Ten Exercises for a Virtual Sed/Strat Class

I participated in a Zoom discussion last week (hosted by Brian Romans) about student learning outcomes for Sedimentology and Stratigraphy courses. It was a diverse group of folks on the call, including faculty from across the globe, and representing a variety of programs: undergraduate, graduate, industry-related, etc. After the meeting was over, I found myself intellectually forward-modeling (ha, bit of sed humor) how this fall semester might go, and I suspect there are three potential outcomes. (1) The fall semester is taught in person; (2) The fall semester is taught online; and (3) The fall semester is taught in person with an online option for students who are not comfortable returning to a classroom. So, actually there are two options (2 and 3), and both include an online component. I trust students to make the best decisions for themselves and their families, and if that means staying home, I want to be fully supportive and prepared for that choice. Plus, it’s impossible to predict what will happen at the local, state, or federal level.

So, with this in mind, I sat down to sift through my Sed/Strat assignments and search for new ones on the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) website. SERC is a bit of a maze, partly due to adding several NSF-funded programs over the years, but it’s well worth the time spent searching since I’ve stumbled across ready-to-go exercises that were a big hit with students. My main goal this round was to find 7-10 Sed/Strat exercises that could easily be converted into an online format. I am particularly fond of activities that are part of the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Collection, as these activities have been peer-reviewed. I’ve used several in my classes before, and I generally find them to be well-written, easy to personalize for local geology, creative, and fun.

So, here are ten activities that could be  modified for a virtual sed/strat course. I’ve listed them in order from easiest-to-modify to most-challenging-to-modify for an online environment and included general notes on changes and time estimates. These are just my personal opinions and not yet tested. Mileage may vary depending on the program, pre-requisites, and where sed/strat falls in the larger university curriculum. I send my sincerest gratitude to the faculty who originally contributed these exercises – – you are the true rock stars of an online geoscience community. And, I’m sure I have not captured all the options available in the SERC database, so please join the discussion and add recommendations in the comments below.

Sed/Strat Activities for an Online Class

(Easy to Modify)

Activity #1: Pre-assessment: Gauging students’ preparadness for Sedimentary Geology (contributed by Lawrence D. Lemke, Wayne State University). Activities for the first day of class are great to break the ice, get to know students, assess preparedness, and understand motivations for taking the course. This survey hits all the marks and could be modified for online by: (1) having students fill out the text document and submit; (2) loading the questions into an online LMS quiz format; or (3) selecting a few questions for an online discussion forum. Lots of options here. And, I appreciate the sedimentology humor in the pebble distribution of the final question! Estimated time to modify for online? 1-2 hours.

Activity #2: Weathering Experiment (a.k.a The Dirty Dishes Lab) (contributed by Pete Stelling, Western Washington University). This is my favorite lab to start the semester in person, and I think it will translate well into an online format. It presents a light-hearted  introduction to writing lab reports, and students seem to love the challenge of creating dirty dishes. From a content perspective, the lab pairs well with lectures on weathering, erosion, and erosion rates, which I cover the first week of Sed/Strat. For online modifications, it needs almost no tweaking, and students submit a lab report at the end of the week. To encourage interaction, it might be fun to open an online discussion forum and have students share their dirty dish experiment (=”Methods”) photos. Nothing like bonding over photos of unidentifiable food bits. Estimated time to modify for online? 1-2 hours.

Activity #3 Turbidite vs. Debris Flow: A Class Debate on Deep-water Depositional Systems (contributed by Bosiljka Glumac, Smith College). I haven’t used this exercise in my course before, but I’m familiar with the classic paper by Shanmugam and Moiola (1995). It prompted five (5!) discussions in the literature and is a fantastic example of a scientific debate with consequences for understanding depositional processes and oil/gas exploration. From reviewing the materials, it seems that this could be easily modified to become: (1) an online Discussion forum where students are assigned debate positions and have a chance to post and reply with peers; or (2) a fun ‘live’ debate via Zoom. For the latter, most of the work is prepared by students beforehand, so Zoom time could be spent diving into the nitty gritty of deepwater processes. Estimated time to modify for online? 1-2 hours. Also excellent as a potential discussion in a graduate class.

Activity #4: Equation Dictionary (contributed by Jackie Caplan-Auerbach, Western Washington University). This exercise is technically written for a geophysics class, but I really like it as a way to approach sedimentology equations: dynamic viscosity, Reynold’s number, Stoke’s law, porosity, permeability,  etc. I don’t know about other universities, but my students love math. Ha ha ha. Weeps quietly. The equation dictionary concept is a great way to move students from a “what-number-do-i-plug-in” approach to actually talking about the relationships between variables. There’s also a Journal of Geoscience Education Article that describes how this assignment helps students develop quantitative skills. For online, keeping an equation dictionary is student-driven, so there’s little that needs to be loaded, and students turn in the dictionary for a grade. Estimated time to modify for online? 1-2 hours.

Activity #5: Delta Environments and Paleogeography (contributed by Maya Elrick, University of New Mexico). If you’re in the market for a stand-alone paleogeography lab, this exercise is straightforward and ready-to-go. It includes a series of pre-made stratigraphic columns, clear instructions, and a map for students to interpret an ancient deltaic environment. Depending on the organization of topics in a class, it would be especially useful for introducing students to stratigraphic columns (without the pressure of making one, yet) and the overall workflow of describe the rocksdata analysisinterpretation. For conversion to online, this lab needs almost no modification if students use a drawing app to complete the final map or print/photograph their exercise answers. Estimated time to modify for online? 1-2 hours.

Activity #6: Introduction to well logs for use in the petroleum industry (contributed by Walter S. Borowski, Eastern Kentucky University). Introducing students to subsurface data is an important part of talking about sedimentary sequences and resource exploration. And, like the previous exercise, I really like the stand-alone nature of this assignment. Questions are well-written, the logs are easy to read, the labels are helpful, and an instructor guide is provided. With respect to converting to an online format, the files are ready-to-go for download, and students could complete them: (1) as a text document for upload; or (2) as an LMS quiz (if one wanted to build the questions). Bonus points that the logs are readable on any screen and don’t require a lot of zooming in and out to pick tops. Estimated time to modify for online? 1-2 hours.

Activity #7: Critical Review of a Journal Article: An Assessment Activity (contributed by Dave Mogk, Montana State University). Finally, this activity is a quick one to modify if you have a paper you’d like to share and want to get students thinking critically about the content. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found that when I ask my undergraduate class “What weaknesses did you find in this paper?”, I get a whole lot of confused looks (It’s published, so it must be great!). The questions in this exercise are great to guide discussions, and the full assignment gets students writing about datasets and methods. For online, the questions would make excellent fodder for Discussion Forums and the assignment needs little modification. Estimated time to modify for online? 1-2 hours. Also excellent as an assignment in a graduate class.

Sed/Strat Activities for an Online Class

(Need a few modifications)

Activity #8: Fluvial and Alluvial Sedimentology Incorporating Google Earth (contributed by Elizabeth Cassel, Franklin and Marshall College). This exercise has an alluvial fan-tastic KMZ file (sorry not sorry) showcasing terrestrial depositional systems. Students use Google Earth to calculate topographic slope and determine the maximum grain size that could be transported on an active fan. The most challenging part of converting this activity to online (or, to use in a classroom really) is that it also includes questions based on a series of hand samples. These samples don’t have to be tied to the locations in the KMZ file, though, so it could be converted to a virtual lab by: (1) selecting and photographing samples from a university collection; or (2) select appropriate samples from an online resource like the UK Virtual Microscope or Gigapan collections. This lab is a nice jumping-off point; it would be simple to modify the KMZ file with placemarks to personalize the lab and include a few local settings. Estimated time to modify for online? 6-8 hours (to include hand samples).

Activity #9: New Approaches to Field-Based Analyses of Stratigraphic Sections (contributed by Paul Myrow, Colorado College). If you want to get students started measuring stratigraphic sections, this exercise might be the ticket. I like that the assignment clearly separates observations (measuring a section and identifying lithofacies) from interpretations (determining depositional processes and paleoenvironment). The suggested ‘consultation meeting’ would provide an opportunity to check in with students midway through the semester and answer any questions that come up. Like the previous exercise, this needs a bit of modification to make it work online. It’s helpful that the exercise is written for a generic outcrop (i.e. it doesn’t name any particular location), so it could be paired with a virtual Gigapan like this one or perhaps a sedimentary core from an online repository like the British Geological Survey. Estimated time to modify for online? 6-8 hours depending on selected virtual outcrop/core.

Activity #10: Learning about Marine Sediments Using Real Data (contributed by Kristen St. John, James Madison University; Mark Leckie, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Megan Jones, North Hennepin Community College; Kate Pound, St. Cloud State University; Larry Krissek, Ohio State University). Speaking of cores, this exercise is an exceptionally thorough introduction to data collected by the DSDP, ODP and IODP. It includes an assignment, core photos, instructor notes, and the whole thing is published as an open access chapter in a lab manual Reconstructing Earth’s Climate History: Inquiry-based exercises for lab and class. I’ve bookmarked this for later and am unsure how much time it would take to modify the lab for an online course, but the core photos alone make it useful as a Sed/Strat resource. Estimated time to modify for online? Unknown, but worth checking out!

Other suggestions?

This is just a starter list, and there are a lot of other Sed/Strat resources floating around right now. One thing that became clear while compiling this SERC list is the need for virtual exercises to teach sedimentary classifications, sedimentary structures, and trace fossils. No real surprise there, since these are the most hands-on components of the course. There are other gaps, too, but this seems to be the biggest one for my course.

Have you used any of the exercises before? Do you have other exercises that you’d recommend for an online Sed/Strat class? Jump into the conversation below and let me know your thoughts.


Sedimentary layers as viewed from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, March, 2019.

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