Environmental Geoscience courses

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Most University of Edinburgh 4-year undergraduate degrees have the same structure. The degrees start with 2 pre-honours years with compulsory courses as well as options (you can basically choose to study anything as an option during your first two years! So, if you decide that you actually want to study geosciences instead of French, you can swap, during your first two years, provided you have enough background knowledge). After these two fun-filled years, you get 2 honours years, with compulsory options and a more restricted set of options (or no option at all for 3rd year Environmental Geoscience students).

This article talks about the Environmental Geoscience compulsory courses throughout the first three years of the degree. Many of the courses are also compulsory for geology or geology and physical geography students, so don’t hit the back button if that’s what you’re interested in (although, you should reconsider your life choices, and join Environmental Geoscience)!

In first year, we have four compulsory courses: Earth Dynamics, Evolution of the Living Earth, Introduction to the Geological Record, and Earth Modelling and Prediction 2 (or 1 and 2).

These are all really interesting, and you get to have classes with most Earth Science 1st year undergrads (geology, physical geography, geophysics students are all together for most courses) which is perfect to make many friends.

In Earth Dynamics, we learned about the Earth’s formation as well as about the main geological tools and concepts that are explored in further courses (volcanoes, plate tectonics, igneous/sedimentary/metamorphic rocks) through lectures, field trips (see my article on the Environmental Geoscience field trips), and practical sessions (using polarizing microscopes and making hand specimen and thin section descriptions – basically draw rocks and describe them in detail). Remember to bring sharpened colouring pencils to the practicals, and don’t despair if you can’t draw (I can draw rather well usually, but apparently I can’t deal with thin sections). The key is to make clear legends and annotations on your rock and mineral drawings (especially if they really don’t look like how they should because you can’t draw).

Evolution of the Living Earth is a multi-topic introductory course. A large part of it is palaeontology: we learned about the evolution of life from its very beginnings to the present (it’s really interesting, especially if you like fossils and dinosaurs). You’ve got to memorise (or attempt to) many key geological periods (like the Cambrian or the Carboniferous). That’s easily manageable if you draw or print out a nice coloured timescale, and put it up on a wall near your desk. Other parts of the course are based on water chemistry (with chemistry practicals and reports to write), on nutrients, and on past climate change. We learned key concepts that we use and use again throughout the rest of the Environmental Geoscience degree.

Introduction to the Geological Record is a eight-week course that builds up your mapping, 3D visualisation, and rock identifying skills, in preparation for a one-week residential field trip in the Lake District (read about it here: ). It’s a very rewarding course once you get your head wrapped around layers, dipping beds, faulting, folding, and building a vertical cross-section out of a horizontal map (if you are planning on taking this course: remember to breathe, and just do your cross-sections systematically. It will work!).

Earth Modelling and Prediction 1 and 2 (or just 2 if you have a solid maths background) brings every earth science undergrad up to speed with the maths that are required to get through the 4-year degree. I didn’t do it (I swapped the course for Calculus and its Applications, from the School of Mathematics, which was intense but good fun) so I can’t tell you much more about it.

In second year, Environmental Geoscience students also have three compulsory courses: geomaterials, environmental geochemistry of the Earth’s surface, and oceanography.

Geomaterials is a detailed course about minerals (their names, their atomic structures, their compositions) and chemistry (thermodynamics, kinetics). It’s very dense (no pun intended), with many practical sessions, but the lecturers and demonstrators are very helpful and are really good at understanding what you might struggle with and at explaining concepts easily. The exam involves remembering a list of 50+ minerals, their compositions, and their structure, which is definitely the hardest memory workout that I’ve had to do at uni! What we learn in Geomaterials is helpful for further geochemistry courses, because knowing about minerals is key to understanding how they erode and influence water chemistry, for instance.

Environmental Geochemistry of the Earth’s Surface is a compulsory course for Environmental Geoscience students (optional for other students. The class size is smaller than in most pre-honours courses which is good to interact with lecturers and demonstrators). The course content is mainly based on estuaries, which are places where nutrient-rich freshwater mixes with seawater. Because of the different properties of the two types of water (seawater is denser, has a higher ionic strength, etc), many things happen to the particles and nutrients carried by rivers into the ocean. The course is aimed at understanding key phenomena (adsorption, absorption, desorption, etc). It has chemistry practicals (similar to those from Evolution of the Living Earth, but with less students), and a trip to the Luce estuary in South-west Scotland.

The final compulsory pre-honours course is Oceanography. It’s split into four parts: physical, chemical, biological, and geological oceanography. We learned a lot about water mass formation and circulation (in the Atlantic Ocean, around Antarctica, and in other areas of the world), about nutrient cycling, about marine organisms (their distribution according to light and nutrient availability, their evolutionary adaptations, etc), and about ocean-related geology (mid-ocean ridges and oceanic crust formation, but also how to use geology to look at past climate and ocean processes). It’s a very interesting course, and we learned a lot. We even got extra lectures about primary production in the Antarctic Ocean, which was really cool (again, no pun intended)!

During our first and second years, we get to take around 5 optional courses. I took Discovering Astronomy, Meteorology (2 courses), Science and Society, Physics 1B, and Calculus, which were all really interesting courses. Many students also take Astrobiology, Natural Hazards, Geomorphology, or language courses. You can’t go wrong with any of them (and if you do decide to change your optional courses, you have two weeks from the start of the semester to do so).

In third year, Environmental Geoscience students have six compulsory courses (and no optional courses): Global Environmental Change, Applied Hydrogeology and Near-Surface Geophysics, Practical Geochemistry and Data Analysis, Environmental Pollution, Earth’s Atmospheric Composition, and the Jamaica field trip.

Global Environmental Change is an in-depth follow-up of the geological oceanography part of the Oceanography course from year 2 (so don’t forget everything over summer, I know, it’s tough!). We learned a lot about climate variations from a sub-millennial scale to a multi-million year scale (there are many intricacies, with ocean-atmosphere feedbacks, solar variability, internal oscillations, etc). A part of the course discusses dating tools (like the famous radiocarbon clock – which is subject to many factors and variations, and isn’t a straightforward tool to use!).

Applied Hydrogeology and Near-Surface Geophysics is a combination of two smaller courses (basically, hydrogeology and geophysics, haha), and you get lectures by two separate lecturers, with separate practicals and assignments. The geophysics part is an introduction to surveying methods (resistivity, gravity, magnetism, etc) and how to interpret results. We spent an afternoon on Blackford Hill near the campus to do some surveys, and we then had to write a report on the sub-surface structure of the hill and its geological composition, which was complicated but very interesting! The hydrogeology part is a detailed course about hydrological basins and hydrogeological phenomena. We learned how to use different variables like hydraulic conductivity and permeability to investigate subsurface properties and identify where water is and where it tends to flow. We had to write a report on a topic of our choice (as long as it’s related to hydrogeology), which was really interesting.

Practical Geochemistry and Data Analysis is a year-long course with two parts as well (geochemistry and coding). During the first semester, we had geochemistry theory lectures (mainly about isotopes) as well as coding practicals (using Python). During the second semester we had to analyse sediment samples from Loch Etive (West of Scotland) (geologists analyse lavas from Iceland which is admittedly also rather cool) with different techniques (XRD, XRF, ICP-OES, C/N analysis… look them up!), and we then had to write a report answering a scientific question, that we had to come up with, about Loch Etive.

In Environmental Pollution, we learned about pesticides and other chemical pollutants affecting human health and the environment, as well as about atmospheric pollution (local to global scale, and how to measure it), and about the pollution caused by energy and electricity production. That includes nuclear waste, cleaning procedures to reduce pollutant emissions from coal fired power plants, but also about the carbon emissions due to hydroelectric dams as well as wind turbines (dams in the tropics such as in Brazil can pollute more for equivalent electrical production amounts than coal fired power plants, due to the decay of plants within the flooded areas behind the dams, for instance).

Earth’s Atmospheric Composition is a course aimed at understanding tropospheric chemistry (ozone, particulate matter, aerosols, etc) and being able to identify sources of pollution as well as the behaviour (transport/deposition/reaction) of air pollutants. We also learned about their impacts on human health, which was a good link to the Environmental Pollution course.

Third year is quite intense, but it is really interesting and it brought together all of the concepts that we have learned since year 1.

I won’t write anything about fourth year since I haven’t done it yet. But feel free to look up our degree programs and the list of courses you can take on the university’s website!


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