Introductory Geology: setting a syllabus

Usually when I teach, I’m teaching an established class with a set curriculum. I’ve been part of team-taught or multi-term courses where we coordinate across topics, and I’ve taught APEG-mandatory courses designed to fulfill particular academic requirements for professional accreditation. I’ve even taught general-education courses that have a subtle recruitment objective, trying to lure students into geoscience degrees.

But this term, I get to do something new.
This term, I’m teaching an introductory geoscience course to students who would need to transfer to a different university to take more science courses. I’m solo-teaching with stand-alone content, with the challenge of sharing topics in geoscience that will be most relevant to their future academics and careers. I have explicit permission to design the syllabus in whatever manner I feel is most effective, covering the topics I choose instead of trudging through some preset list of “Everyone needs to memorize the Barrovian metamorphic rock sequence” (all together now, “shale, slate, phyllite, schist, gneiss, migmatite!”). It’s an absolutely heady experience, so full of potential and possibilities that it is almost overwhelming.

I’ve clearly been infected by the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative in that my first inclination is to create a list of learning goals, the ideas that I want students to hold on to long after the course ends. I want them to use what they learn in their jobs and in their daily lives: to identify when they need to hire a geoscientist, to support fact-based public policy decisions in their communities, and to be able to access our special way of looking at the world around them. My first-draft learning goals are:

  1. Be able to tell the story of a rock or a landscape (formation, transportation, history);
  2. Identify local natural hazards, interpret forecasts, and perform appropriate personal/community mitigation;
  3. Apply geoscience knowledge to assist in their chosen careers;
  4. Participate in public policy debates related to geoscience (climate change, frakking, pipelines, mining development, hazard mitigation…); and
  5. Use fact-based reasoning in decision-making related to geoscience topics.

I suspect my academic obsession leaves me hugely biased towards disaster mitigation, although it’s hopefully balanced by my professional experience in the resource industry. However, with entire realms of geoscience I rarely touch on (I’m looking at you, geochemists and hydrologists…), I fear I’m neglecting key topics. If you had just one term with no hope of follow-up or later courses to teach geoscience to non-scientists, what would you absolutely need to teach?

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