Introduction to Geophysics

Gordana Garapic,
SUNY New Paltz


Geophysics is the study of physical processes of the solid Earth. Many problems in geophysics can be expressed and visualized by relatively simple equations. MATLAB is a convenient way to do this in practice. The class meetings generally start with a lecture and continue in the computer lab where students use MATLAB to solve problems discussed in the lectures.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Integrated lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an upper division elective course for students across the disciplines in the school of science and engineering. Prerequisites are: calculus 1 and 2 and physics 1. The class meets once a week for three hours in integrated lecture and lab format.

Course Content:

Geophysics is an extensive subject that encompasses physics of space, atmosphere, oceans and physics of the Earth's interior. The focus of this course is on the physics of the solid Earth. The course starts with discussing plate tectonics – a model that provides a framework for the dynamics of the Earth's interior and its interaction with the surface environment. The following topic covers dynamics of the Earth's interior, and how to image it. We then discuss methods for flow simulations through a porous medium. Finally, students learn about different radiogenic isotope systems and how to utilize them to study Earth's processes. The course consists of 11 labs. One of the labs is a field lab. The goal of that lab is to determine the depth of the water table using seismic refraction equipment. All other labs are computation labs and cover geophysical problems discussed in lectures.

Course Goals:

Students will:
1. Gain an integrated knowledge of the three-dimensional structure of the Earth and how this structure is determined
2. Understand the geodynamic processes that operate in the Earth's interior
3. Will be able to relate geochemical reservoirs in the Earth to geodynamic processes
4. Understand principles of measuring absolute geologic time
5. Demonstrate the ability to use principles of mathematics, chemistry and physics to solve Earth Science problems
6. Demonstrate the ability to solve numerical problems utilizing MATLAB

Course Features:

Each geophysical problem is introduced in the lecture and then looked into more closely through lab assignments.

Course Philosophy:

My primary motivation was to teach geology students computational skills. The course became popular among engineering students to satisfy their requirement for a science course or because they are interested in civil engineering which does not exist as an engineering track. There are also students from other science departments.


Students earn 35% of their grade through lab work. There are also two exams within the semester and the final exam. The final exam is cumulative.


Introduction to Geophysics (Acrobat (PDF) 96kB Aug19 19)

References and Notes:

C.M.R. Fowler: The Solid Earth, An Introduction to Global Geophysics, Cambridge University Press, 2004, Second Edition
This is the only Solid Earth Geophysics textbook I found appropriate for an undergraduate course

1. D. Turcotte and G. Schubert: Geodynamics, Cambridge University Press, 2014, Third Edition
2. Papers from scientific journals