Advanced Structural Geology

Kim Hannula, Geosciences, Fort Lewis College


This is an advanced course in structural geology, including discussion and lab. The course is focused around exploration of structural geology modeling software.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an advanced elective course, taught on demand. Students in the class were junior and senior geology majors who liked the required structural geology course enough to choose to take a second course in the subject. The course met once a week as a lecture/discussion, once a week as a four-hour lab (combined with lecture time), and had a week-long field trip over spring break.

Course Content:

The course focused on the ways in which modeling software is used in structural geology. Lecture/discussion meetings mostly involved reading structural geology papers that were the basis for the modeling techniques explored in lab.

Lab involved exploration of the software Move, which can do forwards and backwards geometric and kinematic modeling of brittle structures (especially related to structures that are important in the oil and gas industry).

There was a one-week field trip to the Lake Mead area over spring break.

Course Goals:

Students will:
1. be able to evaluate a modeling tool in terms of
- whether it can be used to solve the problem they want to solve
- what assumptions it makes
- what conceptual models it uses to solve problems
2. design and implement a study that uses a modeling tool to solve a problem that interests them.

And continue to improve the following skills:

1. taking notes on things that they do or observe (in some way that is effective for you)
2. writing papers that include discussion of methods used and the ways in which their results are influenced by the methods they chose
3. reading the geologic literature, especially for ideas for future work

Course Features:

The major assignment in the course is an independent project in which students apply some sort of structural geology modeling software to a problem that interests them. The assignment is completed in two parts: 1) a project proposal, in which they discuss what is already known about the problem and what techniques they plan to use to address a new problem, and 2) the final project itself, in which they evaluate the use of the modeling tool to solve their problem.

In addition, the students have (1) weekly assignments in which they evaluate the modeling tool used in lab (including describing the assumptions behind the tool and the situations in which it would be appropriate to use it), (2) a mid-term project in which they use Move to evaluate a major cross-section which they constructed in the required structural geology course (of part of the Wyoming fold-thrust belt), (3) a description and interpretation of one stop on the spring break field trip, and (4) several note-taking checks, in which they are required to show the notes that they have been taking while working with the modeling software or in the field.

Course Philosophy:

Our students are required to do an independent senior thesis, and for about nine years I taught the junior-level course in which they wrote their thesis proposals. As part of their preparation, the students had to discuss and write about published work. I noticed that the students were interested in papers that used various modeling techniques, but weren't able to evaluate the work (or to discuss which techniques might be best for their own work).

The course was designed to allow students to prepare for a senior thesis using a modeling tool, or to evaluate a tool that they were already using in their senior thesis work. The lecture parts of the course involved discussion of published papers, because at this advanced level, I wanted the students to interpret papers for themselves, rather than listen to my interpretations of them. All of the grading in the course was on written work, rather than exams, because I think that writing papers requires skills that I want my students to work on, and papers show weaknesses in critical thinking that are rarely revealed in exams.


Grading in the course was based on papers. Each paper was graded on the degree to which the students achieved the goals for the paper (typically whether the student evaluated the technique and whether the discussion followed logically from the results that the student reported).


Advanced Structural Geology syllabus (Fort Lewis College, 2012) (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 26kB May29 12)

References and Notes:

Structural Geology by Haakon Fossen (also used in the required Structural Geology course)
Bond, C.E., Lunn, R.J., Shipton, Z.K., and Lunn, A.D., 2012, What makes an expert effective at interpreting seismic images? Geology, v. 40, p. 75-78, doi:10.1130/G32375.1

Bond, C.E., Gibbs, A.D., Shipton, Z.K., and Jones, S., 2007, What do you think this is? "Conceptual uncertainty" in geosciences interpretation: GSA Today, v. 17, no. 11, p. 4-10.

Erslev, E.A., 1991, Trishear fault-propagation folding: Geology, v. 19, p. 617-620.

Pilkey, O.H. and Pilkey-Jarvis, L., 2007, Useless arithmetic: why environmental scientists can't predict the future: New York, Columbia University Press, 230 p.

Suppe, J., 1983, Geometry and kinematics of fault-bend folding: American Journal of Science, v. 283, p. 684-721.

Withjack, M.O., and Peterson, E.T., 1993, Prediction of normal-fault geometries; a sensitivity analysis: AAPG Bulletin, v. 77, n. 11, p. 1860-1873.