slopes, U vs. V-shaped valleys, and radial/meandering/braided drainages. As a group, they generated a list of built and environmental landscape characteristics; they came up with ridges, valleys, mountains, canyons, cities, dams, snow, rivers, ranges, basins, and lakes.
  • For the last 2 hours of class, students began working on Unit 2. I provided them with maps and questions for the Kelso, Thistle, Oso, and Tully Valley study sites. By the end of the class meeting, each group had completed between 2 and 4 of the study sites. During our next class meeting, students spent roughly 90 minutes completing the Yosemite case study. Several students had visited Yosemite in the past and commented that "it did look like the cliffs were just going to fall." Because we had already talked about the concepts of slope and aspect, students had had experience making topographic profiles earlier in the semester, and they had practiced identifying landscape features during the last class meeting. This exercise proceeded smoothly.
  • Tips and what I would change: Watching the implementation of Unit 2 was a nice opportunity for me to observe what worked well and what needs modification. In the future, I would at least triple the size of the topographic maps, increase the size of the Yosemite maps for the tie point exercise, and make the map legends more prominent. I noticed that some of the lake names and Magna were not visible on the maps that I provided. To my knowledge, students did not use the slope maps at all. Some of the groups looked at one map at a time, rather than considering multiple maps together to look for patterns, but they learned to integrate the maps over time. They had a particularly tough time finding faults as they struggled to distinguish between linear and non-linear features. In the future, I would consider having students work on 2-3 study areas only (not all of them) because the students who completed all of the study areas found some of the questions repetitive.
Unit 3
  • I provided a ~25 minute lecture-based background on some of the physics concepts that students would need to complete Unit 3. After the introduction, I assigned 1/3 of the students sand, 1/3 basalt, and 1/3 limestone and asked them to complete the first portion of the Unit 3 exercise before coming to class next time. During the next class meeting, students compared their sand/basalt/limestone results and proceeded with the Unit 3 exercise. Despite the introduction during the previous class meeting, the majority of students struggled significantly with many of the calculations in the exercise. I did not feel as though they were making the connection between the calculations that they were performing and the implications for mass wasting, and because so many people were having a hard time with the quantitative component, I regularly interrupted their work to talk to the group about approaching the calculations. It was the most efficient way to deal with the problem (as opposed to explaining the same concept repeatedly to individuals and small groups), but I felt like the interruptions made the exercise somewhat disjointed.
  • Tips and what I would change: I think that it might be a better idea, especially with a student population that is relatively math-phobic, to intersperse some of the calculations involved in Unit 3 into their map work with Unit 2 to give the calculations some more context. With regard to the exercise, I felt like the instructions were clear--the majority of the struggle was just with the math.
Unit 4
  • Unfortunately, Unit 4 was done a disservice during pilot testing because I ran out of class time to implement it. I felt rushed, and as a result of the time constraints, not all students completed the exercise during class. Students were successful in annotating the hillshade image and were surprised at the dramatic difference between the "before" and "after" imagery. In the future, I would allow for 90 minutes (as opposed to the 40 that they had) to complete the exercise.
Unit 5


I used the majority of the formative and summative assessments offered in the Surface Process Hazards module during pilot testing. Some assessments were graded, while others were assessed informally to help me understand where student understanding was lacking. Here is an overview of what I did:
  • Unit 1: After students completed the discussion questions gallery walk, we had a brief group report-out at the end of the class meeting. I subsequently collected their written responses, picked out commonalities among responses, and reviewed the responses with students during their next class meeting.
  • Unit 2: With regard to formative assessment, I moved around the classroom during the landscape scavenger hunt and asked students to point out various landscape features to me as they were working. I also collected and graded the Yosemite exercise. For summative assessment purposes, I used the Level-1 question that asks students to match topographic profiles to topographic maps.
  • Unit 3: As described above in the unit-by-unit breakdown, I used numerous formative assessments during the introduction to Unit 3, all dealing with the quantitative work necessary to progress through Unit 3. I implemented the majority of these formative assessments as think-pair-shares to give every student the opportunity to grapple with the calculations. Upon the conclusion of the in-class component of Unit 3, students completed the Level-1 summative assessment question with a partner.
  • Unit 4: I collected the Oso landslide exercise and assessed their modification of Figure 6 and their answers to Question 9.
  • Unit 5: As described above in the unit-by-unit breakdown, I assigned Unit 5 as a final project. I collected student maps and written reports and used the rubric to assess their work.

Unit 5 Student Instructions for Final Hazard Map & Report PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 373kB Jun21 17)


Using the Surface Process Hazards module in my physical geology class was an effective way of infusing geodetic and geomorphic concepts into the curriculum, gave my students an opportunity to look more closely at landscape features than they had in the past, and provided a nice refresher of concepts related to topographic maps that they had studied earlier in the semester but had perhaps forgotten about. The continued emphasis of mass wasting's impact on society and the role of both environmental and built characteristics of landscapes on mass wasting potential was particularly interesting to students. The opportunity for students to investigate a variety of study areas and using the same types of data sets repeatedly increased their comfort with using topographic maps, hillshade maps, and aerial imagery. They seemed to enjoy the opportunity to discuss their interpretations with their colleagues, especially for the quantitative components of the module, and being given the opportunity to make choices as they worked on the module (examples: ranking particular areas as high/medium/low mass wasting susceptibility; choosing study areas on which to work). Despite their work on Units 1-4, I noticed that some students in creating their Unit 5 maps struggled to provide multiple lines of evidence to justify ranking a particular area in the study area as one of high, medium, or low mass wasting susceptibility. This was similar to what I observed during the landscape scavenger hunt in Unit 2, when students had a hard time taking multiple data sets into consideration at a time for a particular study area. In addition, I found that many students in creating their Unit 5 reports did not adequately address the role of society in mass wasting susceptibility or the impact of mass wasting events on society. These observations indicate the importance of giving students multiple opportunities to practice using multiple lines of evidence to support their conclusions and incorporating more writing and critical analysis of humans and the environment into geoscience curricula. I am looking forward to using what I have learned through pilot testing of the Surface Process Hazards module and continue using it effectively in my courses.