Physical Geology Laboratory

Beth Dushman, Natural Sciences, Del Mar College


This page describes a freshman-level Physical Geology Laboratory class taught at a community college. This course covers basic Earth processes (streams, tectonics, groundwater) and Earth materials (minerals and rocks). Students develop skills in critical thinking, observation of natural phenomena, scientific writing, as well as basic geological skills (creating and reading maps, rock and mineral identification).

Course Type: Intro Level:Physical Geology
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lab only

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This Physical Geology Lab is an introductory course with no prerequisites. Most students take the Physical Geology lecture in the same or previous semester. Most students are non-majors from a wide range of fields, and most are taking the class to fulfill a general education requirement. We typically have 2-4 majors per class.

Course Content:

This Physical Geology lab class focuses on understanding and describing geological processes (Plate tectonics, streams, groundwater), and Earth materials (rocks and minerals). This class emphasizes the use of maps and models to investigate Earth processes and the distribution of natural resources, especially in South Texas.

Course Goals:

Students who successfully complete this course should be able to
1. understand and describe the basic processes that shape the Earth;
2. apply the scientific method to geological problems, and make observations about geological processes;
3. synthesize information from different datasets to explain Earth processes;
4. demonstrate skills in critical thinking, reading and writing about scientific information, drawing, computer use and working in groups;
5. identify varying rocks and minerals, and read and create topographic maps.

Course Features:

Students complete labs that help them to develop skills in observation of natural processes, develop critical thinking skills, and synthesize information from a variety of labs. Two of the main assignments are a writing assignment for which students must find and evaluate sources of scientific information, then clearly communicate this information. The other main lab utilizes Google Earth to investigate a variety of geological features. This lab requires students to synthesize information from many previous labs to explain the processes that they observe in Google Earth.

Course Philosophy:

This course helps students to develop an understanding of how geoscience works through hands-on activities. In developing labs for this course, I have tried to create activities that expose students to a wide variety of geological concepts, materials, and practices. I want students to improve their critical thinking skills and to apply the basics of the scientific method, but students often give up easily if activities rely solely on inquiry-based learning. Thus I try to strike a balance between explicitly leading students through each activity, and providing opportunities for students to discover Earth processes on their own.


Students are assessed through a number of different lab activities, assignments, and in-class tests. Most lab activities have worksheets that students fill in as they complete the lab. These are graded on a point scale, with questions that require critical thinking or synthesis worth more points than questions with simpler answers. The largest assignment of the course is a short paper in which students describe a geological event and the impact that it had on the local or global population and economy. This paper is graded both on the accuracy and appropriateness of information presented, and on how clearly and concisely students communicate this information. Students are tested in class on rock and mineral identification. For these tests, students can use an identification chart, thereby testing students less on their ability to memorize samples than on their ability to identify rock and mineral properties such as luster, cleavage, hardness, grain size, and texture.


References and Notes: