LSSU/AGI Curriculum Survey

Note: This webpage complements an article in the November 2001 Geotimes Magazine, published by the American Geological Institute. Related information was originally presented at the Fall 2000 AGU meeting (Kelso, P. R., L. M. Brown, J. J. Mintzes and A. C. Englebrecht, 2000, Key concepts in geoscience subdisciplines, teaching strategies, and core course requirements: results of a national survey of geoscience faculty, American Geophysical Union, EOS, Vol. 41, No.48, p. 304.).


Paul R. Kelso, Department of Geology and Physics, Lake Superior State University, 650 W. Easterday Ave., Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783, USA,

Lewis M. Brown, Department of Geology and Physics, Lake Superior State University, 650 W. Easterday Ave., Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783, USA,

Joel J. Mintzes, Department of Biological Sciences, University of North Carolina - Wilmington, Wilmington, NC 28403, USA,

Amy C. Englebrecht, Department of Geology and Physics, Lake Superior State University, 650 W. Easterday Ave., Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783, USA,


To assist us in developing a new project-based undergraduate geology curriculum at Lake Superior State University, we created a questionnaire to determine geoscience professors' vision of key concepts in geoscience subdisciplines, their prevailing teaching strategies, and the courses that should comprise the required core of a geoscience curriculum. The questionnaires, distributed by American Geological Institute to all 548 U.S. institutions that grant Bachelor's degrees or above in geosciences, were sent to department chairs at each institution for distribution to faculty responsible for subdisciplinary courses. The completed questionnaires were returned to AGI to guarantee anonymity for the respondents; AGI forwarded the responses to us. We independently performed an inductive content analysis and frequency analysis of the individual responses. The question "What are the key core concepts that must be covered in a course in ......" had mean response rates of 5 core concepts per questionnaire for physical and historical geology, and 4 key concepts for mineralogy. Concepts that were identified by at least half of the respondents for physical geology (n=34) include plate tectonics (94%), rock cycle (71%), surface processes (63%), and time and scale of earth processes (66%); by at least half of the responses for historical geology (n=17) include organic evolution and origin of life (94%), geologic time (94%), and plate tectonics (59%); and by at least half of the responses for mineralogy (n=19) include mineral composition and chemistry (84%), crystallography and symmetry (74%), and mineral identification (63%).

Responses to the question "In an undergraduate course in ...... what proportion of time should be spent on skills (23%), theory (37%), and knowledge (40%)?" were essentially the same for physical geology (n=34); and groupings of historical/sedimentation/stratigraphy (n=47); and mineralogy/petrography (n=32). Similarly, the three groups reported virtually identical percentage of class time spent on lecture (79%), discussion (10%), projects (5%), presentations (3%), and other (3%). Summarizing all questionnaires that identified the geology core courses from the above three groups (n=70), the essential courses in a geoscience curriculum identified by at least half of the respondents are mineralogy (86%), petrology (79%), structural geology (74%), historical geology (61%), and sedimentation/stratigraphy (60%).


Reason for Survey

We developed our questionnaire to provide guidance to us in designing and delivering a new, non-traditional undergraduate geoscience curriculum that integrates geoscience sub-disciplines at Lake Superior State University. We will base our new curriculum in part on the core concepts and other information identified from this survey. The core concepts will be delivered through specific geologic problems posed in a variety of geologic settings thereby simulating practices by researchers, exploration geologists, and other geology professionals. Instruction throughout the program integrates increasingly more complex projects and active learning strategies. Students develop basic skills and concepts in lower division physical, historical, mineralogy/petrology and structure courses. Upper division courses feature student teams working together to solve a series of progressively more complex real-world problems, such as groundwater flow and contamination and mineral and hydrocarbon resource exploration, that are drawn from a variety of classic geologic settings including the Canadian Shield, Michigan Basin, and Black Hills. A lower and upper division field experience, and significant field components in lower division physical, historical, and structural geology courses and upper division integrated courses, will provide students with the opportunity to solve actual geologic problems. Our integrated curriculum emphasizes use of technology and computers by incorporating their use in all courses. Implementation of GeoGraphix mapping software begins in physical geology, with more sophisticated usage progressing throughout the curriculum. Students will use the geophysical and laboratory equipment made available by a NSF-CCLI: Adaptation and Implementation grant in all aspects of their geologic studies from project design, to data collection, data analysis and interpretation, and formal project presentation.

Survey Characteristics

The survey was distributed by the American Geological Institute (AGI) to all 712 U.S. institutions offering geoscience degrees (associate degrees and above) according to AGI's academic data base. A hard copy and an email version of the survey was sent to the department chair of each department for distribution to the faculty that teach individual courses within the department. The completed surveys were returned directly to Nick Claudy at AGI who graciously collated and forwarded them to us. Therefore, faculty completing the individual surveys could remain anonymous if they so desired. Survey questions are highlighted in green.


The results presented here are based on responses from the 548 institutions that offer Bachelor's degrees or above in the geosciences. We distilled overarching concepts from the survey responses. These concepts then formed the basis for erecting categories. Categories that had a minimum of a 10% response rate are included in the following figures. Slight variations in reported results between the abstract and the figures are due to inclusion of late returned surveys and subsequent reanalysis.

Core Curriculum

"What subdisciplinary courses should be required in the core of an undergraduate geology curriculum?" (survey question 5)

Responses from all respondents from institutions offering a Bachelors degree or above in geology are summarized. Individual faculty identified core geology courses that should be required in an undergraduate geology major (figure 1) and non-geology courses that should be required in an undergraduate geology major (figure 2).

In decreasing order, the six geology core courses identified by over 50% of the respondents are mineralogy, petrology, structural geology, stratigraphy/sedimentology, historical, and physical geology (figure 1). That field geology was identified as a core course by only 40% of the respondents indicates that faculty may not perceive field geology as a "subdiscipline." Similarly, this may account for why only slightly over 50% of the faculty listed physical and historical geology as core courses. All other geology courses were identified by less than one third of the respondents.

Of those respondents that listed non-geology courses, three were identified as "core" by a majority of the respondents. These three courses, calculus, chemistry and physics, all had similar response rates (figure 2). All other non-geology courses, including statistics and computer-related courses, were mentioned by less than one-fifth of the respondents.

Geology Course Pedagogy

We organized responses into three related disciplinary groups, physical/introductory geology, mineralogy/petrology, and historical/stratigraphy/sedimentology, and computed means for each group. We found no statistical differences among the groups in their responses. Thus, for simplicity, the combined results of the three subgroups are displayed in figure 3 & figure 4.

"What proportion of time do you think should be spent on: skills, theory and knowledge base?" (survey question 2)

Regardless of specialty, faculty think that approximately 40% of class time should be spent on developing a knowledge base, about one-third should be spent on theoretical material, and about one-quarter should be spent on skills (figure 3).

"What percentage of current classroom hours (exclusive of lab) of your course is spent in: traditional lecture, discussion, projects/group work, student presentations and other." (survey question 6)

Regardless of course level or course type, faculty typically spend over three-quarters of their classroom time lecturing (figure 4).

Physical/Introductory Geology

"What are the key core concepts that must be covered in a course in physical geology/introductory geology?" (survey question 1)

Plate tectonics was identified as a core concept by over 97% of the respondents while the rock cycle, time/scale of earth processes and surface processes were identified by over 60% of the respondents (figure 5).

"What are the most important things that you want your students to be able to do, or know, as a result of taking physical/introductory geology?" (survey question 3)

There were no individual topics identified by over 50% of the respondents (figure 6). The most common topics, identified on 25% - 50% of the surveys, in decreasing order are: geologic processes, rocks/minerals, earth systems/interdisciplinary, scientific literacy, and geology and society.

Historical Geology

"What are the key core concepts that must be covered in a course in historical geology?" (survey question 1)

The three historical geology core concepts identified by the majority of the respondents are geologic time, origin of life/organic evolution, and plate tectonics (figure 7).


"What are the key core concepts that must be covered in a course in mineralogy?" (survey question 1)

The core concepts that were identified by a majority of the mineralogy respondents in decreasing order are mineral composition/mineral chemistry, crystallography/symmetry, mineral identification, and mineral classification (figure 8).

Structural Geology

"What are the key core concepts that must be covered in a course in structural geology?" (survey question 1)

The core concepts identified by the majority of the structural geology respondents are stress/strain, folds/faults, and plate tectonics/regional structures (figure 9).

Summary - Applications of Survey Results

The core curriculum and pedagogy portion of this survey provides information useful to institutions that are developing or revising a geoscience curriculum. The survey provides insights into which courses faculty believe should be included in the core geology curriculum. The core geology courses most commonly identified include mineralogy, petrology, structural geology, stratigraphy/sedimentology and to a lesser extent physical geology, historical geology, and field geology. The primary non-geology courses that should be included in the core curriculum are calculus, chemistry, and physics. Additionally, the survey shows that, independent of subdiscipline, faculty emphasize knowledge base slightly more than theoretical material and skills.

This survey also provides valuable information for both early-career and experienced faculty members as they develop new courses and revise current courses. For example, survey results identify the specific core concepts and applications considered most important in individual subdisciplinary courses by the faculty that teach these courses.