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Vol. 7, No. 4: December 15, 2000

Geology on the Web and in the Classroom:
Designing a Curriculum for Non-Science Majors

by Alan J. Scott, Associate Professor,
Department of Physics, University of Wisconsin-Stout


There are two introductory geology courses currently being offered at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. One of the courses is "Introduction to Geology and Soil Mechanics" (3 semester credits); the other is "Introduction to Geology" (2 semester credits). This paper illustrates the benefits and difficulties in developing a web-based geology curriculum.

The Geology and Soil Mechanics course primarily serves students studying for the construction management degree. This course has been offered for several years. The Introduction to Geology course is new and was offered for the first time during the spring semester of 2000.

What makes these courses unique are that neither includes a laboratory and both have been offered as distance education courses via the web (at the URL The web materials for the courses include lecture notes, quizzes, discussion forums, homework, animations, slide shows (some with audio), and related web links. A textbook is also sent to the web students via postal mail. I used Microsoft FrontPage 98, Canvas, and Adobe Premier to manage and develop the web pages. A Kodak D220 digital camera was used to obtain many of the images.

Curriculum Design

The curriculum for the Introduction to Geology course was designed to reflect a liberal arts approach that is also compatible with web delivery. As an undergraduate, I took an educational philosophy course where the instructor permitted the students to select their own criteria by which to be evaluated in the course. I wanted to give this course a little of the same flavor. This course primarily serves students majoring in early childhood education, marketing education, psychology, and applied arts. It is a non-laboratory, 2-credit natural science class that goes towards satisfying the general education requirements for graduation -- basically, a "geology for poets" class.

One might think attendance or class participation would be irrelevant concepts in a web class. However, these activities are utilized. Each student's performance is evaluated in the course through attendance, homework, online participation, a special project, and/or two exams. Students can choose how much each activity contributes to the final course grade, within certain limits. Thus, if a student wants to be evaluated only with exams, he or she can. Other students (for example, those with high test anxiety) could choose to minimize the influence of exams and choose several other modes of evaluation. Students complete the customized performance evaluation table (shown in Table 1) before the end of the first week of class. For students using attendance as part of their grade, the traditional lecture students signed their initials on an attendance sheet that was passed around during the traditional lecture class. The web students send me e-mail during the appropriate week indicating the amount of time they had studied that week. Each hour was equivalent to one lecture. Thus, the attendance for web students was on an honor system.


Your Chosen Weighting



Attendance 0 15
Homework 0 25
Online Participation 0 25
Special Project 0 20
Mid-Term Exam 15 75
Final Exam 25 85


Table 1: Table that students fill in to choose how each activity will be weighted in determining final course grades.

The customized weighting choice is used for both web-based and face-to-face classes. The very purpose of delivering a geology course via the web is to allow students a high degree of flexibility regarding scheduling, study time, and study location. This customized weighting component of the course builds upon this philosophy. It can also be argued that some students do not perform well on exams because of test anxieties. Thus, exams may not be a good measure a studentís aptitude in understanding the course material. Some students may learn the most by working on special projects as opposed to studying for exams. So from a pedagogical viewpoint, I would argue that it is beneficial to have diverse modes in which students perform work and are evaluated.

The most novel part of this course, however, is an on-line participation activity. Students engage in an on-line discussion/debate of an important issue related to geology, science, and society. A question is posed to the students each week to which they needed to respond or critique another person's answer. Guidelines are presented on how to appropriately use this online forum. All statements are automatically posted to a web page. Three example questions are shown in Table 2 (below). There are 13 questions presented during the semester. These topical, sometimes controversial questions are related to politics and the environment, pseudoscience versus science, soil erosion, groundwater contamination, genetically engineered foods, flooding and construction, Kennewick Man and respect for cultural traditions, De Beers and diamond trading, and life in the universe.

Only the first posting each week of this online participation activity is evaluated for credit. Two points are given for statements that demonstrate "critical evaluation" and one point for statements that are "sufficient". On this basis, the evaluation is somewhat subjective. The total points accumulated at the end of the semester have a corresponding letter grade.

Week #1

Duane Gish, director of the Institute for Creation Research, has stated:

"There were no human witnesses to the origin of the Universe, the origin of life or the origin of a single living thing. These were unique, unrepeatable events of the past that cannot be observed in nature or recapitulated in the laboratory. Thus, neither creation nor evolution qualifies as a scientific theory, and each is equally religious."

Is this an accurate statement? Why or why not?

Week #5

In Edward Keller's college textbook called Environmental Geology, he states that "The number-one environmental problem is increase in human population" (Keller, 1996). Jacques Cousteau used to keep a clock on his desk -- one that did not keep time but kept ticking away the exponential increase in human population. This increasing population adds accumulatively to environmental geology problems. These problems include: pollution of both the air and water, production and management of hazardous waste, an increased exposure of humans to natural processes of floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. Keeping agriculture sustainable is also a big concern. Most scientists agree that it is impossible to support this population explosion with a finite resource base.

Do you believe the population problem will take care of itself through disease, war, and/or famine; OR do you see the world gathering sufficient "willpower" to provide for its inhabitants (for a long time) in a humane way that will fit within the limits of the environment?

Week #11

One reason people study glaciers is to examine the earth's climatic conditions - both past and present. Here lies another reason to be concerned. Correlating studies of gas trapped in glacial ice and the earth's past temperatures, it is clear that the earth has warmed when the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increased and the earth has cooled when the amount has decreased (with natural cycles). The modern industrial age has drastically increased the amount of CO2, mainly by burning fossil fuels. CO2 is the most prevalent gas that contributes to this "Greenhouse Effect" and Global Warming.

A. Hobson (Hobson, 2000) has recently written a very clear and succinct letter on this issue and states "It is as though a man's home was obviously on fire and yet the owner was relaxing in the living room, taking no action, because the fire had not yet reached his sofa...The house is burning down, folks. It's time to get up from the sofa and put out the fire."

Instead of asking if there is anything that can be done about this problem, I would like to pose the question "How drastic of a change in the climate will occur before governments around the world begin to take the problem seriously?"

To keep updated on current environmental issues I would recommend subscribing to the free email Environmental Defense Fund newsletter at On-line fact sheets about selected environmental concerns are also available from the Environmental Defense Fund.

Table 2: Example questions that were presented to students as part of their online participation activity.  For a complete list of on-line questions see the URL


Looking at the student postings for Week #1, I found 60% of the students agreed with Duane Gish's statement (shown in Table 2) and 10% of the students agreed strongly. This is not surprising. Alters and Michael reported in a 1997 Scientific American article that about 45% of students (surveying 1,200 college freshman at ten different schools) reject the theory of evolution. They cite that students tend to believe in two misconceptions about evolutionary science. One of these misconceptions is that the methods used to determine the age of fossils and rocks are not accurate. The other misconception was that "mutations are never beneficial to animals." This question probes a huge gap between what the general public believes and what scientists believe. In general, there are three philosophical camps on this issue. The first could be summarized as "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last ten thousand years." The second is "Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man's creation." The third belief is "Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process." Shermer (1997) has stated that 99 percent of scientists take the third viewpoint while only nine percent of the general public share this view.

After evaluating numerous statements made online, I believe many students find these discussions exciting and challenging. They go out of their way to make strong statements and quote sources. The fact that they could be publicly countered by another student creates an air of competition and excitement, yet the rules and guidelines are setup to encourage openness and a willingness to disagree. It is important that students understand that their statements will be graded based upon the degree of thought and effort put forth and not whether their stance is in agreement with their instructor. I try to remain a neutral observer during the online debates. This is true unless I feel many students are overlooking a very important aspect of a topic. In such an instance, I make them aware of what is being overlooked because I feel it benefits their intellectual growth. This activity also serves to get web-based students more involved and intellectually committed to the course.

The lecture students take traditional multiple-choice exams. Web students who live near campus are requested to take the exam with the lecture students if possible. Far-away web students are sent the exam via postal mail. Here lies a difficulty that is still looking for a technological or innovative fix: how can one ensure that these exams are being completed under the same conditions as the traditional students? I currently attach a cover sheet onto these mailed exams that is, in essence, a contract. This contract spells out the conditions that the student must comply with when completing the exam and what happens if these conditions are violated (failing grade in course, academic dismissal, etc.). The student must sign the contract before completing the exam and then mail it back to the instructor. So far, these exam scores have correlated well with performance on other assignments and with the class average on exams. This suggests that students are complying with the contract. But this aspect calls for a verifiable way of assessing student performance.

Global Interaction

By putting material onto the web, it is open to review and use by everyone in the world. This, together with an easy way to communicate like e-mail, can produce some interesting results. During the fall 1999 semester, a law student in Brazil contacted me requesting information about research in Antarctica. I passed along some sources of information on this topic. Shortly afterwards, he sent me e-mail indicating that he won a trip to the Antarctic research base "Estacao Antartica Comandante Ferraz," in an essay contest sponsored by his government.

In other instances, a physics student in the United Kingdom asked me for more information on how buildings respond to earthquakes. A civil engineering student at the University of Western Australia in Perth asked if he could quote some information I presented on the web about soil mechanics. An engineering consultant from California contacted me about slope stability. A master's student from the University of Alberta, Canada, thanked me for placing some selected information about soil mechanics onto the web. Another civil engineering student from Turkey wondered if he could follow my lectures and maybe enroll in the course over the web. A geology student from Spain spotted an inconsistency between the data in a table and a formula that was on the web. I looked into this inconsistency and found my original source incorrectly presented this information.

Outlook for the Future

If geology departments are looking for ways to increase student enrollments of non-science majors, the course described above may be tailored to this niche. It also has the added advantage that it can be easily presented online. This opens up the realm of relatively large class sizes with no geographical boundaries. There are still some nagging problems but universities are scrambling to overcome these problems. Who has ownership rights to web material that is developed -- the instructor or university? Is asynchronous learning possible to the extent that thirty students can progress through the material at thirty different speeds? How should web courses be factored into the formula for faculty teaching loads? How can instructors make sure that their assessment of student performance is accurate – in particular, are exams being taken under equal conditions?

These issues are not insurmountable. From my experience, synchronous learning is much better than asynchronous for both the students and instructor. Managing 30 (or more) students all interacting with you individually and each are at different points of progression through the material is terribly inefficient. As for ownership, some universities have negotiated to give pay raises to faculty for producing online material while the university maintains ownership of this material. Without such an agreement, I would argue the material goes with the instructor and if the instructor goes to another university, then so does the online material.


The new paradigm in higher education is the use of the web with instruction. Students can study whenever and wherever they want with web access. This fits nicely into the needs of non-traditional students. Many student athletes also choose to take this course via the web because of its flexibility. It is true that presenting geology via the web limits a student's laboratory experience. However, a solid web curriculum can reduce this limitation. In the final analysis, the level of learning students achieve is dependent on their self-motivation, whether they receive instruction in a traditional face-to-face format or on the web.


Alters, B.J., and Michael, W.B. (1997). What Are They Thinking? Scientific American, 277 (October), 34.

Hobson, A. (2000). Global Warming, Physics and Society (American Physical Society Forum newsletter), 29.

Keller, E.A. (1996). Environmental Geology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Shermer, M. (1997). Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: W.H. Freeman.

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