Geoscience Fundamentals

Barbara Bekken, Geosciences, Virginia Tech


Geoscience Fundamentals is a workshop-style course that introduces sophomore-level geoscience majors to very basic philosophical, methodological, and historical foundations of the geosciences. As described in the syllabus, "This course is about, how we do geoscience. It's about how we think about geoscience, how we talk and write about it, where our community of geoscientists came from, and how we become part of that community. It's also about history--where the geoscientific discipline came from and how that has shaped the way we geoscientists think and do what we do. And it is about the careers that geoscientists build, the skills they need to be successful, and the kinds of problems they choose to investigate."

Course Type: Intro Level
Course Size:

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

Geoscience Fundamentals is a required sophomore-level writing intensive course for majors who have completed a year of introductory geoscience. It was designed as the entry point for a "writing across the curriculum" program. Typcially, students take this course in their sophomore or junior years.

Course Content:

Geoscience Fundamentals introduces students to the philosophies, methods, and historical foundations upon which the geosciences are built. It also introduces them to the written, graphical, and verbal conventions that geoscientists use to communicate. Students complete 12 reflections that respond to readings that describe the philosophy, history, and methods of science specific to the geosciences. They also work collaboratively in teams on a semester-long research project that emphasizes making the application of these methods explicit. Projects are submitted formally in written, poster, and presentation formats and presented orally to faculty and graduate students at the end of the term. Finally, students create electronic portfolios that will be used to display and archive materials in this and subsequent courses as well as demonstrate progress toward their degrees.

Course Goals:

Students who successfully complete this course will be able to:
  • Write a research statement to address a geoscientific problem;
  • Access, evaluate, select, and use information resources to inform a geoscientific problem;
  • Organize, carry out, and complete a geoscientific research project;
  • Critically read and annotate geoscientific research articles;
  • Structure and organize team-based work;
  • Prepare an elementary geoscientific report, poster, and oral presentation;
  • Compare geoscience careers through personal interactions with geoscience professionals;
  • Build a professional electronic portfolio that articulates a vision for career goals; and
  • Describe how the contributions of diverse geoscience professionals inform current interdisciplinary Earth-related problems.

Course Features:

Three-person students teams carry out a ten-week long scaffolded research project (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 27kB Jan28 13) in which the links between the philosophies, methods, and communication forums are made explicit. All classes are workshop-based and meet in a newly redesigned "Scale-UP" style classroom learning environment, with faculty moving from 3-person group to group to support the conceptualizing, researching, and writing process. The research project culminates in a formal paper, poster, and oral presentation in our weekly departmental seminar.

Course Philosophy:

I think the biggest intellectual chasm that students must negotiate has to be the shift from learning content to thinking like a scientist. As undergraduates, students must learn both the language and "facts" of their science. As graduate students or beginning professionals, they must use this knowledge in meaningful ways with little training in how to actually think like and be a scientist. This course is intended to bridge that gap at an early point in their undergraduate experience.


Students are assessed for most of the aforementioned objectives through their research project materials (poster, presentation, written report). They are also assessed on the twelve reflective writing submissions that correspond to readings on the history, philosophies and methods of science.


Course Syllabus (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 9kB Jan28 13)

Geoscience Fundamentals Project Introduction (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 27kB Jan28 13)

References and Notes:

Peters, E. K. (1996). NO STONE UNTURNED: REASONING ABOUT ROCKS AND FOSSILS, New York City, NY, WH Freeman, 237p. Penrose, Ann M. and Katz, Steven B. (2010). WRITING IN THE SCIENCES: EXPLORING CONVESTIONS OF SCIENTIFIC DISCOURSE, 3rd ed., New York City, NY, 425 p.
Website: National Center for Science Education