Student working in a labWe teach about how the earth works, inside and out. Whether to fulfill science distribution requirements, round out a background in physics or biology (or classics, or economics!), or to major in Geosciences, our Department has many topical and exciting courses.

We use our mountain setting as a natural lab. We spend time outdoors, looking at rocks in place and processes as they are happening. Whether assessing the flood potential of local streams, mapping the folded and faulted rocks of the Taconics or Green Mountains, studying Pleistocene glacial deposits, or collecting minerals or fossils, geosciences courses provide students with a wealth of enriching earth science experience.

Introductory Courses

Introductory courses are designed for any student wanting to know more about our home planet. Not just for prospective majors, these courses are broad overviews that give fascinating insight into how the earth works. There are no prerequisites, and all courses include field and lab work.

Upper-Level Courses

Upper-level courses focus on specific aspects of geosciences in greater depth. The 200-level courses are open to any student who has taken a 100-level geosciences course.

Note: Courses in gray are not available this year.

GEOS 101The Co-Evolution of Earth and Life

Not offered this year

Our planet is about 4.6 billion years old and has supported life for at least the last 3.5 billion of those years. This course will consider the inter-related nature of Earth and the life that inhabits it, starting with the first living organisms and progressing to the interaction of our own species with the Earth today. Students will investigate the dynamic nature of the Earth-life system, examine many of its feedbacks, and learn about the dramatic changes that have occurred throughout the history of the Earth. We will ask questions such as: How did the Earth facilitate biologic evolution, and what effects did those biologic events have on the physical Earth? When did photosynthesis evolve, how can we detect that in the rock record, and how did this biological event lead to profound changes in the environment? How and why did animals evolve and what role did environmental change play in the radiation of animal life? How did the rise and radiation of land plants affect world climate? How do plate tectonics, glaciation, and volcanism influence biodiversity and evolutionary innovation? What caused mass extinctions in the past and what can that teach us about our current extinction crisis? Labs will involve hands-on analysis of rocks, fossils, and real-world data as well as conceptual and analytical exercises; field trips will contextualize major events in Earth history and will help students learn to read the rock record. Through these investigations, the class will provide a comprehensive overview of Earth history, with special attention paid to the geological and paleontological history of the northeastern United States. [ more ]

GEOS 102(S)An Unfinished Planet

The Earth is a work-in-progress, an evolving planet whose vital signs--as expressed by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and shifting plates--are still strong. In a geological time frame, nothing on Earth is permanent: ocean basins open and close, mountains rise and fall, continental masses accrete and separate. There is a message here for all of us who live, for an infinitesimally brief time, on the moving surface of the globe. This course uses the plate tectonics model--one of the fundamental scientific accomplishments of the past century--to interpret the processes and products of a changing Earth. The emphasis will be on mountain systems (on land and beneath the oceans) as expressions of plate interactions. Specific topics include the rocks and structures of modern and ancient mountain belts, the patterns of global seismicity and volcanism, the nature of the Earth's interior, the changing configurations of continents and ocean basins through time, and, in some detail, the formation of the Appalachian Mountain system and the geological assembly of New England. Readings will be from a physical geology textbook, a primary source supplement, selected writings of John McPhee, and references about the geology of the Northeast. [ more ]

GEOS 103(F)Global Warming and the Reshaping of Landscapes

Earth is the warmest it has been for at least five centuries, and the surface of our planet is responding. From extreme floods and drought to landslides and soil erosion, the natural processes that shape the Earth's surface are tied to temperature and precipitation, and as those change, the landscape reacts. People are beginning to feel the impacts, but in different ways depending on where we call home. Our ability to cope with the changes also depends are where we are, with low-income nations the least able to implement costly adaptive strategies. In this course, we will take a tour of the planet, investigating how climate change is altering landscapes and the natural processes that support them. Ultimately, we will develop an understanding of the consequences of climate change that connects physical processes with the geography of place. Specific topics include foundations of the Earth system, plate tectonics and the construction of landscapes, Earth materials, rivers and flooding, hillslope processes, coastal processes, and climate impacts on natural resources such as freshwater and soil. Labs will use local field sites and analytical exercises to evaluate recent cases that reflect an interaction of the landscape and climate. [ more ]

GEOS 104(S)Oceanography

The oceans cover about 72% of Earth's surface, yet we know the surface of Venus better than our own ocean floors. Why is that? This integrated introduction to the oceans covers formation and history of the ocean basins; the composition and origin of seawater; currents, tides, and waves; ocean-atmosphere interactions; oceans and climate; deep-marine environments; coastal processes; productivity in the oceans; and human impacts. Coastal oceanography will be investigated on an all-day field trip, hosted by the Williams-Mystic program in Connecticut. [ more ]

GEOS 14Landscape Photography

Not offered this year

This class will broaden students' appreciation for the appearance and history of the landscape and teach the skills of making a successful photograph. Williamstown, situated in a valley between the Green and Taconic Mountains and bisected by the Green and Hoosic Rivers, is a place of great natural beauty. The local landscape is a subject that inspires both professional and amateur photographers alike. While Williamstown will be the subject of most of our work, we will use it to learn principles of universal application. Students will discover the importance of light in making a photograph. They will also learn camera skills and the mechanics of digital photography, which will be reviewed at biweekly class meetings. In addition to photographing and critiquing images, the class will visit collections at the Clark Art Institute, WCMA and Chapin Library to see original paintings and photographs. Course will include an overview of the history of landscape photography with an emphasis on American workers such as Carlton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Alfred Stieglitz, Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams. Demonstrations will include examples of cameras such as medium and large format. Students will produce a body of successful photographs that will be projected at the Winter Study presentation day and on the web and Students will submit short written explanations with each of their photographic assignments. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

Catalog details

GEOS 201(F)Geomorphology

Geomorphology is the study of landforms, the processes that shape them and the rates at which surface processes change the landscape in which we live. The course is designed for Geosciences majors and for environmental studies students interested in surficial geologic processes and their importance in shaping the physical environment. We emphasize the influence of climatic, tectonic, and volcanic forces on landform evolution over relatively short periods of geologic time, generally thousands to a few millions of years. At this time scale, the influence of human activity and climate change on geomorphic processes is strong, perhaps dominant, in many geologic environments. Many of our examples analyze human interaction - planned or unplanned-- with geomorphic processes. Labs focus on field measurements of channels and landscapes in the Williamstown area as well as on the analysis of topographic maps and imagery. [ more ]

GEOS 202(S)Mineralogy

This course could be subtitled "An Introduction to Earth Materials and Analytical Techniques." As the basis for all subsequent solid-earth courses in the major, it provides a systematic framework for the study of minerals--Earth's building blocks: their physical and chemical properties at all scales and the common analytical methods used to identify and interpret them. The course progresses from hand-specimen morphology and crystallography through element distribution and crystal chemistry to the phase relations, compositional variation, and mineral associations within major rock-forming mineral systems. Laboratory work includes the determination of crystal symmetry; mineral separation; the principles and applications of optical emission spectroscopy; wavelength- and energy-dispersive x-ray spectrochemical analysis; x-ray diffraction; the use of the petrographic microscope; and the identification of important minerals in hand specimen and thin section. [ more ]

GEOS 205(F)Earth Resources

The metal in your soda can, the plastic in your Nalgene, the components of your computer, the glass in your window, the hydrocarbons being burned to keep you warm in the winter or to transport you in cars or aircraft, the cars and aircraft themselves: all are made of materials mined from the Earth. Right now there are more people building more houses, paving more roads, making more vehicles, more electronics, and more plastic packaging--all with geologic materials. As demand soars in both established and growing economies, and as we realize the environmental damage that can result from resource extraction and processing, the importance of understanding Earth's resources increases. Finding new deposits and managing those we have requires insight into the geology that underlies the location and origin of strategic Earth materials. This class introduces the geologic processes that control formation, distribution, and extent of materials reserves: dimension stone and gravel, base and precious metal ores, gemstones, petroleum, nuclear energy sources, and specialty materials for medical, technological, and military uses. [ more ]

GEOS 206(F)Renewable Energy and the Sustainable Campus

Fluctuating oil prices and rising electricity costs disrupt the economy and help fuel regional and global insecurity. Extraction and combustion of fossil fuels degrades the environment. Modern understanding of how fossil-fuel consumption contributes to global climate change and new technologies are increasing the demand for renewable sources of energy and for more sustainable campus environments. What sources of energy will supply Williams College and nearby areas in the mid-21st century? How will campus buildings, old and new, continue to be attractive spaces while making much more efficient use of heat and light? How can the College's operations and campus life become more sustainable? This course is a practical introduction to renewable sources of energy and principles of sustainability and to their application in the campus environment. Topics covered include: solar energy and energy efficiency, wind energy, biological sources of energy (biomass, biogas, liquid fuels), geothermal energy, and the environmental impacts of energy, water and food consumption. Lectures, field trips and individual projects emphasize examples from the campus and nearby area. [ more ]

Taught by: David Dethier, Amy Johns

Catalog details

GEOS 210(F, S)Oceanographic Processes

This course examines ocean and coastal environmental science issues including carbon dioxide and the ocean's role in climate, El Ni?o and other ocean-atmosphere oscillations that influence our weather, coastal erosion and other hazards, coastal pollution, and fisheries. The focus is on controlling processes with regional comparisons. Blue water oceanography is conducted in the Atlantic and comparative coastal oceanography includes trips to southern New England shores, and the West and Gulf coasts of the US as part of the Williams-Mystic program. [ more ]

GEOS 212Paleobiology

Not offered this year

The fossil record is a direct window into the history of life on Earth and contains a wealth of information on evolution, biodiversity, and climate change. This course investigates the record of ancient life forms, from single-celled algae to snails to dinosaurs. In addition to the intellectual discovery of fossils as organic relics and the ways in which fossils have been used to support conflicting views on nature, geologic time, and evolution, we will cover a range of topics central to modern paleobiology. These include: how the fossil record informs our understanding of evolutionary processes including speciation; the causes and consequences of mass extinctions; how fossils help us tell time and reconstruct the Earth's climactic and tectonic history; statistical analysis of the fossil record to reconstruct biodiversity through time; analysis of fossil morphology to recreate the biomechanics of extinct organisms; and using fossil communities to reconstruct past ecosystems. Laboratory exercises will take advantage of Williams' superb fossil collections as well as published datasets to provide a broad understanding of fossils and the methods we use to study the history of life on Earth. We will also view a diversity of fossils in their geologic and paleo-environmental context on our field trip to Eastern New York. [ more ]

GEOS 214(S)Mastering GIS

The development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has allowed us to investigate incredibly large and spatially complex data sets like never before. From assessing the effects of climate change on alpine glaciers, to identifying ideal habitat ranges for critically endangered species, to determining the vulnerability of coastal communities to storms, GIS tools have opened the door for important, large-scale environmental analyses. And as these technologies improve, our ability to understand the world grows ever greater. This course will teach you how to use GIS tools to investigate environmental problems. We will review fundamental principles in geography, the construction and visualization of geospatial datasets, and tools for analyzing geospatial data. Special attention will also be given to analysis of remotely sensed (satellite) imagery and to collection of field data. By the end of the course, you will be able to conduct independent GIS-based research and produce maps and other geospatial imagery of professional quality. [ more ]

GEOS 215(S)Climate Changes

In recent years, there has been a growing public and scientific interest in the Earth's climate and its variability. This interest reflects both concern over future climate changes resulting from anthropogenic increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases and growing recognition of the economic impact of "natural" climate variability (for example, El Ni?o events), especially in the developing world. Efforts to understand the Earth's climate system and predict future climate changes require both study of parameters controlling present day climate and detailed studies of climate changes in the past. In this course, we will review the processes that control the Earth's climate, like solar radiation, the greenhouse effect, ocean circulation, configuration of continents, and positive and negative feedbacks. At the same time, we will review the geological record of climate changes in the past, examining their causes. Laboratories and problem sets will emphasize developing problem solving skills as well as sampling and interpreting geological archives of climate change. [ more ]

GEOS 220 T(S)Evolution of and on Volcanic Islands

Plate tectonic theory accounts for the vast majority of volcanic islands in ocean basins. They form above mantle plume hot spots (Hawaiian and Galapagos Islands), subduction zones (Aleutian and Indonesian arcs), and mid-ocean ridges (Azores and Ascension Island). Iceland is unusual because it is located above a hot spot and the mid-Atlantic ridge. Each plate tectonic setting produces chemically distinctive magmas, and the lifespan of volcanic islands varies widely. Islands above hot spots may be geographically remote and emergent for only several million years, but be part of a long-lived sequence of islands that persists for over a hundred million years. In contrast, island arc volcanoes belong to long geographically continuous chains of volcanoes, commonly in close proximity to continents. This tutorial explores the geologic evolution and lifespan of volcanic islands from formation to submergence, and searches for correlations between these characteristics and plate tectonic setting. We will also consider how geographic isolation, areal extent, lifespan, and climate affect biological evolution on volcanic islands.There will be weekly tutorial meetings with pairs of students, and students will alternate writing papers on assigned topics. [ more ]

GEOS 234(S)Introduction to Materials Science

Materials Science is the study of how the microscopic structure of materials--whether steel, carbon fiber, glass, wood, plastic, or mayonnaise--determines their macroscopic mechanical, thermal, electric, and other properties. Topics of this course include classifying materials; material structure; thermodynamics and phase transformations; material properties and testing; how solids bend, flow, and ultimately break; and how to choose the right material for design applications. Materials Science is a highly interdisciplinary field and as a result the course prerequisites are broad but also flexible. Interested students who are unsure about their preparation are strongly encouraged to contact the instructor. [ more ]

Taught by: Katharine Jensen

Catalog details

GEOS 301(F)Structural Geology

The structure of the Earth's crust is constantly changing and the rocks making up the crust must deform to accommodate these changes. Rock deformation occurs over many scales ranging from individual mineral grains to mountain belts. This course deals with the geometric description of structures, stress and strain analysis, deformation mechanisms in rocks, and the large scale forces responsible for crustal deformation. The laboratories cover geologic maps and cross sections, folds and faults, stereonet analysis, field techniques, strain, and stress. [ more ]

GEOS 302(S)Sedimentology

Sediments and sedimentary rocks preserve information about the rocks that were eroded to form them, the fluids and forces that transported them, the mechanisms by which they were deposited, and the processes by which they were lithified. This course introduces the principles of sedimentology, including sediment composition, fluid mechanics, bedform analysis, and depositional environments. [ more ]

GEOS 303(F)Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology

Using plate tectonics and the geologic assembly of New England as a template, this course explores the origin of crystalline rocks--volcanic, plutonic, and metamorphic--that comprise 94% of the Earth's crust. Field and lab studies are the crux of the course, supported by experimental work and thermodynamic principles. Chemical and mineralogical compositions and rock fabrics provide evidence for crystallization environments and tectonic settings, past and present. [ more ]

GEOS 312 T(S)Mass Extinctions: Patterns and Processes

Over the last 542 million years of Earth history, five major mass extinctions have occurred, each dramatically changing the makeup and course of life on our planet. During some of these events, over 75% of all marine animal species went extinct and groups like the dinosaurs vanished from the planet after over 100 million years of ecological dominance. This tutorial course will explore the idea of extinction from the evolution of the concept in human thought to current research on the mechanisms and patterns of extinctions through time. We will examine what makes an extinction "mass", delve into the causes and consequences of the major mass extinction events of the phanerozoic, and discuss the potential human-induced "6th extinction" event occurring in the present day. [ more ]

GEOS 401(F)Global Tectonics and the Rise of Mountains

Fifty years after the sea-floor spreading hypothesis was first verified using magnetic anomalies, we have spectacular data sets from paleomagnetism, seismology, volcanism, the Global Positioning System, and digital elevation models that provide rich details into the kinematics and mechanisms of present and past plate motions. After an introduction to the theory of plate tectonics, local field trips will illustrate how field observations can be used to reconstruct tectonic environments in ancient mountain belts. Digital elevation models integrated with geologic maps and cross-sections will be used to construct 3D models. We will also explore ways in which tectonics, climate, and erosion affect each other during the evolution of mountain ranges. Class meetings will include lectures and discussions of assigned reading. Labs will include field trips and computer-based projects. [ more ]

GEOS 405(F)Geochemistry: Understanding Earth's Environment

Rocks, water, air, life: what comprises these interconnected components of the Earth system? How do they interact today, and how did these interactions differ in the past? In this course we will study how chemical elements are distributed in the Earth, cycle through the Earth system, and act together to produce a planet that is habitable. As Earth's landscapes and oceans, and the life they harbor, have evolved through time, they have left an imprint in the geological record that we can read using geochemical tools such as molecular fossils, elemental ratios, and stable and radioactive isotopes. Topics include the synthesis of elements in stars, the formation and differentiation of planet Earth; radiometric dating; the major constituents of the atmosphere, rain, rocks, rivers and the ocean; how they're linked by chemical weathering and biological activity; and reconstruction of past environments. Students will explore these topics through lecture; reading and discussing articles from the scientific literature; and collecting, analyzing and interpreting data from environmental samples. [ more ]

GEOS 411Geobiology

Not offered this year

Geobiology--the study of interactions between earth and life over geologic timescales--is a new and interdisciplinary field that has grown out of exciting advances in earth and life sciences. During this course we will examine the many ways in which organisms -- from bacteria to trees -- have left their mark on our planet. Topics include the origin of life, the rise of oxygen in the earth's atmosphere, the evolution of biomineralization, the environmental context for animal evolution, the role of microbial communities in the earth system, the emergence of land plants, and the potential for planet-life interactions elsewhere in our solar system. Geobiology incorporates tools and ideas from geochemistry, paleontology, microbiology, and sedimentology. Class time will be divided between lectures and student-led discussions of primary literature. Labs will be varied and involve everything from growing our own microbial ecosystems to querying online databases and analyzing geological, geochemical, genetic, and paleontological data. Our field trip will take us to Harvard and MIT where we will tour labs doing cutting-edge geobiology research. The final project will involve writing a proposal in small groups on a geobiological topic based on the style and format of a National Science Foundation grant, and presenting the idea to the class. [ more ]