Geology and Human Events in North Africa and the Middle East

Barbara Tewksbury, Geosciences
Hamilton College


This is an introductory geology course in which students develop a strong and deep background in geology and geologic processes and use that background to analyze the underlying influence of geology on human events in North Africa and the Middle East. The course integrates lab work, GIS work, and field work with extensive pre-class preparation and in-class work that actively engages students in discussion, data analysis, and presentation.

Course URL: []
Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites. It serves as a required course for students in both geoscience and environmental studies and may be counted as an elective course for a major in Africana Studies. ~25% of the students go on to major in Geo and ~10% in ES. The course is restricted to first year students and sophomores and meets the College requirements for a seminar course where students are actively engaged rather than being lectured to. The course also has a significant GIS component, and class size is limited by the size of the GIS lab.

Course Content:

The course is structured around a series of geologic topics and case examples that have direct relevance to particular historical, cultural, political, or economic issues: influence of bedrock geology on human history and prehistory; water resources and international relations; and the geologic record of climate change in North Africa and the Middle East, predictions for the future, and influence of climate change on settlement patterns, the rise of agriculture, and political legitimacy.

Course Goals:

1) Enable students to analyze the underlying influence of geology and geologic processes on culture, politics, history, pre-history, economics, & international relations.
2) Enable students to analyze the role of geology and geologic processes in recovering our human past, analyzing the present, and predicting the future.
3) Enable students to analyze spatially-referenced data using computerized GIS to address questions related to goals 1 and 2.

Course Features:

My goal is to create a more effective learning environment in class than is typically achieved in a traditional lecture-based course. Because students learn best by doing, rather than by being lectured to, I have developed a course that de-emphasizes traditional lecture and focuses instead on hands-on investigative activities, self- and peer-teaching, and group-learning. By giving students practice in acting and thinking as scientists during the course, the course is "enabling", and students come away with more than a grade on their transcripts. The course stresses personal (but guided) experience in doing science (rather than listening to the instructor talk about others doing science) in order to increase literacy about the process of science (rather than simply the "facts" of science) and to improve students' abilities to think critically. The various assignments and activities in the course help students accomplish the following:
  • develop a personal understanding of and experience in how geologists solve problems, including the types of questions that geologists ask, the kinds of data that geologists collect and why they collect those data, how geologists use specialized language and reporting strategies (e.g.., maps and stratigraphic columns) for presenting data, and the kind of reasoning geologists use to solve problems.
  • gain experience in using geologic data and concepts to solve open-ended problems, including evaluating evidence, coping with imperfect and incomplete data, developing and defending a solution to the problem, and assessing the uncertainties.
  • understand the usefulness and necessity of the quantitative aspects of science, ranging from simple tasks such as unit conversion and interpretation/construction of graphs to specific quantitative tasks such as GIS analysis of large data sets to loosely constrained quantitative tasks such as estimations and back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Course Philosophy:

I believe that emphasis on self-teaching, peer-teaching, and practice in the kind of thinking and problem-solving that you want students to be able to do after a course ends is the only way for students to leave a course with significant long-term skills and retention of material. Years after students leave my course, I want them still to be saying to themselves, "I wonder if geology had anything to do with that?" and to have an idea of how they would go about evaluating whether an influence exists. I am confident that they will be able to do that, partly because I have worked to improve their self-teaching skills and partly because I have given students practice in looking for and evaluating connections themselves, and have not just lectured to them about connections.

It is also important to me to teach state-of-the art geology, both to introductory geology students and to upper level majors. I continually revise the contents of the course to reflect recent advances in various fields. I also want to make certain that my students understand that well-trained, talented scientists disagree about important geological questions and that there are few interesting topics about which all geoscientists agree. And last, but not least, I want students to see the connection between science and "real life" – to see that science is not a collection of facts to be learned but a way to work out how the world around us works. I want students to experience that understanding science and how science is done gives them a deeper and more satisfying understanding not only of the geological world around them but also of human history and the challenges to the future of the human race.


Frequent written assignments serve as the primary means by which I assess student learning in the course. These assignments insure that students come prepared for in-class activities and provide a way for me to evaluate student learning. Instead of designing out-of-class assignments for practice or recall, I have designed assignments that help students become better self-teachers, prepare them to participate actively during class time, and give them practice in analyzing and synthesizing.

Unlike many courses, this course holds students accountable for significant amounts of preparation for class. By holding students accountable, and by giving them substantial feedback on what constitutes acceptable preparation, students are prepared to work effectively in group settings during class and can accomplish much more than is typically accomplished in a passive classroom setting. By giving assignments that involve self-teaching and that increase in level of complexity over the course of the semester, I give students tools and practice in learning material encountered for the first time, rather than simply asking them to re-process what has been covered in class. By giving substantial analysis and synthesis assignments at various points in the semester, I am able to evaluate to what extent students are capable of the kind of thinking stressed in the course.


Teaching Materials:

Download one of the sets of activities and assignments on the Geologic Record of Saharan Climate Change and the Impact on Human History and Prehistory

References and Notes:

I have used a variety of physical geology texts in different years (Chernicoff/Whitney, Marshak, Reynolds et al). I look for outstanding illustrations and accurate text. The bulk of the reading that students do in this course, however, is in supplemental materials from a wide variety of sources, including the professional geologic literature, Scientific American, various sociological, historical and anthropological sources, and web resources.