Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

A Deep Dive into Undergraduate Classes at Scripps

Scripps offers unique undergraduate courses in earth, atmospheric, and marine sciences to educate the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders

Did you know Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego offers undergraduate classes that explain the famous surf break at Black's Beach, why climate change is happening, or that take you to sea on a research cruise? Non-science majors also have access to the variety of Scripps-led classes. 

Scripps Oceanography offers undergraduate courses in earth, atmospheric, and marine sciences available for students pursuing a bachelor's degree, minor, or completing general education and elective requirements, and teaches nearly 6,000 students each year. Courses are designed specifically for students pursuing an undergraduate major at Scripps and also for UC San Diego students interested in taking a science course outside their major and field of study.

The current undergraduate majors offered at Scripps Oceanography are geosciences (BS), marine biology (BS), oceanic and atmospheric sciences (BS), and the environmental systems (ESYS) interdisciplinary program. The minors offered are marine science, geosciences, and climate change studies. Undergraduate students at Scripps and across UC San Diego also have the opportunity to supplement their coursework with a variety of study abroad programs focused on the sciences. 

Historically, Scripps Oceanography primarily offered graduate degrees, however, Scripps faculty have been instructing earth science courses for undergraduates since the 1960s, with the undergraduate earth science major, now known as geosciences, starting in 1992. Undergraduate education offerings then took a big leap in 2012 with the launch of the marine biology undergraduate degree program. In 2018 the oceanic and atmospheric sciences major was added, and in 2019 the climate change studies minor was added. 

Below, learn more about a selection of interesting undergraduate classes offered at Scripps. 


SIO 10: The Earth 

Adrian Borsa teaching an SIO 10 lecture on the discovery of seafloor spreading.

This course offers an introduction to the structure of the Earth and the processes that form and modify it. Scripps geophysicist and professor Adrian Borsa teaches the course once a year, usually in Spring quarter, and no prerequisites are required. SIO 10 is the largest Scripps undergraduate class taught, popular with non-science majors across disciplines. 

“SIO 10 is the perfect introduction to planet Earth, not just as a natural system but as the place that humanity calls home,” said Borsa. “We unpack the planet from the inner core to the Himalayas' peaks to understand how what happens on and within Earth is relevant to the human experience.”

Borsa said that about half of the course is devoted to understanding the deep history of Earth, which provides context for discussions on current topics such as recent earthquakes, asteroids and extinctions, hydrocarbons and the global economy, melting ice, modern pirates, and even the “epic surf break” at Black’s Beach.

The material taught in SIO 10 is useful for students to understand geological events in the news and helps inform their decisions regarding the future of our environment. 

“SIO 10 is a course that provides you the tools to think critically about our planet and give a deeper understanding to what is happening in the world deeper than the surface,” said Skyler Britton, a political science student who took SIO 10 in Spring 2023. “We translate these events into current world events like earthquakes, volcanoes, and climate change. I would recommend SIO 10 for any student!” 


Students take part in a cruise aboard R/V Robert Gordon Sproul in 2022.

SIO 60: Experiences in Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences

SIO 60 is a course that introduces oceanic and atmospheric sciences through a series of modules. There are no prerequisites for this course, which is offered in the fall. 

“The oceanic and atmospheric sciences are pretty vast subject areas, which is why SIO 60 is so awesome,” said Jack Bassham, a Scripps undergraduate majoring in oceanic and atmospheric sciences. “SIO 60 exposes students to many of the diverse topics in the field through weekly lectures and hands-on experiences. This is so important for students as we develop our interests during our short time as undergraduates.” 

In SIO 60, students learn basic principles in the classroom and then transition to demonstrating these principles at the beach, on Scripps Pier, and in laboratories on campus. Scripps assistant professors Drew Lucas and Kate Ricke co-taught SIO 60 in Fall 2023. 

“By week seven of the course, students have already picked apart the nuances of scientific literacy and public outreach, reproduced the forces that cause atmospheric circulation, launched a weather balloon to visualize the structure of the troposphere, and experienced life at sea underway on R/V Robert Gordon Sproul!” said Bassham. 


Professor Richard Norris and students posing with a fold axis, illustrated by a hiking pole, in Rainbow Basin. A fold axis is the line that connects the points of maximum curvature of a fold at the surface of the Earth.

SIO 100: Geological Field Methods

SIO 100 is an upper-division course that introduces students to geologic field methods and exercises in mapping, and working with imagery and topographic maps. The class features specific exercises in mapping, measuring sections, working with imagery and topographic maps, and cross-sections. Students also take two overnight trips to Rainbow Basin in Barstow, Calif., and the Salton Sea in Riverside and Imperial counties.

“SIO 100 felt like my first step into the hardcore ‘geo’ part of geosciences,” said Scripps student Maira Mendez. “It is challenging at times, such as getting caught in a windstorm during one of the overnight field trips, but immensely rewarding.”

The course is designed to build confidence in students in their ability to lead field projects. SIO 100 was co-taught by professors Richard Norris and Jeff Gee in Fall 2023 and will be offered again next fall. 

“We learn practical field skills, such as collecting strike and dip data to construct geologic maps, identifying geologic structures in the field, drawing cross-sections, making onsite geologic sketches, and working with Google Earth. The material taught in SIO 100 connects with the outside world in a way I have not experienced anywhere else,” said Mendez.

SIO 100 class setting up camp for the night at Owl Canyon Campground after a day of fieldwork mapping Rainbow Basin.

ESYS 103: Environmental Challenges: Science and Solutions

ESYS 103 is a required course for environmental systems majors and fulfills course requirements for other STEM majors. The course reviews key issues, debates, and framings of socio-environmental challenges and different ways of finding solutions. Associate Teaching Professor Amy Lerner will teach ESYS 103 in Spring 2024. 

“ESYS 103 is one of the most exciting and interactive courses out of the three-course upper division track,” said Scripps student Madison Beltran. “Covering everything from environmental policy, and ethics, to environmental feminism and food systems — Professor Lerner does a beautiful job at covering such topics in a way that is both tasteful and impactful.”

The course also shares stories that offer hope in a time when it can be overwhelming to address the urgent issues of global change.

“Taking ESYS 103 has done an effective job of refreshing my outlook on environmental problems, which is very important as I continue with a career that addresses climate change,” said Beltran. “I am so grateful to have been grounded, reassured, and fed good knowledge by ESYS 103.” 


In the Fall of 2023, the SIO 136 class took a trip to the tide pools north of Scripps. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

SIO 136: Marine Biology Laboratory

The course SIO 136 is an introduction to principles and techniques in marine biology. The course consists of both laboratory and field exercises. Students also have the opportunity to work at sea on an oceanographic research vessel and experience conducting research in the intertidal zone. The course is structured into three equal parts: one-third is devoted to studying picoplankton, phytoplankton, and zooplankton; another third delves into learning about the physiology and biochemistry of marine organisms; and the remaining third focuses on field exercises, which introduce students to intertidal ecosystems, nearshore ecosystems, and other marine ecosystems. 

In Fall 2023, SIO 136 was co-taught by Scripps professors Doug BartlettDovi Kacev, and Nick Wegner. “Each day in SIO 136 involves hands-on lab work in the Marine Conservation and Technology Facility (MCTF) teaching labs,” said Dovi Kacev, an assistant teaching professor and marine biologist at Scripps. According to Kacev, the intertidal data collection lab goes to the tidepools, the photosynthesis, and the ocean operations labs both go to the Scripps Pier, and the biodiversity lab goes to the Birch Aquarium. SIO 136 is offered in the fall and spring quarters.


SIO 176 students on a one-day cruise aboard the R/V Robert Gordon Sproul.

SIO 176: Observational Physical Oceanography

This course teaches students how to collect, use, and analyze ocean observations to answer specific questions. SIO 176 covers the basic concepts of oceanographic field data collection including basic field practices, commonly used sensors and platforms in physical oceanography and their calibration and analysis, and the basic analysis of data. 

In Winter 2024, Scripps Professor Fiamma Straneo will instruct this course and students will go on a one-day cruise on the R/V Robert Gordon Sproul.

“This class covers everything from measuring salinity to understanding what causes ocean currents, as well as utilizing various instrument platforms in oceanography,” said Kerstin Bergentz, a teaching assistant for SIO 176 and Scripps PhD student in the physical oceanography program. “The course involves a fun mix of traditional lectures, hands-on work with real data and sensors, and lab visits to different Scripps facilities. Additionally, there is a one-day cruise that provides a glimpse into what the life of a sea-going oceanographer is really like!" 


Professor Jennifer Smith (left) leading her SIO 183 class on a field trip to survey the rocky intertidal at the Scripps Coastal Reserve.

SIO 183: Phycology: Marine Plant Biology 

SIO 183 focuses on everything from the importance of seaweeds to seaweed diversity, growth, forms, life cycles, anatomy, morphology, physiology, and how seaweeds are going to help society reach a sustainable future. 

“My class focuses on the study of seaweeds, the ‘plants of the sea,’' said professor and marine biologist Jennifer Smith, who is teaching this course in Winter 2024.

SIO 183 involves intensive hands-on lab work twice per week, several field trips to the local rocky intertidal zone, and guest lectures from several other Scripps professors. 

“People often think that seaweeds are just the stinky things that wash up on the beach, but this class teaches students to appreciate the diversity of California seaweeds and provides clear and concrete examples as to why they are so important,” said Smith. “The course is now one of the most popular marine biology lab courses on campus.” 


SIO 184: Marine Invertebrates

 A blue coral specimen from the Benthic Invertebrate Collection at Scripps.

SIO 184 is a 6-unit lab course that introduces students to the wonderful diversity of marine animals that lack backbones, also known as invertebrates. The course, taught by marine biologist Greg Rouse in Winter 2024, covers organisms ranging from sponges, anemones, flatworms, mollusks, roundworms, segmented worms, horseshoe worms, brachiopods, crustaceans, sea spiders, water bears, echinoderms, and sea squirts.

“Being based on the seashore and having an amazing collector and experimental aquarium manager, Phil Zerofski, the students in SIO 184 see an unparalleled array of live animals in class as well as a huge array of preserved specimens from the Benthic Invertebrate Collection and Pelagic Invertebrate Collection,” Rouse shared. 


SIO 179 students Benedicte Pedersen (left) and Sarah Mitchell (right) constructing an Arduino-controlled relay, an essential component in building temperature-controlled baths for calibrating their conductivity, temperature, and depth sensors. Photo: Riley Meehan

SIO 179: Ocean Instruments and Sensors

SIO 179 focuses on oceanographic sensors and instrumentation and provides students with hands-on learning opportunities in the Scripps Makerspace, also known as "The Sandbox," which provides a dynamic setting for students to put theory into practice. SIO 179 offers practical approaches to learning that allow students to immerse themselves in their education and design challenges that encompass rapid prototyping, electronics design, calibration, and testing of oceanographic sensors. 

Students focus on applying engineering techniques and analytical instruments to the marine sciences, including seawater analysis, introducing concepts of signal transduction, calibration, and measurement quality control with an emphasis on computer automation. In Fall 2023, Scripps Professor Todd Martz instructed SIO 179 in addition to SIOG 269: Special Topics in Marine Chemistry, a course designed for graduate students.

“Professor Martz has been a pleasure to work with, creating a free-form course that allows the students to proceed at their own pace,” said graduate student Marley Weiss, who took SIOG269 in 2023. “In the course, we are granted the opportunity to work with cutting-edge analytical instruments that build the foundation of our understanding of the marine environment.” 


The Aletsch Glacier, from the Eggishorn, near Fiesch, Valais Canton, Switzerland.

SIO 46GS: Global Volcanism and SIO 121GS: Geology of the Alps 

Each summer, the UC San Diego Global Seminars program offers two geology courses in Bern, Switzerland: SIO 46GS: European Volcanism and SIO 121GS: Geology of the Alps. Both of these study abroad courses are led by Scripps professor and geoscientist Geoffrey Cook. The Global Seminar is a five-week program where students live in Bern, attend classes, and participate in weekly field excursions to geologically significant sites around Switzerland. 

“Field trips are especially important — they allow students to witness the incredible natural beauty of the Alps and surrounding areas up close, and also to get ‘hands-on’ field geology experience,” said Cook. 

In addition to the academic portion of the seminar, students learn about local culture and history. This past year, the course had a full roster of 28 students in the program, from varying majors and backgrounds, including some from geosciences and environmental systems. “Overall, it was a great program,” said Cook. “The opportunity to teach geology in a beautiful and amazing location with outstanding students is a dream come true, and I am very grateful to be able to be a part of UC San Diego Global Seminars!” 

Walking in the Lauterbrunnen valley, near Interlaken, Bern Canton, Switzerland.

Explore additional courses offered at Scripps Oceanography by visiting the Education and Undergraduate Majors pages. 

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