Earth Science curricula have traditionally been defined around a limited set of core courses thought to be integral to the science (e.g., sedimentology, mineralogy, petrology, structural geology, earth history, etc.).  Students typically amend a core sequence of required core courses with a variety of more specialized elective courses (e.g., hydrogeology, glaciology, etc.).  

Core Competencies

However, such an approach to defining a curriculum is increasingly problematic on at least two fronts.  First, there is an ever–growing list of courses that are arguably “core” courses, such as geobiology, paleoclimatology, etc.  At the same time, many argue that the traditional core courses remain just as important as ever.  Given that the number of courses a student can take is more or less fixed, this approach to defining a curriculum ultimately leads to a reduction in the number of elective courses a student can take and the irresolvable problem of what constitutes a modern set of “core” courses.  Second, focusing on individual core courses does not, by itself, shed light on how the different courses interact pedagogically.  Oftentimes, each course is designed to optimize learning in that specific field irrespective of what skills are covered or absent in other courses.

We have developed an alternative to the “core course” approach which might be described as a “core competencies” approach.  We instituted this alternative approach to curricula design in 2009 and published an assessment of it in 2014 (Design and Assessment of a Skills-Based Geoscience Curriculum, Journal of Geoscience Education 62:668-678).

In our revised curriculum, instead of defining our curricula as a list of specific courses, we instead define multiple sets of key concepts or skills we want our graduates to master.  These sets of core competencies reflect, in part, the on-going effort within the earth science community to define the core ideas and supporting concepts that constitute what everyone should know about earth sciences (see For each set of key concepts and skills we have identified multiple courses that all include these key concepts and skills and require our students to take at least one of these courses.

Introductory Courses (EARS 1-9)

The key concepts and skills that we expect to be common to all our courses at the Introductory level include:

  • Earth’s origins
  • Concepts of geologic time and geologic spatial scales
  • The use of maps and spatial data
  • The process of science and the evolution of scientific concepts
  • Earth as a dynamic system including physical, chemical, and biological interactions
  • The impact of geology and natural resources on the evolution of life and vice versa
  • The concept of uncertainty as it applies to our understanding and analysis of Earth processes, resources, and hazards.

Collection and Analysis of Earth Science Data (EARS 11-19)

Specific skills and concepts covered in these courses include:

  • Collection and interpretation of earth science data
  • Collection of field observations
  • Quantifying uncertainty
  • Creation of cross sections and maps / plotting spatial data

Core Methods and Concepts (EARS 30-59)

Specific skills and concepts covered in these courses include:

  • Origin of earth materials
  • Mineral transformations
  • Structure and mechanics of earth materials
  • Co-evolution of Earth and life
  • Core field methods
  • Working in groups

Quantitative Analysis of Earth Systems (EARS 60-69)

Specific skills and concepts covered in these courses include:

  • Simplification/modeling of complex systems for quantitative analysis
  • Quantitative analysis of earth systems
  • Limits of data/knowledge

Quantitative Analysis of Earth Systems (EARS 70-79)

Specific skills and concepts covered in these courses include:

  • In depth exploration of a specialized topic at an advanced level
  • Reading the scientific literature
  • Scientific discourse (oral and written presentation of data and analyses)