Hands-On Course For Non Majors Is A Success

Posted on 08.23.2015

Geology 110: Exploring Planet Earth in the Field is a field-based course for non-majors. It appears to be wildly popular among those that take it. The course, which has been taught by Steve Altaner for the past few years, has an average enrollment of about 30-40 students.

The one credit course includes a three day camping trip to the Ozarks in southeast Missouri and a one day trip to the Starved Rock area of northern Illinois. "This course has everything that geology can offer," says Altaner. "We go to very scenic areas in Missouri and Illinois; the geology in both places is extraordinary; and we start very simple and work our way to increasingly complex concepts." The three day camping trip is the high point for many students.

"Everyone helps, we set up tents, cook together, and sit around the campfire together. Very close friendships grow from this," says Altaner.

"The most important part of this course was that the class actually got to know each other by name, something that is extremely rare in a University course," one student wrote in an evaluation.

Altaner's goal, in addition to teaching basic geological concepts to non-majors, is to get students to apply scientific methods in the field. The students first make observations, then they interpret those observations,  and then pull all the observations and interpretations together into a geologic history of the area.

"For me it's remarkable that more than 90 percent of the students get it. I don't get anywhere near that success rate in other 100-level courses," says Altaner, who also teaches Geology 100: Earth and Geology 118: Environmental Geology, as well as several upper-level courses.

During the Ozarks trip students get to see the Johnson's Shut Ins -a narrow, steep-walled canyon - where they can see stratigraphy, intrusions, and other geologic features. Here they begin to learn to interpret what they see. During the Starved Rock trip, students get to see some fantastic gorges and try to understand how they may have been formed. In addition to Starved Rock itself, students go to Matthiesson State Park, which has 100-foot cliffs of pure sandstone; and Buffalo State Park, an old strip mine.

Altaner said over the years a few students have changed their major to geology as the result of taking Geology 110, but perhaps even more satisfying is how many education majors have taken his course. Those students that go into education have a very good basic geology education after having taken Geology 110, says Altaner.