Andrew Moore, Earlham College
Earlham College


This is an introductory-level, lecture-based course, primarily for non-science majors fulfilling general education requirements. Students work in small groups to apply what they've learned in class to simple situations with non-simple answers (e.g. "Should the city of St. Louis require seismic retrofitting knowing that it will make low-income housing less affordable."). Group work is presented (and assessed) through three poster sessions. Material in lecture provides the geologic context for these decisions.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites, and no lab. It serves as a science general education class, and is dominantly attended by non-science majors. It is a service class, and does not contribute to the geology (or any other) major.

Course Content:

This class integrates topics of risk management and geologic hazards as students wrestle with what it means to minimize geologic risk. It is a large lecture class (typically 60 students), and has no lab, so field experiences are minimal. Students learn the geologic context for political decisions (or lack of decisions) and hopefully bring scientific understanding of risk back to their own discipline.

Course Goals:

  • I want students to be able to understand the geology behind disasters they encounter both personally and in the news.
  • I want students to be able to qualitatively estimate risk, and envision risk-appropriate mitigation strategies.
  • I want students to be able to find data on potential geologic hazards they'll face as homeowners or renters, and to be able to determine their own level of risk aversion.
  • Ultimately, I want students to understand that we live in a world fraught with risk, and that both societies and individuals make decisions to minimize risk daily.

Course Features:

This course features a series of three poster sessions where students are asked to wrestle with an open-ended risk-related question. As an example, should Indonesia spend $250 million on a tsunami warning system, or would that money be better spent on economic development in tsunami-prone areas? Students then present these posters to their peers in a poster session designed to emulate a GSA session (crowded corridor, many posters next to each other). An important element of this part of the course is to recognize that competition for getting a message out is real, and to develop strategies for delivering that message effectively.

Course Philosophy:

This course was designed following a plea from our associate academic dean for more non-lab science courses. Prior to this course, all science classes had a lab, but the graduation requirement required only one of two science classes to have a lab. Because I suspected I would get mostly upperclass non-science majors, I tried to tailor a course to what I wanted any voting member of society to know about risk and geologic hazards. The class was consistently among the most popular (and largest) classes on campus, and typically filled within the first five minutes of registration. That said, it created a burden on a small department (there are only three of us) because it meant we weren't offering as many entries to our own major.


Assessment takes place in three ways. "Factual" content is assessed through four exams (three during the semester, plus one final), spaced at approximately five-week intervals during the semester (students have the option to replace their lowest exam grade with their grade on the final). Students wrestle with personal and societal levels of risk through the poster sessions, each themed on one of the large units in the class (tectonic hazards, atmospheric hazards, and sedimentologic/long-term hazards); half of the assessment of these sessions comes from student feedback (via a calibrated rubric) and half from the instructor and TA (if I have one). Lastly, because I don't grade on attendance, there are four writing assignments spread throughout the semester. As mentioned in the syllabus, they're designed to get students to write quickly and concisely, and using no more than about four paragraphs. While they serve the purpose of getting students to write short pieces, they also serve to prevent students from skipping too often.


Course syllabus (Microsoft Word 48kB Apr10 14)

References and Notes:

Hyndman and Hyndman, Natural hazards and disasters, 0538737522