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Introductory Physical Geology Laboratory

Introductory Physical Geology Laboratory is an introductory-level laboratory course that explores the basic concepts and principles of physical geology. The course includes a Student Lab Workbook and a laboratory kit.

Each lesson includes specific learning objectives that help students to prepare for the lab lesson. Each lab lesson includes questions designed to help students analyze, review, and apply knowledge of the material covered in the lab course. The lab manual includes exercises and procedures that illuminate the central principles of physical geology. Reading the lab manual, watching the video clips and activities in the online component, and completing the lab exercises will provide the student with a learning experience equivalent to or better than a face-to-face course.

Introductory Physical Geology Laboratory, written by Greg P. Gardiner and Susan Wilcox with the support of a National Academic Advisory Team. This laboratory is also appropriate for a high school AP class. Additional information is provided under the “How to Adopt Course & Print Materials” tab below. To request access to an electronic review copy of the laboratory manual or to request a content list for the lab kit, please contact Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

For access to Coast Learning Systems’ online course preview site, please complete a Preview Request Form.

Lesson Titles and Descriptions

1. Topographic Maps

A topographic map is a flat, two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional land surface, otherwise known as the topographic relief. Such a map depicts the topographic relief by means of contour lines that are configured to show the hills and valleys and variations in surface elevation. A topographic map differs significantly from the more familiar planimetric map. A planimetric map does not show contour lines nor does it express topographic relief, an example of planimetric map would be a highway map. Most topographic maps also depict many features that are commonly found on planimetric maps, such as bodies of water, vegetation, roads, buildings, political boundaries, and place names.

2. Plate Tectonics

The theory of plate tectonics revolutionized the science of geology. However, before the advent of plate tectonics, scientists presented several hypotheses in an attempt to explain questions concerning the apparent jigsaw puzzle–like fit of the continents and their modern positions. Plate tectonics is the modern theory that the Earth’s rigid outer layer, called the lithosphere, is broken in to large moving sections or plates. Many of the features found at plate edges, such as folded mountain ranges, volcanoes, trenches, rift valleys, island arcs, and so forth have been created by plate tectonic activity.

3. Rock Deformation and Mountain Building

Physical properties of the earth’s rock must vary, depending on the geological environment in which the rock was deformed. In fact, deeply buried rock strata, if subjected to a deformational force, generally deform in a ductile manner (i.e., property of a substance that responds to stress by flowing or changing shape; also referred to as plastic), whereas rock strata at or near the earth’s surface, if subjected to a deformational force, generally deform in a brittle manner (i.e., property of a substance that responds to stress by breaking or fracturing manner). This is because high temperature, high confining pressure, and the slow application of str ess generally cause deeply buried rock strata to fold. Low temperature, low confining pressure, and the rapid application of stress generally cause near-surface rock strata to break.

4. Earthquakes and Seismology

Earthquakes are ground vibrations caused by the release of energy from fault movements, asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions, explosions, and movements of magma. This laboratory lesson will emphasize the characteristic behavior of energy releases from fault movements. Such releases of energy produce ground vibrations in the form of elastic waves, or seismic waves, that are propagated in all directions from the focus the point of origin of the initial fault slip. The point on the earth’s surface directly above the focus is known as the epicenter. Seismic waves can be detected by an instrument called a seismograph, and the record produced by a seismograph is a seismogram. A worldwide network of seismic stations, or seismic observatories, provides records of the arrival times of seismic waves. Seismograms from at least three stations located around the focus of a given earthquake but at some distance from it provide the data needed to locate the epicenter.

5. Minerals

A mineral is defined as a naturally occurring, inorganic substance with a definite chemical composition, an orderly and predictable atomic structure, and definite physical properties. The chemical composition and crystalline structure determine the physical properties of a mineral — its color, hardness, shape, feel, and reflection or refraction of light. In fact, a well-formed mineral crystal is one of the most beautiful objects produced in nature. Minerals constitute the fundamental building blocks of the earth and are extremely important to humans in many different ways.

Although composed of even smaller units called atoms, — minerals are the smallest units that can be seen with the unaided eye or a low-magnification hand lens. The consistency in a mineral species’ atomic arrangement from specimen to specimen, regardless of where the mineral crystallized, is one of nature’s amazing phenomena. Geologists have identified more than 2,800 mineral species, of which only fifteen or twenty are considered common. This exercise will feature some of the common rock – forming minerals and a few others of economic importance.

6. Igneous Rocks and Volcanism

A rock is any natural aggregate of minerals, glass, or organic particles. Some examples of igneous rock types can be found below.

  • Granite is a rock composed of several minerals.
  • Rock salt is composed of the mineral halite.
  • Obsidian is composed of volcanic glass.
  • Coal is composed of organic particles, chiefly carbonized plant remains.

Three major rock types have been recognized. They are igneous, rocks that formed by the cooling and crystallization of molten material within the earth, at the earth’s surface or on the seafloor; sedimentary, rocks that formed from sediment derived from preexisting rocks, by precipitation from saturated solutions, or by the accumulation of organic materials; and metamorphic, rocks that have been changed from preexisting rocks into new rocks with different textures and mineralogy because of the effects of heat, pressure, and/or chemical reactions. Igneous processes provide some of the most spectacular geologic activity at the earth’s surface. Igneous rocks also form deep within the earth and therefore provide important clues regarding the earth’s antiquity, the internal composition of the earth, and the earth’s geologic history. Thus, understanding igneous rocks and igneous rock processes is vitally important to understanding the earth itself.

7. Sedimentary Rocks

Sedimentary rocks form at or near the surface of Earth; therefore, the sedimentary rock provides us with a record of the history of Earth’s surface. The location of ancient beaches, rivers, deserts, glaciers, and oceans can be determined by analyzing sedimentary rocks. In addition, the vast majority of all fossils are found in sedimentary rocks, and much of our understanding of the history of life is based upon the diversity and changes in the fossil record. If it were not for sedimentary rocks, there would be no fossils and no fossil fuels . Without fossils, there would be no clue as to the abundance, diversity, and evolution of the life forms that preceded us. Fossils also provide information regarding the environments in which they lived. Without fossil fuels, there would be no coal, no oil, and no natural gas to power our society. Sedimentary rocks provide most of our iron and aluminum and much of our construction materials, such as Portland cement and gypsum wallboard. Without sedimentary rocks, modern society would have a very different look than it does today.

8. Metamorphism and Metamorphic Rocks

Although it is not uncommon for rocks to be subjected to temperatures and pressures that are high enough to melt them, some rocks undergo changes in texture and mineralogical composition while still in the solid state below their melting points. Metamorphic rocks form in the solid state at varying depths within the earth’s crust. Preexisting rocks change physically or chemically under conditions of elevated temperature, elevated pressure, or both. These changes can occur as a result of recrystallization of existing minerals, the growth of new minerals, or both. The resulting metamorphic rock is a product of many variables, including the original composition, temperature and pressure, presence of chemically active fluids, and the presence or absence of deforming stresses. Because of these variables, this group of rocks is generally regarded as the most difficult to understand. The process of metamorphism affects all rocks — igneous, sedimentary, or preexisting metamorphic.

Considerable information, however, can be extracted from metamorphic rocks in spite of their variable and sometimes complex origin. Because minerals that form during metamorphism are sensitive to temperature and pressure, metamorphic rocks often serve as historical thermometers and barometers for Earth’s crust. Also, metamorphic rocks form in a wide variety of geologic settings. They form the central cores of Earth’s mountain ranges, are often associated with igneous intrusions, and occupy the vast and ancient interiors of the continents. Therefore, metamorphic rocks hold secrets related to the creation and evolution of the continents — a process spanning at least 4 billion years.

9. Geologic Time

Questions concerning the age of Earth go back to antiquity. It is interesting to note that some of the oldest known estimates considered Earth to be very old. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570–470 B.C.) correctly concluded that areas where fossiliferous rocks were exposed had not only once been covered by the sea, but that significant amounts of time had passed since that land had been part of the sea. In 450 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 B.C.) watched the Nile River delta slowly add sediment with each yearly flood and he realized that it must have required an enormous amount of time to build the entire structure.

The first real attempt at establishing the age of Earth was made in 1644 by John Lightfoot (1602–1675), who was the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. Lightfoot claimed that Earth was created at 9:00 A.M. on October 26 in 3926 B.C In 1658, James Usher (1581–1656), the Archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, claimed a date of October 23 in 4004 B.C. Both of these men, being scholars of theology, determined the age of Earth by using the Old Testament Book of Numbers to calculate how long it would take to form all of the tribes of Israel beginning with Adam and Eve. While many today would scoff at such an approach, one must understand that both men were simply using what they considered to be the most reliable source of information available, which to them was the Bible. Usher’s calculated date was entered as a footnote into the Great Edition of the English Bible in 1701 by Bishop Lloyd. For nearly a hundred years afterward, to deny the 4004 B.C. date for the creation of Earth was tantamount to heresy, a charge that few thinkers of the day welcomed.

10. Mass Wasting

Mass wasting (the downslope movement of rock materials by gravitational forces without being carried within, on, or under any other medium) is definitely the unsung hero of all geologic processes. Most individuals are totally unaware that some process of mass wasting is going on at Earth’s land surface all the time and every place. Equally important is the fact that most of Earth’s land topography is the result of the combined efforts of various mass wasting processes and stream erosion. While stream erosion is largely responsible for the deepening and widening of valley floors, the reduction of the highlands separating adjoining stream valleys is the result of the various agents of mass wasting.

From the moment that the regolith (i.e., the layer of unconsolidated material accumulated above bedrock) forms, a series of processes that remove the regolith materials, carry them off, and eventually deposit them into the ocean. The process that starts this journey is called mass wasting. The distance the regolith materials are carried by mass wasting is short, usually no further than from the tops of hills to the adjacent valley floor. Once the regolith materials reach the valley floor, the processes of mass wasting will have come to an end while one or more of the agents of erosion can pick up the materials and continue their journey to the sea. Of the three principal agents of erosion — streams, glaciers, and the wind — the major agent is streams. Anywhere water can exist, streams will be the major agent of erosion, including in the driest desert.

Most valleys contain a stream channel. While the channel may not always contain water, a stream channel will be present because most valleys are the result of stream erosion. Because most stream systems eventually flow to the ocean, once they pick up the materials transported to the valley floor by mass wasting, they complete the task of transporting the products of weathering to the ocean.

11. Streams and Groundwater

Every year, nearly 4 billion tons of water precipitation falls on the earth’s land surface — an average of about 40 inches for any one area. Most of this water is lost from the earth’s surface through the following processes:

  • Some water is absorbed into the ground by infiltration.
  • A certain amount of the precipitation returns to the atmosphere by evaporation.
  • Plants use a portion of the precipitation during photosynthesis and some is returned to the atmosphere by transpiration.

12. Oceans and Coastlines

The water molecules constantly move throughout all of the ocean basins. Most of us have enjoyed watching the seemingly constant arrival of waves at the shoreline. Everyone is familiar with the tides; those comings and goings of the water along the shoreline in response to the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun. Longshore currents carry sediments along and nearly parallel to the shoreline and are responsible for many coastal features. Most important are the various density currents (a gravity-induced flow dense where the density has been increased by changes in temperature, salinity, and suspended solids) that exist within the vast expanse of the ocean.

13. Glaciers and Deserts: Climatic Features

Glacial ice covers about 15.6 million km3 (5 million mi2) of Earth’s present-day surface. About 90 percent of the total is located over the continent of Antarctica where the ice sheet reaches thicknesses of more that 4,700 m (15,000 feet) in places. The second largest ice mass on Earth, the Greenland ice sheet, covers about 80 percent of the island or subcontinent, an area of about 1.8 million km2 (700,000 mi2) with a maximum ice thickness of about 3,000 m (10,000 feet). The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are examples of continental glaciers (a glacier of considerable thickness that covers a large part of a continent, or an area of at 20,000 square miles (50,000 km2), and obscures the topography of the underlying surface).

14. Economic Geology and Resources

Fossil fuels are essential to our civilization. Fossil fuels account for more than 85 percent of the energy used in the United States and they will comprise the major energy sources for the near future. Because the geologic conditions for the formation of oil, coal, and gas did not exist everywhere, fossil fuels do not occur evenly throughout the world. All fossil fuels are derived from organic materials that were preserved in unusual geologic circumstances. Oil and natural gas are fluids that form by alteration of aquatic organic material and terrestrial plant material that then migrate into porous and permeable reservoir rocks and are trapped underground. The exploration for these fluids consists of a series of techniques designed to locate these subsurface reservoirs.

Coal forms by burial and alteration of terrestrial organic material. In the eastern United States the coals are mined by underground methods, while strip mining is common in the western part of the country. The United States has the largest deposits of coal that will continue to be mined if the environmental problems associated with burning of coal are resolved.

The use of petroleum products spread slowly in what has been called the “kerosene” age (1860–1900), but the development of the internal combustion engine near the beginning of the twentieth century set off a phenomenal growth of the petroleum industry. Consequently, we are now in what might be regarded as the gasoline age,” for gasoline is the chief product being derived from petroleum. In addition, thousands of chemical compounds, called petrochemicals, are made from petroleum. Petroleum, therefore, has become one of the most important natural resources of modern civilization.

National Academic Advisory Team

Robert Altamura, Ph.D., Florida Community College at Jacksonville Open Campus, Urban Resources Center
Edward (Erik) Bender, M.S., Orange Coast College
Theodore Erski, M.A., McHenry County College
Roberto Falero, M.S., DPRA, Inc.
Gail Gibson, Ph.D., Florida Community College at Jacksonville—Kent Campus
Jonathan Kuespert, M.S., M.B.A., BreitBurn Energy Management Company
Michael Leach, M.S., M.A., New Mexico State University
James McClinton, M.S., Eastern New Mexico University—Roswell
Joseph Mraz, M.S., Santa Fe Community College
Jay P. Muza, Ph.D., Broward College
Douglas Neves, Ph.D., Cypress College
Kathy Ann Randall, M.S., Lincoln County Campus of the Flathead Valley Community College
Kelly Ruppert, M.S., California State University, Fullerton, and Coastline Community College
Richard Schultz, Ph.D., C.P.G., Elmhurst College
Debbie Secord, M.S., Coastline Community College
William H. Walker, Ph.D., Thomas Edison State College
Curtis Williams, M.S., California State University, Fullerton
Jan (Jay) Yett, M.S., Orange Coast College

On-Camera Experts

Robert Altamura, Florida Community College at Jacksonville
Tanya Atwater, Ph.D., Tectonics Geologist, University of California, Santa Barbara
Edward (Erik) Bender, Orange Coast College
Kelly Bovard, California State University, Fullerton
Patricia Butcher, California State University, Fullerton
Theodore Erski, McHenry County College, Illinois
Roberto Falero, DPRA, Inc.
Gail Gibson, Florida Community College at Jacksonville
Kate Hutton, Ph.D., Seismologist, California Institute of Technology
Jonathan Kuespert, BreitBurn Energy Management Company
Michael Leach, New Mexico State University
James McClinton, Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell
Joseph Mraz, Santa Fe Community College
Jay P. Muza, Broward College, Florida
Douglas Neves, Cypress College

Bruce Perry, M.S., Geologist & Oceanographer, California State University, Long Beach
Kathy Ann (“Katie”) Randall, Lincoln County Campus of the Flathead Valley Community College
Kelly Ruppert, M.S., Geologist, California State University, Fullerton
Richard Schultz, Elmhurst College
Debra Secord, Ph.D., Geologist, Coastline Community College
William H. Walker, Thomas Edison State College
Curtis J. Williams, M.Sc., M.A., California State University, Fullerton, and Geologist, Gibraltar Associates, Inc.
Jay R. Yett, M.S., Geologist, Orange Coast

We have been using Coast Learning’s Introductory Physical Geology Lab Manual for more than two years now. It is an exceptional resource that not only gives our students a hands-on lab experience, but also presents the material in an easy-to-understand, accessible manner. We are more than pleased with Coast Learning’s product and would recommend it to anyone delivering physical geology labs in an online format.”
Mark A. Tinsley, Associate Dean, School of Health Sciences, Liberty University


Instructors can customize the course by making learning assets open or closed to student view, add learning assets such as new assignments, discussion forums, web research activities, and extra credit work. Instructors also have the option to request a “copy” of their prior course each term. Finally, there is the option of turning on automatic student tracking that simplifies the evaluation process.


There is no fee paid by an institution or instructor when this distance learning laboratory is adopted. Each student is required to purchase a lab kit, which includes the lab manual, one-time use Access Code, tools, rock and mineral samples, and topographic maps. To use the online component that accompanies the lab, instructors complete an Online Course Request Form prior to the start of each term, and a course shell will be provided by the date requested. Instructors also have the option to request a “copy” of their prior course each term.

This online course is hosted and provided in a Moodle® (LMS) shell, and instructors can link from their institution’s LMS or send their students directly to the class URL. Coast Learning Systems provides instructor and student technical support via an electronic help desk, which is monitored 7 days a week. Our goal is to make sure you enjoy teaching with our content and that your students have an engaging and positive learning experience.

The Online Course Request Form should be submitted at least two weeks prior to the start of your class.

Introductory Physical Geology Laboratory
Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, ISBN: 978-1-4652-0511-7