Geology (GEO)Academic Catalog: 2019–2020

  • Laura Triplett, Chairperson
  • Julie Bartley
  • Erik Gulbranson (Visiting, 2019-2020)
  • Rory McFadden

Geology is the science of the earth. Our planet is changing, and geologists help us understand those changes by examining the nature of the earth, the processes that act on and within it, and the particular history of geological and biological events that have occurred on it. Geology is particularly relevant for today’s world because it can answer questions about the causes of change and help us understand how the earth responds to those changes. It is a key discipline in locating, understanding, and conserving natural resources, understanding and avoiding natural hazards, tracing the evolution and extinction of life, and, importantly, interpreting the workings of the planet to better appreciate the context of human culture and activity. Environmental conservation requires that we understand the processes that shaped that environment long ago, as well as those occurring today.

Our geology program appeals to students who like the outdoors, have an interdisciplinary attitude, and enjoy learning about the processes that affect our planet. We emphasize field, laboratory, and analytical research experiences at all levels of the program. Overnight to week-long field excursions are a hallmark of our courses. To graduate with a major in Geology, students must participate in at least one departmentally organized or approved field experience. Students conduct individual and class research projects and undertake independent research that culminates in a thesis. Students in our department enjoy a close-knit community, working on class research projects, doing fieldwork, and participating in geology club activities. Examples of post-graduate paths for recent geology alumni include prestigious graduate schools, environmental consulting, mineral resources, petroleum, education, and public-sector earth science.

The Department of Geology encourages students to take advantage of Study Away opportunities available at Gustavus. Courses taken abroad can be applied towards the Geology major, if approved in consultation with the department. International sites that offer Geology courses recognized by the department include programs in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, and Sweden.


12 courses, including: GEO-111 or GEO-120, GEO-212, GEO-246, GEO-271, GEO-348, GEO-392, and GEO-393; CHE-107 and MCS-121; two additional courses chosen from GEO-241, GEO-322, GEO-324, or GEO-350; two additional major electives selected from Level II or III GEO courses or GEG-240; and one extended field experience.

Students intending graduate study should plan to take additional courses, including a second semester of math (MCS-122 and/or MCS-142), a second semester of chemistry, a year of physics, and field camp.


Five courses in Geology, including GEO-111 or GEO-120, GEO-212, GEO-246 or GEO-271, and two other courses, which must be at Level II or III and approved in consultation with an advisor.

Geology Courses

111 Our Planet: Introduction to Earth Science (1 course) In this course, students learn about Earth, how its character and processes influence human endeavors, and how humans, in turn, alter the planet. We emphasize plate tectonics as a unifying theory to explain phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains, continents, and ocean basins, as well as the rocks and minerals formed in those settings. Also central to the course are the roles of gravity, climate, water, and ice in sculpting the landscapes and environments in which we live. Hands-on lab and field experiences help students answer real-world questions like “Will the Minnesota River flood Saint Peter?” “What happens when groundwater gets polluted?” “How does local geology influence economic activities like farming and industry in our region?” and “What was the earth like in the distant past?” An optional one-day weekend fieldtrip explores nearby geology. NASP, Fall and Spring semesters.

120 Geochemistry of the Environment (1 course) This course is the same as ENV-120. The complete course description can be found in the Environmental Studies listings.

212 Evolution of the Earth (1 course) This course explores the geological evolution of the earth and the history of life by applying the theories, observations, data, and methods that geologists use to approach complicated histories and unrepeated events. We investigate both the physical and the biological evolution of the planet and examine the current scientific explanations for events that have occurred on this planet. We answer questions such as “Why does Minnesota have some of the oldest rocks on Earth?” “What caused 90% of all species on Earth to become extinct?” “Why are the Himalayas tall?” and “How did dinosaurs evolve?” A weekly laboratory introduces the techniques of historical geology and develops skills fundamental to geology. Students investigate the geologic process recorded in grains of sand, as part of an individual laboratory project. A required field trip, conducted over Spring Break, explores the development of hypotheses from field observations. Prerequisite: GEG-105, GEO-111, GEO-120 or permission of the instructor. Spring semester.

225 Climate Change: Geo-Solutions (1 course) Global warming is one of the great challenges of our time, one that will push humanity to the limits of our technological and organizational abilities. In this course, we will explore mitigation and adaptation strategies related to the earth sciences. From coastal restoration and seawall design to deep-rock carbon sequestration and ocean fertilization, we’ll see what cutting edge science can offer. Through class sessions and labs students gain a deeper understanding of global climate science and consider how we best can thrive on a changing planet. Prerequisite: at least one of GEO-111, ENV/GEO-120, GEG-105, GEG-125, CHE-246 or permission of the instructor. Spring semester.

241 Paleontology (1 course) This course explores the life of the geologic past, including the application of the study of fossils to evolution, paleoecology, biogeography, and biostratigraphy. Students explore topics from the origin of life to the impact of humanity on biodiversity. We explore questions such as “How did animals first evolve?” “How has life, from microbes to humans, altered Earth’s climate, atmosphere, and oceans?” and “How does the distribution of organisms in time and space tell us about past climate and geological processes?” Laboratories will emphasize hands-on work with fossils, including specimens collected on a required weekend field trip to southeastern Minnesota and northern Iowa. Students choose individual research topics about fossils to investigate as part of a term project. WRITD, Fall semester, odd years.

246 Earth Surface Processes (1 course) Every hill and valley has some story to tell, some history behind why it is there. This course is about the earth’s surface and the processes that shape it. We begin this course by studying rivers and glaciers, the most powerful natural geomorphic forces that have shaped our local landscape. We continue on to investigate landslides, weathering, soils, wind and waves, and perhaps the most powerful force of all: humans. We also take a quantitative, systems-level approach to the interaction of vegetation with the landscape, presently and in the past. Throughout the course, we ask “How do human endeavors interact with natural processes?” The laboratory is research oriented and focused on answering questions in the field. One overnight weekend fieldtrip is required. Prerequisite: GEG-105, GEO-111 or GEO-120. Fall semester.

259 Earth Resources (1 course) This course is an introduction to the geology of mineral and energy resources. Focus will be on the geological processes that form these deposits. Economic considerations involved in the development and exploitation of these deposits, as well as the environmental concerns associated with the extraction of these deposits, will also be addressed. Prerequisites: GEO-111 or GEO-120. Offered occasionally.

271 Earth Materials (1 course) This course explores the physical and chemical properties of minerals and rocks on earth. We will investigate the role of crystal structure and crystal chemistry on the physical properties of minerals. Then, we will examine the distribution and formation of minerals and rocks from the core to the crust of the earth. Students will use hand samples, petrographic microscopes, and analytical tools to identify minerals and rocks. We will also discuss economic minerals and the relationship between earth materials and humans. One overnight weekend field trip is required. Prerequisite: GEO-111 or GEO-120. CHE-107 is recommended. Spring semester.

322 Petrology (1 course) This course examines the processes and conditions that form igneous and metamorphic rocks on earth. We will investigate rock textures and chemical compositions to discern tectonic history. Students will use hand specimens, thin sections, and chemical data to identify rocks and interpret their petrologic history. We will address questions such as, “How does the composition of the crust change through time?”, “Why are there so many different igneous and metamorphic rocks?“, “How can we use rock textures to infer the petrologic history of rocks?” A weekend field trip is required. Prerequisite: GEO-271. Fall semester, odd years.

324 Sedimentary Systems (1 course) This course explores the sedimentary record, examining the ways by which earth scientists decipher the geologic history of Earth’s surface. By studying sediments, sedimentary rocks, and stratigraphy, we can answer questions such as “Where were ancient shorelines?” “What did Minnesota’s ancient watery environments look like?” “Where were the tropics in the geologic past?” and “How and when did the Appalachian Mountains erode?” Students explore major concepts such as sequence stratigraphy, biostratigraphy, basin analysis, geochemistry, and geochronology through a series of hands-on projects in which they solve geologic puzzles. Required one-day and weekend field trips provide a field context in which to interpret sedimentary rocks. Prerequisites: GEO-111 or GEO-120 and one additional Geology course, or permission of the instructor. Fall semester, even years.

244, 344 Special Topics in Geology (1 course, 1 course) Lecture and discussion on advanced topics in geology. Offered occasionally.

348 Structural Geology (1 course) This course explores deformation of the earth from the micro- to regional scale. We will examine concepts of stress and strain to investigate the formation of geologic structures, such as faults, folds, and fabrics. We will use geometric analysis of structures, geologic maps, cross-sections, and geologic field data to interpret the deformational history of a region within a plate tectonic context. This course will address questions such as “why do some rocks fold and other fracture?” “What controls the location and scale of faults?”, and “How do mountain belts form?” A one-day or weekend field trip is required. Prerequisite: GEO-111 or GEO-120. Spring semester.

350 Hydrogeology (1 course) Hydrogeology is the study of the physical, chemical and biological processes that occur as water interacts with the solid earth. We will study how water flows across the land surface and moves into the ground; where groundwater flows; what its chemistry is like; and, what happens when people use it or pollute it. More than two-thirds of Minnesotans get their drinking water directly from groundwater, and all lakes, rivers, and related ecosystems are linked to groundwater to some degree, so this information is highly relevant. We will seek to understand the properties that control an aquifer and the chemical exchanges between water and rock, with an emphasis on local aquifers and watersheds. Laboratories and problem sets focus on real-world applications of principles, and are specifically designed to prepare students for careers in environmental consulting, natural resources exploration, public policy, or other realms of earth science. We practice using the mathematical methods that scientists, engineers, and consultants use to characterize groundwater. One overnight weekend field trip is required. Prerequisites: GEO-111 or GEO-120. Spring semester, odd years.

268, 368 Career Exploration, Internship (Course value to be determined) Off-campus employment experience related to the student’s major. See description of the Internship Program. Prerequisite: junior or senior status. Fall and Spring semesters.

291, 391 Independent Study (Course value to be determined) Study of a selected problem or area of earth science. Prerequisite: permission of the instructor. Fall and Spring semesters.

392, 393 Research in Geology I, II (.5 course, .5 course) The Geology major is completed with this two-course sequence in geological research. In GEO-392, research methods, field exercises, laboratory techniques, seminars, and literature review in weekly meetings allow students to explore a research topic of their choosing and to draft and present a research proposal. Research projects are carried out independently during the summer or early fall. Prerequisite: Geology major. In GEO-393, initial reports of research results are evaluated by course participants and instructors. Further field and laboratory work, seminars, data analysis, drafting, and literature review in weekly meetings will allow students to complete a research project and to produce and present a research paper. Prerequisite: GEO-392. WRITD, for GEO-393, Spring semester.