Applied Geology

Horacio Ferriz, Physics and Geology,
California State University-Stanislaus


A practical course about the nature of professional geologic work. Includes (1) discussions about engineering geology (the use of geology to the solution of engineering problems in civil and sanitary engineering), soil mechanics, rock mechanics; (2) mineral exploration, and (3) geothermal energy exploration.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:

Course Context:

This is a course that comes late in the Geology major, just as students are getting ready to graduate and seek a job. It complements my other courses in Development of Surface Water Resources, Groundwater Hydrology (which includes discussions in contaminant hydrology and remediation), and Geophysical Exploration (which includes discussions in petroleum exploration). In all of my courses students have to work hard to overcome their weak mathematical background, and become highly proficient in the use of Excel for science and engineering.

Regarding labs, there are two 75-minute labs per week, immediately following the two 75-minute lectures. I like this approach very much, because I can more closely time the introduction of lab exercises with the material covered in the lecture. I wish I had a better geotechnical lab, but the students certainly get the basics of what they may expect to do if they are hired at entry level by an engineering company. Trying to get the students to be proficient in the use of professional software is an uphill battle, because it takes time and a lot of effort to learn how to use engineering software. I wish I did have time to work out better case studies.

Regarding fieldtrips, I have finally given up trying to force unmotivated students to attend, and now I let them know: "We are a "learning university", which means I give you the opportunity to learn, and it is up to you to take it or leave it. So, the fieldtrips are OPTIONAL learning opportunities, and you will receive no brownie points if you attend them, nor will you be penalized if you don't." Since then fieldtrips have been a lot more enjoyable and productive for us all.

Course Content:

The course lectures, the associated labs, and the two fieldtrips are designed to provide Geology seniors with practical experience in professional geologic work. This includes hands-on experience with (1) the interpretation of soil and rock mechanics data, (2) the use of soil and rock mechanics data in foundation design, (3) the stability analysis of cut slopes in soils, (4) the stability analysis of fill prisms, (5) the stability analysis of bedrock cuts, (6) active fault studies, (7) the estimation of seismic parameters important to engineering design, (8) the analysis of liquefaction susceptibility of a sedimentary basin, (9) studies of borrow sources of sand or clay, (10) mineral exploration studies, and (11) geothermal exploration studies.

Course Goals:

I would like students to be aware of what is expected from them if hired to do professional work, and would like them to shift their attitude toward engineering, inasmuch as engineering embodies the solution of meaningful problems through ingenuity and application of sound science and mathematical analysis. I would like them to end the class with the sense that they are geological engineers.

Students will be able to
  1. Identify the data needed by the civil or sanitary engineer to design a structure (e.g., a landfill). This includes soil and rock mechanics data, surface geologic mapping, core drilling, interpretation of geophysical data, location of construction materials, slope stability assessment, liquefaction susceptibility assessment, and seismic deformation analysis.
  2. Use the data in a fault investigation study to assess whether the fault is capable for generating an earthquake. If the fault is capable, the student will be able to assess the magnitude of a credible earthquake along that fault, and the peak horizontal acceleration such earthquake could induce at different distances from the fault.
  3. Conduct a slope stability analysis using STABLE-like software.
  4. Describe the different components of a mineralized system. Recognize the practical importance of rock alteration patterns.
  5. Recognize different types of alteration using a selected suite of samples in the laboratory, and selected outcrops in the Yerington, NV mineralized district.
  6. Describe the different components of a geothermal system.
  7. Using aerial photographs or satellite images, map structural and ground alteration patterns that could indicate the presence of a geothermal system.

Course Features:

I believe the best parts of this course are the lab assignments—where students get to work with maps, samples, and professional software—and the two fieldtrips, where students get to see in real life the problems they might confront as professional geologists.

"Sustainability" is a concept that I have a hard time applying to the things we do. All students agree that the Yerington pit is a big scar on the land, and that future mining operations have to make provisions for landscape restoration. However, extractive industries (minerals, construction materials, oil, gas, geothermal fluid) are intrinsically non-sustainable. Limiting the use of resources may prolong their lifetime, but ultimately there is only a finite amount of mineral resources available for extraction. The job of the exploration geologist is not to try to boycott development, but to keep finding new resources.

The other example where "sustainability" comes to the foreground is sanitary landfills. A modern sanitary landfill is a careful piece of civil engineering, and it plays an important role in maintaining a high standard of sanitary protection for the local population. The job of the engineering geologist and civil engineer is to design a structure that is stable and will do the job for a long time. However, there is a finite capacity to any landfill, so when we use all the available space we have to move on and design a new structure. Until society stops generating refuse, our job is to keep designing good containment structures, and not to picket in front of the garbage collection companies.

Landfills are a good example of a case where regulation and public opinion prevent us from using the best possible engineering solution: Because the public is ignorantly scared of landfills, and regulations require the minimal possible amount of leachate, we have to design the containment structures to remain as "dry" as possible, thus arresting refuse decay and assuring mummification of the refuse for centuries. Instead, if we could allow moisture into the landfill, refuse would decay, and this decay would produce natural gas we could harness and new storage space as the decayed refuse compacts. Yes, there would be more leachate generated, but that is why we have carefully designed a leachate collection system and the leachate collection could be reapplied to the landfill over and over again.

Course Philosophy:

I designed the five courses that constitute the applied part of our major, Development of Water Resources, Hydrogeology, Environmental Geology, Geophysical Exploration (includes petroleum geology), and Applied Geology (engineering geology and mineral exploration), with the purpose of giving our graduates an edge in the workplace. I believe on bringing issues like those mentioned in the previous paragraph to the class discussion, and try to instill in my students the ethical responsibility that is so important to a professional. I enjoy our beautiful environment, and want it to remain this way, but having traveled around the world and seen poverty, malnutrition, and marginal sanitation first hand, I must say that I am firmly on the side of development. I think that the concept of "sustainability" is at best unclear, and would rather sponsor "responsible development" as the link between engineering and the geosciences. It is well for us in the rich United States to want to go back to craft agriculture, 20-acre house lots, and refuse being mysteriously spirited away under the guise of recycling, but India still has to develop a good sanitary infrastructure; Ethiopia still needs to develop irrigation and food security; and Indonesia still has to yank itself from the clutches of poverty and analphabetism.

I believe that the greatest threat to the environment is poverty, since he who is poor has no option but to deplete the resources around him (Haiti is a good example, in which lack of energy resources has led to denudation of half of the island of Santo Domingo as all vegetation has been gathered to serve as firewood. Denudation has triggered total environmental collapse in Haiti). I emphatically tell my students that if they want a sustainable environment the first step is to stamp out abject world poverty!


Officially, I use two midterm grades, lab grades, and a final to do the assessment in all of my classes. Unofficially, it is following the performance of our graduates in the workforce that leads me to slightly modify the courses every year. For example, I used to cover petroleum exploration in a single lecture, until my students started talking about applying for petroleum geology positions. Now petroleum geology is a solid third of the curriculum in my Geophysical Exploration class. In my Applied Geology class, my other "gage" is the number of graduates who have gone to take the Professional Geologist license examination. I talk to my graduates at least once every year, so I hear where they feel deficient and try to give a dose of those skills to the next crop (but sometimes I have to remind my graduates that I did cover those topics, but they chose to sleep their way through those discussions!).


Syllabus for Applied Geology (Microsoft Word 43kB Feb20 13)

Teaching Materials:

Study guide (Microsoft Word 77kB Feb20 13)

References and Notes:

"Foundations of Engineering Geology" by Anthony Waltham,
Selected readings in mineral and geothermal exploration. I also have them re-read portions of their geophysics text "Looking into the Earth: An Introduction to Geological Geophysics" by Alan E. Mussett and M. Aftab Khan.