Geology of the National Parks

Welcome to GEOSC 10


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Registered students should begin with the Course Orientation.

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Quick Facts about GEOSC 10


Dr. Richard Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences and Dr. Sridhar Anandakrishnan, Professor of Geosciences


"It would be fun to take a tour of all the national parks, learning a little about each. But Penn State would not award you General Education credit for such a course—you are supposed to be taking a tour of a field of knowledge, in this case geology. So, we will take a tour of geologic ideas. But, some of the best geological features of the world are enshrined in the U.S. national parks. We will use national parks as illustrations, delving into park history and culture when we can, but concentrating on those things that illustrate how the Earth works."
Picture of Dr. Alley by a creek
Dr. Alley by a creek
Credit: Dr. Richard Alley

That quote from the Introduction of the course website describes the vision for GEOSC 10. Dr. Alley developed the following statement of ideas he wants students to take away from the course:

  1. Science works.
  2. The Earth recycles everything slowly, by building and tearing down mountains.
  3. The Earth's environment has been balanced for very long times.
  4. Human-induced changes are among the fastest Earth has ever experienced.
  5. The National Parks are critical but endangered living laboratories, museums, and repositories of biodiversity.


Geosc 10 is designed to serve undergraduate non-majors who need to fulfill a General Education requirement and think that learning about the geology of the national parks is just the right way to do it.

Course Description

This is a fun course. Dr. Alley has four goals for the course:

  1. to help students become better-informed citizens on topics that may affect them in the future (groundwater pollution, biodiversity, volcanic hazards, etc.);
  2. to demonstrate what is and is not believable about science, those subjects on which scientists are usually correct and those on which scientists have no special expertise;
  3. to give students enough geological background that they will get more out of their next visit to a park; and
  4. to show students enough beautiful places that they can't wait to go out and visit some of them.

There is no required textbook. Rather, all of the readings, designed specifically for this course, can be found on this website.

Movie Teaser

If you would like to check out the teaser before sitting through the two-hour movie, here is the seven-minute version of GEOSC 10, winner of a regional Emmy award.

CAUSE 2004, WPSU TV Promo
Click Here for a transcript of the WPSU TV Promo

CAUSE 2004, WPSU TV Promo

Richard Alley: Sand. Sand. We've discovered sand. Oysters. The broad story in the West, very broad, is it was squeezed, and raised, and then it fell apart. Do the twist.

Sridhar Anandakrishnan: Every high spot shall be made low.

Richard Alley: See the-- So this is way cool. This rock fell off, this rock fell off, this rock fell off.

Sridhar and I teach a class at Penn State that reaches about 700 students per year. We're working to build an online version of our course. To do that, we have this wonderful group of students who are traveling around the West with us, learning filmmaking. They will put together materials that then go online so that thousands of students will be able to share in what this small group of students has done.

We've got to understand the world if we're going to get along with it. And understanding the world is climate, and it's living things, and ecosystems, and it's water, and it's oceans, and it's ice, and it's geology.

We have taken the really great pieces of geology and set them aside for us to enjoy, and us to study.

For the public, our goal as professors is to have a discourse with everyone. Because we really do believe it's important, we really do believe it matters to real people. And it's why this whole thing is so exciting and so cool to be here in the parks.

Big processes in geology are physics, chemistry, and biology acting over deep time.

Sridhar Anandakrishnan: Deep time is this notion of the Earth being billions of years old.

Richard Alley: All these different canyons we've seen have been carved by rivers. And they've been carved at rates that are remarkably low.

A sheet of paper a year, and a few million years, and you have a canyon.

Sridhar Anandakrishnan: It is an extraordinary notion that water and wind can modify a landscape like this. And the only way you can believe it, is if you believe that the Earth is billions of years old.

Charles Darwin came along and he came up with this wonderful elegant theory called evolution. And his theory needed time. And the geologists are the ones that came along and said, you've got up all the time in the world, because the Earth is old. Your theory can work because we've got all the time in the world for you. And it's recorded in the rocks.

Richard Alley: Notice sand, by itself, doesn't stick together at all. It's very loose, and it bounces around. And it's very easy to blow. And I just made a little sand dune. You'll notice that I eroded it on this side, and I deposited it on this side.

Oh, that's a conglomerate, isn't it? Yeah. It is. Look at that, Dave, that's the conglomerate we were looking for. That's beautiful.

AUDIENCE: Before the hooders formed it was one solid rock layer. And when rain came from above, it just bounced off the hard layers. Then fractures formed, and they separated just a little.


Richard Alley: Oh, I'm out of tune altogether. Sorry. Hang on a minute.

OK. So what this is, and again, I think I told most of you this already. This is an old fiddle tune called "Red Wing." It exists in a whole bunch of different forms over the years, including a song by Woody Guthrie, who set words to it that are completely different. But it's got a catchy tune.

[MUSIC - "RED WING"] Salt will surely flow, of falls down far below... to break the fins so rain begins to sculpt the arching show. On Mesa Verde's crown, caves ring it all around... ancestral pueblo people lived 'til dryness forced them down. And the rivers are carving through the red rocks... where history walks...where deeper time talks...carving ever deeper through the red rocks...may they keep carving forever more...May they keep carving forever more.

Sridhar Anandakrishnan: This is spectacular. Look at that. Look at that. Oh, my God. Oh my God, look at that.

Richard Alley: We sat there last night, on the Green River Overlook, and watched the sun set over the green and Canyonlands, and it was just breathtaking. And I've occasionally heard this bizarre fiction, that somehow, being interested in this, understanding this, knowing the research of it, and the depth of it, takes away the beauty, and all you see is a subject for experimentation. And it was gloriously beautiful.

I do love what I do, I do love geology. And I'm not sure why. It's beautiful, the patterns are sweet, I like what I see. I like getting under the skin of the Earth, and understanding why it is where it is.

I believe it's useful. I believe that we're doing things that will help people. I know we're doing things that are fun.

Credit: WPSU-TV

This website provides the primary instructional materials for the course. Canvas, Penn State's course management system, is used to support the delivery of this course, as well. It provides the primary communications, calendaring, and submission tools for the course.

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This course is offered as part of the Open Educational Resources initiative of Penn State's John A. Dutton e-Education Institute. You are welcome to use and reuse materials that appear on this site (other than those copyrighted by others) subject to the licensing agreement linked to the bottom of this and every page.

Students who register for this Penn State course gain access to assignments and instructor feedback, and earn academic credit.