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Peter Selkin: Teaching Living on the Edge in Physical Geology at University of Washington, Tacoma

About this course

This course introduces students to the fundamental concepts and theories of geology and provides them with a basic understanding of how Earth works. Topics covered include plate tectonics, volcanism, earthquakes, the rock cycle, continents and oceans, and surface processes.


Two 150-minute lecture
One 150-minute lab
small urban campus
of large state university
Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 31kB Jul30 14)

The course is a requirement for UW Tacoma's B.S. in Environmental Science and is one option to fulfill a geoscience requirement for the B.A. in Environmental Studies. The Environmental Science degree is currently the only natural science degree offered on the UW Tacoma campus. The course counts toward a university-wide Natural World Area of Knowledge requirement and is often taken by non-science majors.

Course Goals:

Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Relate geological processes to overarching principles in geology, e.g. plate tectonics and biogeochemical systems.
  • Identify common rocks, minerals, and geological structures.
  • Use information from rocks to interpret the geologic and environmental history of a location.
  • Engage in scientific dialogue using common means of presenting geoscientific data—maps, writing, presentations, and computer visualization.
  • Develop quantitative skills needed to analyze geological processes.
  • Identify practical applications of the geosciences.

Course Content

This course addresses the following program learning objectives:

  • Environmental Science B.S. Degree: Be conversant in theoretical concepts of the biological and physical sciences and their application to understanding and studying the environment.
  • School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences: Build experience in the analysis of environmental issues and their scientific basis.

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

I teach geoscience in an environmental science degree program. Many of our students are interested primarily in the interrelationships between humans and the natural world, particularly in the context of sustainability. I saw this module as a way to engage such students in geoscience by focusing on the human dimensions of seismic and volcanic risk and monitoring. The InTeGrate Living on the Edge module allowed students to grapple with real-world seismic and volcanic monitoring data that change through time, forcing students to change their interpretation. Beyond that, students were able to explore the implications of those data for earthquake and volcano preparedness.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

Because we merged units to fit in the class periods, we had to merge some of the prework as well: I combined the prework for Units 1 and 2 into a single assignment, and combined the prework for Units 3 and 4 as well. The prework for Unit 5 was assigned, but the prework for Unit 6 was done in class. Due to time constraints, I did not hold as many of the whole-class wrap-up discussions as we had specified in Units 1-4; many of these were assigned as written homework instead.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

This module was used during the summer quarter in a lower-division undergraduate physical geology course that is part of an environmental science degree program. The module was adapted to fit into three class periods of 2.5 hours each. Units 1 and 2 were combined into one class period, 3 and 4 into another, and 5 and 6 into the third. Students participated in a lab activity on volcanism, not part of the module but associated with Units 3 and 4, after the second period. All 11 students enrolled were environmental science majors.

In this summer session course, I replaced the material I usually taught on deformation, earthquakes, and volcanoes with a version of Living on the Edge, albeit slightly modified to fit our unusually long classes. I used the module in the middle of the term, after discussing the basics of plate tectonics (following the suggestion in the module of using Laurel Goodell's Using Google Earth to Explore Plate Tectonics activity), relative dating, minerals, and igneous rocks. Students received credit for completing the Living on the Edge prework before class (not for correct answers on the prework). Unit assessment questions were given as written post-class assignments (post-work). The post-work answers were graded using the rubrics given in the module, though point values were changed to reflect the UW grading scale.

Unit 1

  • Although I attempted to use this unit as specified in the module—guiding students through the recurrence interval calculation—the students quickly overtook me and were able to do parts of the recurrence interval calculation themselves, using the handouts provided.
  • The calculation catalyzed a whole-class discussion about what recurrence intervals meant and why the calculation was necessary in the first place. We have since modified the unit to emphasize the ideas of probability and extrapolation, to reduce the emphasis on calculation, and to allow more time for discussion.
  • The prework for Unit 1 was combined with that of Unit 2 to make a single prework handout that was collected at the beginning of the class period.
  • Post-work was done as a written assignment, handed in at the beginning of the following class.
Unit 2
  • The prework handout for unit 2 refers to specific page numbers. Be careful to change these page numbers when combining the Unit 2 prework handout with that of Unit 1! I did not do this, and it confused the students.
  • We used the non-Google-Earth (paper maps) version of this unit, since some students were having trouble accessing Google Earth in the classroom. I suggested that students bring their laptops to use Google Earth, but I think this suggestion needed to be made more clearly—some students had forgotten. Google Earth is very helpful for the school risk assessment activity, even if only some of the students have access to it. I highly encourage students to use it.
  • Again, timing was tight in this unit. This was partially because we had gone over time doing the previous unit. It was a challenge to leave enough time for both the school risk analysis and the ensuing whole-class discussion. Both activities are necessary components of the unit.
  • I presented the PowerPoint on seismic safety in construction to the class, but then had students discuss (in small groups) the reasons for the damage on the red background slides. It might have helped student groups to see the red background slides before the presentation, and then to analyze the images in greater depth afterward. Printing out the red background images would have been useful as well.

Unit 3

  • Again, I combined the prework for Unit 3 with that of Unit 4. Because students will be bringing the prework with them to class and will be using it in class, it is important to give them the handout during the previous class, or to ask them to fill it out on their computer at home (since much of the work requires the use of a computer anyway) and print it out before they come to class. I specifically required students to fill out the prework in ink (or print it from their computers) before class, and to fill out the remainder in pencil in class so that I could see their changes. Nonetheless, it is useful to have some blank copies on hand for students who forgot or did not attend the previous class.
  • Students were particularly engaged in the analysis of Nyiragongo and the effects of its eruption on the city of Goma. This is a classic example of risk depending on both natural and human factors. It prompted a good discussion on volcanic risk and predictability which, while not part of the day's agenda, contributed substantially to the students' responses on assessment questions on the midterm and final.
Unit 4
  • Because timing was again tight, we focused mainly on analyzing GPS data from Eyjafjallajokull. Students responded well to the thought experiment on volcanic inflation, and were able to predict and analyze GPS time series later. I had introduced GPS previously (though not in as much depth) in a module on plate tectonics, so the students did have some prior background with vectors. Many had seen vectors already in a physics or math course.
  • Gas emissions and seismic monitoring are introduced in Unit 3, so the fact that we largely skipped them in Unit 4 did not put the students at much of a disadvantage in Units 5-6, when the techniques of volcano monitoring come up again. However, some of the finer points of seismic monitoring (e.g. depth of earthquakes) are covered particularly well in the Unit 4 material, so I was disappointed to have skipped them.
  • Using the gelatin volcano lab in conjunction with this activity gave students additional insights into the processes of volcanism and volcano monitoring. Our lab handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 504kB Sep12 14) is here.
Units 5-6
  • Units 5 and 6 were combined into a single class period. These two are halves of the same simulation exercise, so it makes logistical sense to combine them. I used the prework for Unit 5 as prework for the combined unit.
  • The main issue in combining these units is the prework for Unit 6 and the resulting changes in student groups in the jigsaw activity. In most of Unit 5, students are grouped by geological specialty (e.g. gas emissions, seismology, ground deformation), whereas in Unit 6, students from multiple geological specialty groups team up to focus on specific geographic locations. At the beginning of the day, I handed out data sheets for the geological specialty groups that were tagged with colored stickers. For example, one gas emission handout, one seismology handout, and one tilt data handout had green stickers. Unbeknownst to the students, the stickers corresponded to their geographic location groups. I announced which stickers corresponded to which geographic locations after the students had completed the the work on Unit 5, about 1 hour into class. Students then regrouped into geographic location teams, which worked fairly smoothly.
  • Only 10 students attended class on the day of the simulation, and some were not there for the entire class period. To give students an idea of the possible range of hazards and risk during a volcanic eruption, each geographic location group had to assess the vulnerability of at least three sites.
  • Due to time constraints, students only filled out characteristics of high vulnerability sites on the vulnerability characteristics table.
  • Students had trouble interpreting tilt data, which were not presented in the previous units. We have since streamlined the tilt data section of the activity to use only radial tilt, which can conveniently described as a "measure of inflation." Still, we anticipate that students will have questions about the significance of positive and negative tilt. Ideally a video or lab exercise associated with tiltmeters would be useful.
  • The students working on gas emissions had good questions about whether increases in gas emissions indicated an increase in volcanic activity, or a release of pressure (and so less of a hazard). These questions were an opportunity for students to learn why geoscientists use multiple data sets to assess volcanic alert level. I believe that students' struggle with this issue led to some thoughtful responses on the module summative assessment questions (see below).


I assigned short (1-2 paragraph or bulleted list) writing assignments as summative post-class work for each day (Units 1-2 (Acrobat (PDF) 44kB Sep12 14), Units 3-4 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 53kB Sep12 14), Units 5-6 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 94kB Sep12 14)). These were intended to give students the opportunity to reflect on the material from class, and also to assess individual students' ability to use material presented in class. About 1 week after the students completed Units 5-6, I gave the class midterm. I included the 2-part module summative assessment ("Summer 2014 and After") on the midterm. Most students were able to give adequate or good answers to the question on volcano monitoring (Question 1), but the answers to the question on seismic safety (Question 2) lacked specificity. I believe this demonstrated the importance of spending the full time on the risk analysis exercise in Unit 2 (which we did not do). Nearly a month later, I gave a final exam on which students were asked the 3-option module summative assessment question ("Summer 2014 and Before"). Most answers had at least an adequate level of detail and demonstrated a satisfactory understanding of risk and the value of geological monitoring.


It is sometimes disappointing to me, as a geoscientist, that some students are not excited about geology for geology's sake. But that is the case, especially with many of our environmental science majors. The material in the Living on the Edge module allowed my students to see geology from a different perspective—a perspective more aligned with that of an environmental consultant, a government agency employee, or an urban planner, which many of them aspire to be. The students were much more engaged in their small-group discussions of geologic data in this module—particularly in the simulation in Units 5 and 6—than they were in many of the less human-focused parts of the course.

As an aside: I teach in the shadow of Mount Rainier, at the edge of one of the locations that gets buried by a lahar in the eruption scenario in Units 5-6. In spite of the nearby volcano, before the module, about a third of the students did not consider that they lived in an area at risk of volcanic eruption. This changed dramatically after the module. If the Living on the Edge module did nothing else, it increased the students' awareness of the risks inherent in life in the Pacific Northwest, and of geoscience's role in coping with those risks.

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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 »