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Peter Berquist: Using Carbon, Climate, and Energy Resources at Thomas Nelson Community College

About This Course

A traditional introductory-level physical geology course.


Two 90-minute lecture
sessions and
one 180-minute lab
session per week
Community College
with ~16,000 students total annual enrollment.
Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 179kB Sep4 15) (also available as a Word document (Microsoft Word 54kB Sep4 15))

Our physical geology course aims to introduce students to the materials that Earth is comprised of and the processes that create and modify these materials. We cover rocks and minerals, plate tectonics, geologic time, groundwater, surface processes, glaciers, and climate change. A vast majority of our students plan to transfer to a four-year college, and they take this geology class to satisfy the lab science requirement for their associate's degree.

Course Goals and Content

This course introduces the composition and structure of Earth and modifying agents and processes. It investigates the formation of minerals and rocks, weathering, erosion, earthquakes, and crustal deformation.

Course Objectives:

  1. To become familiar with the origin and composition of the basic rocks and minerals that compose Earth.
  2. To become familiar with the major geologic processes that shape the face of Earth.
  3. To become familiar with the non-geologic (i.e. biological, hydrological, cryological, and atmospheric) processes that shape Earth's surface.
  4. To develop scientific reasoning skills.
  5. To be able to use the scientific method to address geologic questions and problems.

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

These materials were used in an introductory physical geology class for non-majors and with students with a wide degree of interest in geoscience. I was interested to see how these materials were received because very few of my students were interested in geology.
I also enjoyed the infusion of using assignments and activities that were different from my normal teaching style. It was beneficial to have the same students in lecture, which allowed for continuity of working on assignments.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

I used all of the the module materials directly as written, with very little modification of activities or assignments.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to My Course

This was a 17-week course, and we piloted the material in the final four weeks of the semester. We started with Unit 1 and worked sequentially and continually through each unit. I did not prepare students in any particular way for this module, because the structure of the class is that we transition to new topics every week or every other week. There were only a few weeks remaining to the semester after our pilot, so there were only avenues to tangentially reference the material presented within the module.

Unit 1 Identifying misconceptions and logical fallacies
  • Start with PowerPoint offering tips on how to evaluate the factual and logical validity of any particular statement. This defines logical fallacies and explains how to use this type of critical reading to evaluate technical material that you as an individual may not completely understand.
  • Complete the What Are Logical Fallacies activity (provide handout). This activity defines several common logical fallacy structures and provides an example of each structure. The activity concludes with students identifying which logical fallacy best fits a series of logically invalid statements about climate science. As a possible extension or assessment, instructors can encourage students to write their own logical fallacies.
  • After this activity, watch and evaluate a YouTube video that presents several ridiculous claims. Identify each logical fallacy used. This can serve as a formative assessment.
  • Return to the PowerPoint presentation to take the Climate Quiz. This is not really a quiz per se, rather a series of 12 statements about climate science; students are asked to evaluate each statement as true or false. Largely this activity is intended as a way to introduce common misconceptions about climate science, so it is important for instructors to review each statement and explain why the statement is either true or false.
  • The summative assessment for this unit is a brief quiz.

Unit 2

  • As homework before we started working with Unit 2 in class, assign students to watch a series of very short videos about carbon. We ended up reviewing a few of the videos in class, just a review.
  • The "Where's the Carbon?" activity was was a great, quick, exercise to get students thinking about where we find and do not find carbon. The strength of this activity is its brevity, and it helps students start to think about where carbon is and is not.
  • The Origin of Carbon Power Point provides a very comprehensive, but also short summary of how carbon atoms actually form. I really liked including this information because it gets down to true origin of the atom we are focusing on — I think this essential understanding is really important to provide to students. I found I had to keep the lecture here short because it is tempting to go into more and more detail. So, I strongly recommend reviewing this lecture file well ahead of time in order to stay on track and address the critical information and provide sufficient time for the following activities.
  • Students loved the carbon cycle game. It did not take long for them to get the hang of it, and within a few minutes there was playful interaction AND sincere talking about carbon and reservoirs. This activity provided a wonderful balance between play and learning. I was a bit surprised at how long it took to play several iterations, but was reluctant to cut the activity short because learning was clearly taking place.
  • Do not let finding a big sheet of paper keep you from doing this activity! We used cardboard boxes, old discarded maps, and pieced together posters in order to have a sufficiently sized sheet of paper to draw the scaled carbon reservoirs. Rather than drawing an entire circle, we drew portions of a circle, especially for the larger reservoirs. This was a powerful activity and a wonderful example of how simple math and a little sketching can create a profound graphic. We have since added an appropriately scaled graphic to use as a key that you can print out on a large-format printer (with minimum dimension of 32").

Unit 3

  • Introduction to paleoclimatology presentation was an effective, brief introduction to help set the stage. It was short and sweet!
  • Foram coiling activity is as also another brief activity showing the real data scientists use to infer about past climates. There are several ways that an instructor could make this a more quantitative and Excel-focused lesson, but as it stands the data and steps are pretty streamlined.
  • The isotope fractionation video is an excellent resource that I have used in other classes, as well. Be sure not to miss incorporating this straightforward explanation of how light isotopes behave in response to climate and how we interpret light isotope data.
  • We piloted both the Vostok ice core and PETM activities, however, the first time around took much longer than anticipated. I think one major strength of the Vostok ice core exercise is the graphical interpretation of data. In particular, the exercises pose leading questions and the data reveal many important trends about climate change in the past and the implications for our current observations of climate. We did not endeavor into the Snowball Earth resources, due to time restrictions.

Unit 4

  • These activities provide an important and sound foundation of renewable and non-renewable resources, with an emphasis on non-renewable resources and how these materials form. The resources provided are concise and interactive avenues to learn similarities and differences among our energy options, gain a sense of geologic time required to make these materials, and encourage students to explore which energy options are common in their home areas.
  • The content covered in these activities set the stage for more meaningful discussion and synthesis for activities in Unit 6.

Unit 5

  • The introductory activity for this unit includes an interactive exploration of atmospheric CO2 observed over several different time frames. Presenting these trends individually permits students to gain a deeper understanding of how CO2concentrations change in the atmosphere (building on the exchange of carbon reservoirs from Unit 2). This structure is intentional with the hopes that students can more clearly grasp how modern changes in CO2 are meaningfully different than changes in the past.
  • Additional resources, such as the PowerPoint presentation and videos provide further background demonstrating the uniqueness of the observed modern CO2concentrations.

Unit 6

  • We wanted to create an activity in which students had to critically evaluate suggested approaches to "solving" some aspect of climate change. The result is the one in Unit 6. Students are presented with six different proposals, each of varying degrees of seriousness and ridiculousness, although it should be noted that there are elements to each proposal that have been seriously suggested. Students must provide thoughtful, careful, and critical evaluation of these proposals, ideally drawing on the content and knowledge gleaned from the previous units.
  • As written, this exercise can fit within a 50-minute class. If additional time permits, we strongly encourage instructors to use it. As a "capstone" exercise, a little more time can likely translate to more critical evaluation of proposal and synthesis of the merits and pitfalls of each.


Within each unit we have embedded a variety of formative assessments that students and instructors can use to asses learning. Based on my observations, a strength of these assessments was the diversity of formats, which combined active learning strategies with meaningful assessment. Students appreciated that they were short and in some cases interactive. For some of the in-class assessments, students wished they had more time. The greatest barrier I found with the formative assessments was with students not completing assessments assigned as homework.

Summative assessments for Units 1–5 are brief quizzes, which can be taken at the end of each unit, or combined into one comprehensive test. The exception is Unit 6, where the assessment is in the form of a short paper or longer essay question. I included the summative assessments on my final exam and in general, this worked adequately. However, several weeks had passed since we had covered earlier units, so students tended to not do as well with those questions. In the future, I will likely deploy the summative assessments after each unit and include aspects on high-stakes exams.


Overall, I wanted students to critically evaluate information, gain an understanding of the size of carbon reservoirs, know how carbon moves throughout Earth, understand how climate and carbon have changed in the past, compare modern climatic observations to past climate records, and comprehend the direct relationships between energy sources, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and climate change. Additionally, I hoped that students would gain confidence working with graphical data, using math, and with each other. For the students who participated in all activities and complete all assignments, I believe they met these goals. At times, students did not readily make the connections between units, in which they perceived each unit as a separate topic that had no relation to previous or upcoming topics. Based on these observations, we have since modified the explanatory text and content of many activities to clarify these important connections, and for future classes I will stress the connections between units more clearly.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »