Think Like a Geologist Field Trip to Downtown San Jose

LeAnne Teruya, Geology, San Jose State University
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This is a partially developed activity description. It is included in the collection because it contains ideas useful for teaching even though it is incomplete.

Initial Publication Date: February 24, 2013


This fieldtrip is part of a required introductory geology course for civil engineering majors. The trip consists of a walk around downtown San Jose, California, and focuses on three different topics: 1) rocks used to construct buildings, walkways, and sculptures; 2) urban flooding and stream channeling; and 3) the connection between geology, building design, and earthquake damage. Students learn to identify rocks and the characteristics that make each rock type appropriate for different applications. They see an excellent example of engineering for sustainability at a channeled portion of the Guadalupe River and discuss the necessity, pros, and cons of stream channeling. At the San Jose Art Museum building, students learn about the influence geology has on earthquake severity and how architectural design plays a role in minimizing earthquake damage.

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Learning Goals

By the end of the field trip, students should be able to:
  • make broad identifications of the three major rock groups--igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic—by recognizing key characteristics and differences between these rocks as represented on the field trip.
  • connect key rock characteristics with usage as building stone or decorative stone.
  • recognize characteristics that make different rocks suitable for different uses.
  • understand why streams are channeled.
  • understand the best features to incorporate into an artificial stream channel to both prevent flooding and sustain local riparian ecology.
  • recognize how earthquake damage is related to both building construction/design and the geology of the substrate.

Context for Use

This fieldtrip is part of Introduction to Earth Science, a required introductory geology for civil engineering majors. The course provides a foundational knowledge of geology for civil engineer majors. Generally taken in a student's junior year, it is part of the sequence of classes that provide a broad base upon which higher level civil engineering courses (e.g. soil mechanics, hydrology, construction engineering, etc.) will build. The class has an enrollment of 45 students per semester.

Description and Teaching Materials

For a typical introductory geology class, a field trip to the city to look at rocks is a bit like going to the zoo to see animals, outside of their natural habitats. In the city, we can see all sorts of rock, real rocks--just not in their natural habitats. This might not seem like much of a field experience to most introductory students, but for civil engineering students, a geology trip to the city is perfect. In this urban field trip, civil engineering students have the opportunity to learn about the different rock types in the context of their use as building stones, facades, and ornaments. Along the way, they will also learn about stream channeling and the effects of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake on buildings 75 km (47 mi) away in San Jose. To become familiar with different rock types, the students are taught to identify minerals at one stop, then use that knowledge at subsequent stops to identify and classify rocks as igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic. The students learn to differentiate between the major rock families by observing telltale characteristics of each rock type. Next, they connect how the properties of each rock type determine its usage as building, walkway, or ornamental material. At the Guadalupe River, students are introduced to flood control. We discuss what it means to "channel" a river and the pros and cons of doing so. At the San Jose Art Museum building, we discuss how geology and the structural design of buildings influence the level of damage sustained from earthquakes. By the end of the field trip, students have a new, geological perspective of San Jose within a context that will be useful to them as civil engineers.

Teaching Notes and Tips


Each student's field trip guide is graded for accuracy and completion.

References and Resources