A “small-is-beautiful” Approach to Upgrading a Beginning Geophysics Course

Seth Stein and John E. DeLaughter
Department of Geological Sciences, Northwestern University

Considerable attention is now directed toward improving earth science curricula, as illustrated by both presentations at national scientific meetings and discussions in the literature. Much of the discussion addresses large-scale changes, such as the development of new degree programs [e.g. Stein, 1996]. Such reforms can be very successful, but require lengthy interactions with university bureaucracies.

A complementary approach is to upgrade individual courses or groups of them. This approach has the advantage of being doable by individual faculty, without bureaucracy, and on small (or zero) budgets. We have been taking such a “small is beautiful” [Schumacher, 1973] or “faster, cheaper, better” approach to upgrade our introductory geophysics course. In discussion with colleagues elsewhere, we have found interest in this effort, and so summarize it briefly in the hope of encouraging discussions of similar experiments elsewhere.

We have begun with a beginning geophysics course required of geology majors, and taken as a distribution course by engineering majors. It provides a relatively rigorous and homework-intensive overview of the structure and evolution of the Earth and terrestrial planets, at a level higher than a descriptive “Geology 1” class, but lower than the standard introduction to geophysics for seniors or first year graduate students. For example, in this class we typically present without proof results such as Snell’s law, which will be derived in later courses.

These demonstrations are presented to the class with an WWW page which also contains links to a variety of supplemental resources, including virtual field trips and biographies of famous scientists who contributed to understanding these topics, available elsewhere on the WWW. We are using a simple “geophysics literacy” test to see what students know before the course, assess the value of various prerequisite courses, and examine how effective our teaching is.

Our repertoire

Thus far, we have created demonstrations and/or laboratory exercises on several topics. Below are links to the html versions of the pages; PostScript versions are available on the respective pages. Wherever possible, we have included links to related webpages. Finally, please send us your feedback!

This page contains portions of text from an article printed in the November 18, 1997, issue of Eos.

Gross earth and solar system structure:


Composition of the earth

Paleomagnetism and convection

Plate kinematics

Related Sites


The class web page

This site was selected as the Virtual Geoscience Professor’s Site of the Fortnight for March 14, 1998.



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Hake, R. R., Socratic pedagogy in the introductory physics laboratory, The Physics Teacher30, 546-552, 1992.

Renner, J. W., The relationships between intellectual development and written responses to science questions, J. Res. in Sci. Ed.16, 279-299, 1979.

Schumacher, E. F., Small is beautiful; economics as if people mattered, 290 p., Harper & Row, New York, 1973.

Stein, S., Launching an environmental science major: experience at Northwestern, GSA Today, 38-39, March, 1996.

Stein, S., Hot-spotting in the Pacific, Nature387, 345-346, 1997.

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