Introduction to Geology

Trileigh Tucker
Seattle University


In Intro to Geology, students discover how to read and interpret landscapes and the geological products that they comprise. Topics explored include minerals, igneous processes, weathering, landslides, streams, glaciers, folding and faulting, earthquakes, and plate tectonics. Students learn geological inquiry through iterating the process of:
  1. observing on field trips or through classroom images,
  2. hypothesizing,
  3. discussing observations and ideas with classmates,
  4. revising ideas as appropriate,
  5. writing about their discussions, and
  6. interacting with me about their ideas and insights.
They also engage in contemplative practice in class and as a term project option.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Course Context:

This introductory course is taken primarily by students to fulfill their general-education requirement of one science course. It is also taken by Environmental Studies majors as one option to fulfill a physical-science requirement. Between 15% and 75% of my Intro Geology students are freshmen participating in a voluntary freshman general-education track called Faith and the Great Ideas, in which they take special sections of each general education requirement (English, History, Philosophy, etc.) that address intersections between questions of faith-broadly defined and non-denominational-and the subject area of the course. The course includes a three-hour weekly lab; class sessions are cut back in length compared to non-lab classes to compensate for lab time. We do not offer a geology major or minor at my university, so there is no opportunity for students to continue their geological learning after the course ends.

Course Goals:

Course goals, taken from the class syllabus (numbered here for easy reference from subsequent comments; not prioritized on syllabus):
  1. Know how to make significant observations of the natural world.
  2. Be able to interpret your observations in a geologically meaningful way.
  3. Understand how minerals, rocks, landscapes, and other major Earth features are created and change.
  4. Be able to formulate interesting questions about the way the Earth works, and figure out some ways to answer them.
  5. Understand science as a way of learning about the world around us, the differences between scientific and non-scientific approaches to knowledge, and the differences between geology and other sciences.
  6. Have good scientific writing skills.
  7. Be able to work well with others in problem-solving.

Course Features:

Teaching the Process of Science

In the classroom session at the beginning of each new topic, I take students through the sequence described above: observation → hypothesis → discussion → revision of hypothesis → writing/presentation of ideas → more discussion and debriefing. Students have been assigned text reading due at the topic's beginning; I do not lecture at this point. No observation or idea is discounted early in the process. After our initial observation and analysis, we bring in others' ideas about the topic from the text, current events, or elsewhere so that students can anchor their initial brainstorming. At this stage, I lecture as appropriate to help clarify concepts, provide additional examples, or extend students' initial observations and ideas. I also ask students to consider potential sources of error in their observations and analyses.

Field exercises are an essential part of introductory geology. I typically divide students into teams and assign tasks based on either of two models. In the first model, each team is given the same questions and tasks, then teams go out into the field site to complete the tasks, then teams come back together as a large group to compare and consider results. In the second model, each team is given a different subpart of the overall task. When teams come back together, each team contributes a part of the puzzle, then students discuss how the parts fit together. My roles are to help students look more closely at aspects of the field site (such as rock layers or the shape of the landscape), to organize their consultation session so that each group contributes, and to give a final summary of our observations and discussions at the end.

I also give students a field research project option in which a student chooses a field site (usually one to which they have some connection such as a vacation spot or place of origin) and studies it from a geological perspective. Their study must be based on personal observations; they can do this either by visiting the place multiple times during the term, by using their own photos of the place from past visits, or by using images available online or from others. Students may only use published literature as a final check on their conclusions; their own interpretations must be based directly on their own observations, not relying on published information until they have completed their original analyses.

Because the process of science relies heavily on interactions (written or in-person) with the scientific community, I frequently ask students to work in teams on problem-solving, both in class and as part of laboratories and final projects. Students learn to share ideas and brainstorm together, and to overcome a need to be "right" on their own. Student teams regularly present results of their work to others in the class for additional debate and consideration. A number of students have commented on course evaluations that they particularly appreciate this aspect of the class.

Finally, I want students to have experience with the critical role of intuition, insight, and "down time" in the process of science. Although there's no format that can guarantee that students will have these experiences, I create contemplative time in the classroom so that students can engage with the material with non-analytical parts of their minds: artistic, aesthetic, creative. Students may also choose a contemplative project option in which they spend regular meditative time with some aspect of geology, and keep a journal about their experiences. Recent students have made strong correlations between contemplative experience and improved grades.


Assessment of student understanding of content and process (keyed to course goals described above):

1, 2. Labs involving field exercises are explicitly graded on how thoroughly and precisely students observe and record their observations, and how thoughtful their interpretations are, rather than students' achievement of "correct" answers. Many test questions (mostly short-answer, a few multiple-choice) also ask students to identify significant geological features in photographs, and propose interpretations.

3. Mineral and rock knowledge is assessed through graded laboratory exercises and test questions. Students' understanding of formation of other major Earth features (such as volcanoes, lakes, ocean basins, mountain ranges) is assessed through test questions.

4. (Formulating scientific questions) I don't conduct a formal assessment of students' ability to formulate interesting geological questions. We engage regularly in discussion about our geological observations--for example, considering questions like "how might this feature have formed?" or "why might the river flow in this particular pattern?" I encourage students to ask these kinds of questions by modeling the process with them. I know this approach generates some success by the fact that when I encounter my students on campus after they complete my class, they often comment that they now always think about geological questions when they travel.

5. (Science as a way of learning) This is another area in which I don't conduct a formal assessment. In-class discussions focus on this topic throughout the term.

6. Students' scientific writing skills are evaluated via their lab reports and especially their final project reports. In most terms, I require a complete graded draft so that students have the opportunity to edit and refine their written work.

7. (Teamwork skills) Formal assessment of teamwork skills is primarily based on group lab reports. Additionally, students are offered the option to collaborate on their final project (typically on teaching projects in which student groups teach younger children about geology), and in those cases are evaluated on their teamwork performance. I conduct informal assessment of teamwork frequently in class after group presentations; based on this feedback, student team performance improves during the term.


Syllabus - Intro to Geology (Microsoft Word 56kB Jun30 09)

Teaching Materials:

Research project guidelines-Intro to Geology (Microsoft Word 43kB Jun30 09)
Teaching project description-Intro to Geology (Microsoft Word 36kB Jun30 09)
Contemplative project description-Intro to Geology (Microsoft Word 28kB Jun30 09)

References and Notes:

Chernicoff and Fox, Essentials of Geology (current edition is 3rd edition)
I used Chernicoff's original text, Geology, for several years. I chose it because I consider the chapters well organized for student understanding, and Chernicoff's explanations clear and at appropriate introductory levels. The text illustrations, especially in more recent editions, are nicely done, with an appropriate balance between simplicity and complexity. Supporting materials that include images, PowerPoints, and test questions, are very helpful.

I have recently switched to the more basic (and less expensive) Essentials version of the text because we are on a quarter system. Although the contact hours in quarters are actually slightly greater than in a semester system, the 10-week pace still feels very rapid, and the lesser depth of material in the Essentials version means that students can get an adequate introduction to each geological topic without feeling completely overwhelmed with material.