Earth Science in Arizona and the Southwest

Steven Semken, School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University


ESAS is a place-based course in which students apply Earth system sciences to interpret the rocks, landscapes, geologic history, climate, resources, and natural hazards of Arizona and the surrounding desert-mountain Southwest region. The course focuses on local and regional environments and communities, integrates scientific and humanistic ideas, and incorporates case studies of Earth system interactions by Southwest cultures past and present, to demonstrate the relevance of Earth science to sustainability in the Southwest region.

Course URL: We use a restricted-access Blackboard site.
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This upper-division course was developed to help satisfy a Science and Society requirement for BS students in our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and also to impart more detailed expertise in and enthusiasm for Southwest regional geology and environmental issues, particularly for pre-service Earth science teachers. Prerequisites include one or more introductory college course in geology, Earth science, or physical geography; precalculus; and English composition. Any major with these prereqs is welcome to enroll. About 60% of the students are majors in Earth Science Education or Geological Sciences, but the balance of students encompasses a diverse range of science, humanities, and business majors.

Course Content:

ESAS is situated in and focused on Southwestern landscapes, natural environments, and human communities. It relates the principles of Earth science to the sustainability of Southwestern societies. Students engage with all components of the Earth system in the Southwest: physiography, geology, hydrology, climate, and ecology through classroom exercises utilizing actual specimens, data, or imagery (e.g., Google Earth). Students interpret images and physical specimens, make concept sketches, and solve quantitative problems. Humanistic ideas and works about Southwest landscapes and cultures (e.g., history, poetry, visual arts, music) are infused throughout to provide context for scientific and technological ideas. Several weekend field trips complement classroom activities and homework assignments with experiential activities in the natural and built environments in the Phoenix metropolitan area and a regional traverse to Grand Canyon and back.

Course Goals:

  • Demonstrate knowledge of the regional geography, geology, climate, hydrology, and climate of the Southwest region.
  • Skillfully observe, describe, depict, measure, and interpret the most important types of landscapes, Earth materials, weather, and biota of the Southwest region.
  • Skillfully interpret maps, cross-sections, diagrams, and images that depict Earth system components and processes in the Southwest region.
  • Demonstrate understanding of the geologic history and evolution of the Southwest region.
  • Demonstrate understanding of the reciprocal relationship among Earth science and human societies in the Southwest region.
  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of the principles of Earth science that underly topical issues related to lifeways and sustainability in the Southwest region (such as climate change, water and energy resources, mining, agriculture, and other land use).
  • Critically read and interpret information about Earth science and the Southwest region in professional publications and popular media.
  • Skillfully formulate, communicate, and defend your own well-informed views concerning the topical issues studied in this course.


Students are assessed by means of individual or group participation in in-class and in-the-field exercises (Lesson Tutorials), completion of between-class assignments (Chores), and a mandatory Final Project (which can be undertaken individually or in groups of 2-3). Assessment methods and rubrics are described in detail on the attached Syllabus.


References and Notes:


Baldridge, W. S. (2004). Geology of the American Southwest. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-01666-5.

Ffolliott, P. F., & Davis, O. K. (Eds.) (2008). Natural Environments of Arizona. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-2697-0.

McNamee, G. (Ed.) (1993). Named in Stone and Sky: An Arizona Anthology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-1348-1.

Wiewandt, T., & Wilks, M. (2004). The Southwest Inside Out. Tucson: Wild Horizons Publishing. ISBN 1-879728-04-4.

Other Readings

Students are also required to read and analyze relevant excerpts from scientific publications, websites (e.g., USGS, EarthScope), popular media (e.g., Arizona Republic and High Country News stories), and humanistic works (e.g., poetry of Simon Ortiz and Ofelia Zepeda, photography of Mark Klett). These are made available through the course Blackboard site.