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Practical Geology

Learn about the Earth’s history in a rock, a landscape, or a grain of sand from a seasoned field geologist who covers everything from backyard geology to the world’s most spectacular landforms.
Practical Geology is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 37.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Presentation and very interesting. I really enjoyed this course and recommend it to anyone who would like to learn about the earth and its resourses. In my opinion the professor is enthusiastic about his subject and that spills over into the pupil.
Date published: 2023-03-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Instructor trying to fly away I was really looking forward to taking this class but this instructor is a terrible speaker. Nothing is more distracting than an untrained speaker flapping his arms all over the place while speaking—a true amateur. I had to quit after just 5 minutes. I am surprised that Wondrium let this one get by. They usually have true professionals.
Date published: 2023-02-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good course! The course was at an introductory level but comprehensive, and Prof. Jim Cotter was very professional and enthusiastic which made the presentation thoroughly enjoyable. The interesting examples he used, coupled with the animations, greatly enhanced the course content. My wife and I truly enjoyed this class!
Date published: 2023-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great learning experience As soon as I saw this listed I ordered it and I am very happy I did. Prof Cotter is an excellent and enthusiastic presenter. I pretty much understood most everything he said and it was truly fascinating. I live in the high desert of Arizona and am seeing this beautiful landscape with new eyes. I may even make another trip to the Grand Canyon. I really like that he covered so many different areas of the U.S. and the world. There were lots of pictures and examples.
Date published: 2023-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Easy to follow and understand This is set at a good pace, easy to follow and understand clearly.
Date published: 2022-12-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A good instructor although, he seems to be terrified of actually being outdoors with endless safety concerns. Amusing!
Date published: 2022-12-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good even for old geologists! This course is a very good summary of practical geology.
Date published: 2022-12-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enthusiastic teacher, lots of good info If my wife was writing this review it would be 5 stars. I found this course very good and very interesting, but maybe 4.5 stars. Some of the negative reviewers felt like the course was too simple. It is not aimed at advanced students, but at beginning geology students or more likely the hobbyist geologist. For that audience this is a very good course. I am neither, but I have a passing interest in this science. My wife on the other hand, just LOVES rocks, and we have many specimens in and around our house. My only gripe is that at times it felt like a lawyer must have gone through the script too thoroughly. There were so many precautions about field work and the possible dangers. Something to be aware sure, but they felt a little excessive. I enjoyed the course, and I am betting even if you only have a passing interest like me, you will too.
Date published: 2022-11-23
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Taught by Professor James F. P. Cotter of the University of Minnesota, Morris, this course teaches you the fundamentals of field geology. You learn the basics of rocks, minerals, and landforms, and how to apply this knowledge to read an outcrop, find and prepare fossils, assess soil and groundwater, prospect for gems and ore, and much more. Professor Cotter stresses safety above all else.


James F. P. Cotter

Rocks can tell fascinating stories, providing insights into our world's creation, evolution, and progression. You just have to learn how to understand what they are saying.


University of Minnesota, Morris

James F. P. Cotter is a Professor of Geology at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He received his PhD in Geology from Lehigh University. Among the many awards he has received are the Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education, the Cesar Chavez Award, and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math and Engineering Mentoring. He has published more than 20 papers and 90 abstracts on glacial geology and has received several National Science Foundation grants.

By This Professor

Practical Geology
Practical Geology


Reading the Rocks

01: Reading the Rocks

Reading rock samples like the pages of a book, Professor Cotter recounts the stories they tell of change across vast stretches of time. He presents three key concepts that will open your mind to the fun and fascination of practical geology. Then he focuses on the idea of deep time, noting that humans have been around for only an infinitesimal fraction of Earth’s 4.6-billion-year geologic drama.

36 min
Observing a Landscape and Its Landforms

02: Observing a Landscape and Its Landforms

Geomorphology is the study of landscapes and their individual landforms. Learn the five major influences on landscape formation. Use this background to tour the US, which is a remarkable laboratory of geomorphology with features such as the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and Channeled Scablands, the Great Plains and Precambrian shield, the Coastal Plain and Florida, and more.

33 min
Find an Outcrop! Field Geology Up Close

03: Find an Outcrop! Field Geology Up Close

Go outside and find an outcrop—a roadcut, cliff face, or other site where rocks are exposed. These are ideal places for practicing field geology. Professor Cotter gives tips on safety, maps, tools, and techniques. A notebook and careful record-keeping are essential. Amateur geologists can make important discoveries, so field geology is your chance to advance knowledge while enjoying the outdoors.

30 min
Reading a River and the Nearby Land

04: Reading a River and the Nearby Land

Rivers are the key to understanding why many landscapes look the way they do. Study how rivers form, how they sculpt the land, how water and sediment move in a river, and how rivers change course over time. Rivers also create habitats for plants and animals, both of which influence the landscape. Finally, signs of vanished rivers tell the story of geologic events in the deep past.

31 min
The Beach: Spectacular Geology in Action

05: The Beach: Spectacular Geology in Action

Visit the beach with a geologist’s eyes and see how the interaction of waves, ocean currents, and winds lead to the ebb and flow of sediments and blending of landforms. Consider the four types of waves and what they reveal about the ocean floor just offshore. Also, zero in on individual grains of sand, identifying their minerals and tracing their origin. Reflect on why beaches are sandy at all.

31 min
What Sedimentary Rocks Tell You

06: What Sedimentary Rocks Tell You

Sedimentary rocks—those formed from sediment deposited by water or wind—make up a substantial majority of rocks at Earth’s surface. In this lecture, focus on clastic rocks, which are composed of broken fragments of pre-existing rocks. The fragments can vary in size from clay particles to silt, sand, gravel, and larger pieces. Learn how these rocks form and the rich stories they tell about the past.

32 min
Desert Fans, Washes, Salt Lakes, and Dunes

07: Desert Fans, Washes, Salt Lakes, and Dunes

Steppes and deserts make up almost a third of Earth’s land surface and are an ideal place to practice geology due to the distinctive landforms, often unobstructed by vegetation. Explore alluvial fans, washes, playa lakes, dunes, and other features typical of arid regions. Also ask why steppes and deserts are so dry. What combination of surface, ocean, and atmospheric conditions produce them?

31 min
Ice, Glacial Landforms, and Gravel Exposures

08: Ice, Glacial Landforms, and Gravel Exposures

Investigate glaciers, which now cover about 10% of Earth’s land area; 25,000 years ago, they covered 30%. Learn how to spot evidence of past glaciation—from sculpted valleys in Yosemite National Park, to the cliffs at Vicksburg, Mississippi (which formed far from glaciers), to Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. Dig into the physics of glaciers: how they develop and the forces they exert.

31 min
Limestone and Karst: What Deep Time Can Do

09: Limestone and Karst: What Deep Time Can Do

Check out limestone, one of nature’s most amazing rocks, with medical, economic, and sightseeing benefits. Not to mention, limestone provides insight into environments eons ago. Examine its chemistry and the ways it forms. Survey different kinds of limestone, including types that preserve detailed fossils. Finally, look at sinkholes and caves, which occur in limestone karst topography.

33 min
Reading Strata through Geologic Time

10: Reading Strata through Geologic Time

Starting with the concept of strata—parallel layers of sedimentary rock lying one atop the other—learn how to look at a cliff face and read the strata like an epic adventure. The story can encompass hundreds of millions of years, involving advancing and retreating glaciers, falling and rising seas, the ebb and flow of life, and much else. Work up to the paragon of stratigraphy, the Grand Canyon.

32 min
Reading Fossils: Life in the Geologic Past

11: Reading Fossils: Life in the Geologic Past

Fossils are one of the most exciting components of field geology. The term covers not only preserved ancient life-forms, but also evidence of their activity, such as footprints. Look at different ways nature has of preserving fossils—by encasing in amber, freezing, pickling, chemical alteration, and other natural processes. Ask what life-forms are likely to be fossilized and in what environments.

32 min
Where and How to Look for Fossils

12: Where and How to Look for Fossils

Having learned about sediments, sedimentary environments, and how fossils are preserved, you are ready to go fossil hunting! Professor Cotter prepares you with background on rules and regulations, strategies for finding the best sites, and how to photograph and collect specimens. He closes with a quiz, challenging you to predict the types of fossils associated with different geologic formations.

30 min
How Soils Form and Erode

13: How Soils Form and Erode

Soil may be the most important geologic resource on the planet. Discover how geologists classify soils, focusing on the concept of soil horizons, which are distinct layers that often vary in composition, color, and texture. Analyze how this cross section, which signals soil fertility, differs depending on the type of biome. Learn how soils form and how easily they are destroyed by erosion.

31 min
Groundwater and Water Wells

14: Groundwater and Water Wells

Dig into the mystery of groundwater. Apart from sinkholes and caves, there are no underground lakes or rivers. Instead, water fills the voids in porous rocks below a certain depth, called the water table. Discover how wells are dug and why it’s a waste of money to hire a dowser, since water is practically everywhere if you dig deep enough. Also, consider the problem of groundwater pollution.

32 min
Medical Geology: From Healthful to Harmful

15: Medical Geology: From Healthful to Harmful

Stressing that he is not a medical doctor, Professor Cotter delves into the healthful and harmful effects of geologically sourced substances. Some have proven benefits, such as the antibacterial properties of salt and copper. Others can be deadly. For example, radon, a gaseous product of radioactive decay, causes lung cancer. Asbestos, a fibrous silicate mineral, is similarly dangerous to breathe.

32 min
Lava Flows and Volcanic Landscapes

16: Lava Flows and Volcanic Landscapes

Learn what it’s like to walk on barely cooled lava from an active volcano—one of many fascinating geologic experiences you can have in volcanic landscapes. Examine the different types of volcanoes and volcanic rocks, and which active sites are safe to explore and which you should avoid. In field geology you should be prepared, so review the special precautions to take when visiting volcanoes.

31 min
Collecting Minerals and Crystals

17: Collecting Minerals and Crystals

Rocks are made up of minerals, which give rocks their immense variety. For example, the mineral quartz has the crystalline clarity of ice, while graphite is opaque and slippery, and pyrite has a metallic sheen. Most rocks are a mix of different minerals. Survey the most common types, analyze their chemistry and molecular structure, and learn how to identify them through a series of simple tests.

27 min
Granite: Igneous Rocks That Form at Depth

18: Granite: Igneous Rocks That Form at Depth

Having studied igneous rocks that cool quickly in Lecture 16, which dealt with volcanoes, now turn to igneous rocks that cool deep underground over the course of millions of years. Find out how to distinguish granite from diorite, gabbro, and other intrusive igneous rocks. Learn about notable batholiths, such as Yosemite’s Half Dome, and look at the abundant uses for granite and similar rocks.

33 min
Metamorphic Rocks and Tectonic Features

19: Metamorphic Rocks and Tectonic Features

Metamorphic rocks form under conditions halfway between those of sedimentary and igneous rocks. A good analogy is the process of glacier formation that turns snow into dense, interlocking crystals of ice. Focus on foliated metamorphic rocks, such as slate and gneiss, which have lineation patterns. Geologists can read these patterns to reconstruct ancient mountain ranges and plate boundaries.

32 min
Got Marble? Non-Foliated Metamorphic Beauty

20: Got Marble? Non-Foliated Metamorphic Beauty

Turn to non-foliated metamorphic rocks, those without a distinctive mineral orientation. Investigate the different geologic conditions that create such rocks. Then survey a wide selection, spotlighting their beauty (marble), utility (soapstone), durability (quartzite), and economic value (banded iron formations)—some have all four! Professor Cotter discusses a few of his favorite metamorphic sites.

28 min
Is This Valuable? Gems and Meteorites

21: Is This Valuable? Gems and Meteorites

The most highly prized rocks among non-geologists are gemstones. This lecture covers all 12 birthstones, plus other gems, probing the shifting categories of precious and semi-precious gems. You learn how gems form and where to find them. Even more difficult to find are meteorites. Hear tips for identifying these extraterrestrial rocks, which are unlike anything native to Earth.

33 min
Hunting Gold and Other Valuable Minerals

22: Hunting Gold and Other Valuable Minerals

Mining is one of the oldest and most important applications of practical geology. Find out how metals are classified and how most are associated with igneous and metamorphic deposits. Some metals, like gold, can be mined in a pure—"native”—state that requires little processing. Discover how and where to go prospecting for gold, using the panning process perfected by the Forty-Niners in California.

31 min
Oil Geology, Oil Plays, and Oil Drilling

23: Oil Geology, Oil Plays, and Oil Drilling

Trace the history of oil exploration and recovery, focusing on the geology of petroleum and natural gas formations. To strike oil, you need to find a source rock, a reservoir rock, a caprock, and a structural feature called a trap where oil can pool. Survey some of the world’s most productive oil fields, and investigate the plusses and minuses of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.”

31 min
Human Landscapes and Practical Geology

24: Human Landscapes and Practical Geology

Consider how to put your knowledge of geology to use. Issues faced by your community may benefit from geologic insights about groundwater, watersheds, roadways, pollution, and historic questions such as abandoned mines and quarries. Practical geology will only grow in importance as the world deals with climate change, resource shortages, and the pressing need to live in harmony with the planet.

33 min