Integrate > Workshops > Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences > Course Collection > Petrology


Laura Webb, Geology, University of Vermont and State Agricultural College
Author Profile


The course is an introduction to the scope and methods of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic petrology. Through lecture, class discussions, and laboratory exercises, students learn about the classification, compositions, textures, tectonic environments, and processes relevant to the major rock types. The class also investigates issues related to sustainability of non-renewable natural resources such as minerals, ore deposits, and oil and gas.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an upper-division elective course traditionally designed for geology majors. A pre-requisite for the course is Earth Materials (or equivalent with some optical mineralogy background). Sustainability is a new theme in this course, with the hope of attracting environmental science majors in the environmental geology focus track. In this respect, the course design is currently a work in progress in integrating sustainability themes with classical petrology.

Course Content:

Students study the major rock types: igneous, sedimentary, and then metamorphic rocks. Weekly 3-hour laboratories dovetail with lecture topics and help students hone their petrography and petrology skills (e.g. identifying minerals in thin section, making textural observations about the relative timing of events, interpreting reactions and pressure and temperature conditions). As students learn about these topics, the formation of non-renewable natural resources is woven into lecture and lab where relevant (e.g. oil and gas during sedimentary lectures). The sustainability theme is more fully developed during the last few weeks of class where students explore issues beyond non-renewable resource formation such as resource production, estimation of reserves, geographic distribution, economic viability, and geopolitical and environmental concerns.

Course Goals:

After successfully completing this course, students will be able to: 1) characterize major rock types based on mineral assemblages and textures; 2) infer petrologic reactions based on the above and place these reactions in context of changes in variables such as pressure, temperature and composition; 3) interpret observations related to the above goals and formulate hypotheses regarding geologic environments and tectonic histories; and 4) define sustainability of non-renewable natural resources in their own terms.

Course Features:

With respect to the sustainability theme, the class culminates with an independent research project on a non-renewable resource of the student's choice. In addition to researching how the non-renewable resource forms, students are asked to explore and address the following questions. What physical or chemical processing is involved in the production of non-renewable resources? How resource intensive is production? How are reserves estimated? What is the geographic distribution? What criteria determine economic viability of production? What are related broader issues such as geopolitical concerns, environmental concerns, issues related to equity? Can innovations in technology improve economic viability or mitigate environmental concerns? Can recycling efforts be improved? As students begin to explore these questions for their chosen resource, class discussions are focused on related examples such as copper mining in Mongolia and gold mining in Papua New Guinea.

Course Philosophy:

My role in our department is to support the solid Earth side of the teaching and research mission of our department. The courses I currently teach are geared towards upper division geology majors and graduate students. Until the spring of 2012, the petrology course has been offered in a rather traditional format to Geology majors in our department. In AY 2011-2012, I was selected as a University of Vermont Sustainability Faculty Fellow, a participant in a program to promote teaching initiatives in sustainability. The petrology course was modified as a result of this. At present, I am focused on weaving sustainability themes into established courses in the Geology Department, courses that have obvious links to sustainability issues but do not traditionally touch on such topics. I now see that there many opportunities to step outside of the traditional curriculum in these core courses, as geoscience themes dominate the upstream and downstream endpoints of technology.


The bulk of the assessment for this course is through homework problem sets, weekly lab reports, and two take home exams (short answer and essay) with lab practical components. With respect to assessing student learning with regard to sustainability, students present the findings of their independent research (see topics/questions listed above) in a 20 minute oral presentation to the class. The students are asked to conclude with a slide that defines sustainability of non-renewable resources in their own words.


Petrology Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 22kB Jun19 12)

Teaching Materials:

Petrology Sustainability Project (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Jun19 12)

References and Notes:

For the sustainability themed portion of the class, we read several chapters from the following book:
Linkages of Sustainability, 2010, Graedel, T.E. and van der Voet, E., eds, MIT Press, 532 pp. Look here for more information, including a table of contents.

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