General Geology lab

Pete Stelling
Western Washington University


This is the lab portion of General Geology (Geology 101), and is designed for novice scientists or science-phobic students. Different aspects of the process of science are addressed each week in the context of learning new hands-on content. This lab is currently being updated to highlight various techniques for conducting science, which will make understanding the process of science a focus of the lab experience.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lab only

Course Context:

This is the lab portion of General Geology (Geology 101), which is populated almost exclusively by students fulfilling their General University Requirements for a lab science. The lab is required of all students, and each lab is between 25-35 students with an average of 1,500 students per year. Geology majors must take a subsequent course in Physical Geology, although students earning a B or better in General Geology can elect to take only the lab portion of Physical Geology if they wish to continue in the major.

Course Goals:

  • Students will be able to understand the science section of the newspaper and evaluate the logic used in public debates regarding scientific data.
  • Students will understand how to design and conduct a basic experiment.
  • Students will be able to categorize rocks into igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary groups and identify the most common rocks of each group.
  • Students will be able to tell the "story" of the most common rock types and selected outcrops.
  • Students will understand the most prominent local geologic hazards and appropriate mitigation techniques for each.
  • Students will be understand that math is an essential component of science, and will be able to conduct basic calculations to better understand geological phenomena.

Course Features:

Teaching the Process of Science

Each week's lab is loosely based on a different process of science (with a planned upgrade this summer to make the process of science more prominent). The first few labs focus on making observations and identifying patterns (e.g., a jigsaw covering four different lines of evidence for plate tectonics, establishing classification techniques for identifying rocks). Later labs use models to explore the role of water in geology (groundwater, stream table and wave tank models). Other activities ask students to conduct experiments to explore various geologic phenomena such as the role of grain size and shape on the angle of repose or the effect of temperature on viscosity.


Assessment of the goals of this class is primarily based on the written portion of the labs that students submit each week. These labs include filling in charts with observations (as part of a jigsaw over evidence for plate tectonics), short answer questions, concept sketches, measurements and calculations. Students conduct experiments to determine the effect of grain size, grain shape and water content on the angle of repose for unconsolidated sediment and landslide potential, as well as the effect of water content on liquefaction, a significant natural hazard in the Pacific Northwest. We also have on-campus field trips with sketches, maps and written descriptions of outcrop interpretations.

Prior to each week's lab, students take a Warm Up quiz on Blackboard, a 10-question multiple choice quiz covering review of the previous week's lab (both content and process) and questions about the upcoming lab to promote reading in advance of the lab. Additionally we have formal exams twice per term over rock identification and interpretations of outcrops.


Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

  • In-house lab manual - This gives us infinite freedom to manipulate/change the content and focus of each lab as we choose. Also, the in-house publication cost is ~$6.50 per lab book, cheap enough that it comes out of the student lab fee budget.
  • Each student is also part of a lecture portion of the class, which has its own text book. Most lecturers use Marshak, although some are using Reynolds et. al.