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Earth 103 Syllabus


Earth 103 at Penn State: Earth in the Future

Spring 2018

This syllabus is divided into several sections. You can read it sequentially by scrolling down the length of the document or by clicking on any of the links below to “jump” to a specific section. It is essential that you read the entire document as well as material covered in the Course Orientation. Together these serve as our course "contract."

Instructor Information

Dr. Tim Bralower

Timothy Bralower, Professor of Geosciences, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Penn State University

Office: 535 Deike Building, University Park, PA 16802
Phone: Office 814-863-1240
Office Hours: Skype by appointment

NOTE: I will read and respond to e-mail at least once per day during the work week (Monday through Friday). You may see me online occasionally on the weekends, but please don't count on it unless we've specifically scheduled it!

Robert Valdez, Teaching Assistant Spring 2018 E-mail:

Course Overview

Description: Introduction to the science of Earth's climate system, the consequences of future climate on Earth, strategies for how to minimize the effects of and adapt to a changing climate.
Prerequisites: None

Earth has a complex, fascinating, interconnected system of processes that control the state of the climate. If we can understand how this system works, then we can make intelligent predictions about the climate in the future. The future of climate is of great importance to the quality of life in the future. In this class, we will explore the workings of the climate system — at the present, and in the past — through a series of modules with hands-on learning activities. We will learn how simple and sophisticated computer models can provide useful tools for making predictions about what our climate will be like in the next few hundred years, which will be a critical time for our species as we endeavor to find a more sustainable way of living. A changing climate means changes in, among other things, temperature and precipitation, which will affect our water supplies, our energy consumption, and our ability to grow enough food to feed the people of Earth. A changing climate also means a range of stresses on the global economy. We will examine these climate impacts, but we will not stop there — we will also focus our attention on what can be done to help us successfully meet these challenges.

Students who successfully complete EARTH 103 should be able to:

  • Explain how the climate system works, including something about its natural variability and the factors that drive climate change on a range of different timescales.
  • Understand how scientists approach the question of climate change through a combination of data, models, and hypotheses.
  • Explain the basic principles of climate models including their limitations and their uses, and what they predict about our future climate.
  • Explain the primary consequences of climate change for water and food supplies, coastal damages, relocation costs, energy consumption, and economic growth
  • Explain the options for minimizing the effects of climate change and for adapting to a changing climate.

What We Expect of You

On average, most students spend eight to ten hours per week working on course assignments. Your workload may be more or less depending on your prior experience with the energy topics we're covering and your familiarity with web-based classes.

We have worked hard to make this an effective and engaging educational experience. You will succeed if you are diligent about keeping up with the class schedule and if you take advantage of opportunities to engage with both your classmates and your instructors throughout the course.

The key to success in this course is keeping up with the assignments. Students who complete the labs and quizzes on time have a good chance of success. If you fall behind it is usually very difficult to catch up.

Specific learning objectives for each module and lab exercise are detailed within modules.

What You Can Expect From Us

We are excited about the topic of the class, and we love it when others get excited about this material too, so we will always be happy to answer your questions. We are using an online learning environment for this course, and as such, office hours are also online. Please feel free to contact us with questions and we will respond to you within 24 hours in most cases (weekends and holidays being exceptions). If one of us is going to be out of touch for a while, we will let you know ahead of time.

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Required Course Materials

There is no textbook for you to buy for this course. All materials are on this course website or accessible online. We advise you to obtain a complimentary subscription to the New York Times. You can use the online version. To do this, go directly to The New York Times: Academic Pass. Simply register with your Penn State email address and create your user password to claim a Academic Pass and receive access.

All remaining necessary materials are presented online through our course website and in Canvas. In order to access all materials, you need to have an active Penn State Access Account user ID and password (used to access the online course resources). If you have any questions about obtaining or activating your Penn State Access Account, please contact the Penn State IT Service Desk.

Assignments and Grading

Lab Exercises 40%

Each module includes a lab exercise that will engage you in studying data, maps, and models. These exercises build on the topics covered in the module and they will deepen and enhance your understanding of the material in that module.

Please read the following two paragraphs very carefully to avoid confusion!

This class is 100% online. You will be submitting your answers in Canvas and they will be graded by Canvas. The advantage of this is you will get immediate feedback. All labs will be due Tuesday midnight of the week after the lab was started (i.e. Module 1 lab is due the Tuesday of the week you are working on Module 2). 

Collectively, these lab exercises will make up 40% of your grade. The lab for each module will be weighted equally; your score for each will be converted to a percentage and then I will take the mean of those percentages (throwing out the lowest grade) to calculate your final lab score.  

Capstone 15%

The goal of the capstone is for you to summarize your learning by reading one of two possible reports on the impacts of climate change on the US and the world. This exercise will require you to produce short video clips that relate to what you have learned. The videos need to report on the impact of various aspects of climate and environmental change in specific places.

The two reports are:

  1. The 2017 Fourth National Climate Assessment, a document that summarizes the threats to the US; and
  2. The Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability section of the 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 2014.

The capstone will require an entry every two weeks and will be related to the module material for that week. You should look at the chapter in the report and find an element that interests you. You do not need to summarize the whole document, but find a small part that relates to the impact of that part of climate change on a place of interest to you, and write a small vignette about it. The length of each entry must be a minimum of 200 words and a maximum of 400 words, so very short. The required elements are laid out in the rubric below. It is imperative that you keep up with this assignment.

The final product will be text that you hand in via Turnitin and video clips of the text that you record using the screencast-o-matic software. You will place these videos at the relative place on Google Earth map and save the file as a kmz file.

More information will be provided during the first week of class.

Two Midterm Exams @ 15% each

These exams will cover material related to the module content and the lab exercises. The "Learning Outcomes" at the beginning of each module provide a list of topics you should know about. The first exam will cover Modules 1-6 and the second exam covers Modules 7-12.

Weekly Quizzes (total of 15%)

Students’ understanding of the module content and lab exercises will be assessed through electronically administered and graded quizzes (in Canvas). The quizzes will be designed to assess the extent to which students have mastered the science presented in the modules. The lowest grade will be dropped. Most questions will be chosen from among the questions listed under "Learning Outcomes" at the beginning of each module. The quizzes must be taken by Sunday midnight of the week in question.

Grades will be posted in Canvas with each assignment so that you can track your progress. The Capstone grade will be posted at the end of the semester.

Final overall grades will be determined based on the sums of these elements.Your grade will be expressed as a percentage, with 100% being the unattainable perfect grade. We convert these scores to a letter grade as follows:

Course Grading Schedule

Breakdown of each assignment's value as a percentage of the total course grade.
Letter Grade Percentage
Lab Exercises 40%
Capstone 15%
Midterm Exam #1 15%
Midterm Exam #2 15%
Weekly Quizzes 15%

I will use the Canvas grade book to keep track of your grades. You can see your grades by clicking on "Grades" in Canvas.

Letter Grade and Corresponding Percentages
Letter Grade Percentages
A 93 - 100 %
A- 90 - 92.9 %
B+ 87 - 89.9 %
B 83 - 86.9 %
B- 80 - 82.9%
C+ 77 - 79.9 %
C 70 - 76.9 %
D 60 - 69.9 %
F < 60 %

Unsatisfactory (student did not participate)

Earth 103 Course Schedule

imagePrintable Schedule

Below you will find a schedule for this course, which consists of an orientation period, 12 modules each a week long, and two break periods in which exams will be scheduled — the total is 15 weeks. The firm due dates for assignments are provided in the Syllabus in Canvas.

Course Schedule
Week Module Activities
Week 1 Orientation - Welcome to EARTH 103 Complete the Course Orientation (see "Course Orientation")

Participation: Introduce yourself to the class as described in the Course Orientation, complete the optional Survey.
Week 2 Module 1
Past Episodes of Climate Change

Work through Module 1 Quiz in Canvas.

Week 3
Module 2
Recent Climate Change

Work through Module 2 Quiz in Canvas.

Labs for Module 1 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 4 Module 3
Earth's Climate System

Work through Module 3 Quiz in Canvas.

Labs for Module 2 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 5 Module 4
Introduction to General Circulation Models

Work through Module 4 Quiz in Canvas.

Labs for Module 3 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 6 Module 5
The Global Carbon Cycle

Work through Module 5 Quiz in Canvas.

Labs for Module 4 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 7 Module 6
Ocean Circulation and Its Impact on Climate

Work through Module 6 Quiz in Canvas.

Labs for Module 5 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 8 EXAM 1
Week 9 Module 7
Ocean Acidification, Red Tides, and Monster Jellyfish

Work through Module 7 Quiz in Canvas.

Labs for Module 6 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 10

Module 8

Water Resources and Climate Change

Work through Module 8 Quiz in Canvas).

Labs for Module 7 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 11

Module 9

Climate Change and Food Supply

Work through Module 9 Quiz in Canvas.

Labs for Module 8 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 12

Module 10

Future Sea Level Change

Work through Module 10 Quiz in Canvas.

Labs for Module 9 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 13

Module 11

Terrestrial Ecosystems in Peril

Work through Module 11 Quiz in Canvas.

Labs for Module 10 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 14 Module 12
Adaptations to and Mitigation of Climate Change

Work through Module 12 Quiz in Canvas.

Labs for Module 11 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).

Week 15 EXAM 2 Labs for Module 12 due Tuesday (Lab Submission in Canvas).
Week 16 Capstone Submit Materials for Capstone via Turnitin and Canvas.

Tips for Success in EARTH 103

Do the work on time

We set deadlines to keep everyone on track to reach our ultimate goal of understanding what the future of climate means for our future. We will reach this goal in small steps, and we need to pace ourselves so that we can really learn this material. If you do your best to follow this pace and meet the deadlines, you will succeed. If an emergency arises, let us know as soon as possible and we can work something out if there is a good excuse — we are not merciless, but at the same time, we have to be fair to others by not giving in to less serious requests for extensions.

Be professional

We will assume that everyone in the class is an adult and will behave with integrity. We expect that you will not lie or cheat and that you will adhere to all of Penn State's policies on academic integrity. Penn State defines academic integrity as "the pursuit of scholarly projects in an open, honest and responsible manner." Academic integrity includes "a commitment not to engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation, or deception." In particular, the University defines plagiarism as "the fabrication of information and citations; submitting others' work from professional journals, books, articles, and papers; submission of other students' papers, lab results or project reports and representing the work as one's own." Penalties for violations of academic integrity may include course failure. If you are unclear about these policies please review the material at the Policies and Rules for Undergraduate Students site. We also expect that you will treat your classmates and your instructor with respect. Climate change is an important topic, with wide-reaching implications, so that it has spilled out of the halls of science and into the more clamorous realm of politics, which is often ruled by opinions and beliefs rather than data. Politics is not science and it can often become personal; let us remember that this is a science class where we focus on the data rather than beliefs.

Technical Requirements

For this course, we recommend the minimum technical requirements outlined on the Dutton Institute Technical Requirements page, including the requirements listed for same-time, synchronous communications. Specifically, this course must be viewed using one of the following browsers: Firefox (any version), Safari (versions 5.1 or 6.0) or Internet Explorer with the MathPlayer PlugIn. If you use any other browsers there will be pages that do not render properly.

Mixed Content

This site is considered a secure web site which means that your connection is encrypted. We do, however, link to content that isn't necessarily encrypted. This is called mixed content. By default, mixed content is blocked in Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome. This may result in a blank page or a message saying that only secure content is displayed. Follow the directions on our technical requirements page to view the mixed content.

If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the Penn State IT Service Desk.


Access to a reliable Internet connection is required for this course. A problem with your Internet access may not be used as an excuse for late, missing, or incomplete coursework. If you experience problems with your Internet connection while working on this course, it is your responsibility to find an alternative Internet access point, such as a public library or WiFi hotspot.

Course Policies

Penn State E-mail Accounts

All official communications from the Penn State World Campus are sent to students' Penn State e-mail accounts. Be sure to check your Penn State account regularly, or forward your Penn State e-mail to your preferred e-mail account, so you don't miss any important information.

Deferred Grades

If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor. To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to your instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. It is up to your instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If for any reason, the coursework for the deferred grade is not complete by the assigned time, a grade of "F" will be automatically entered on your transcript.

Late Policy

All course-related assignments must be completed and successfully submitted by the assigned date — this is your responsibility. If an emergency arises, get in touch immediately to work out a solution.

Academic Integrity (Penn State)

This course follows Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity and Research Ethics guidelines. Penn State defines academic integrity as "the pursuit of a scholarly project in an open, honest and responsible manner." Academic integrity includes "a commitment not to engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation, or deception." In particular, the University defines plagiarism as "the fabrication of information and citations; submitting other's work from professional journals, books, articles, and papers; submission of other student's papers, lab results or project reports and representing the work as one's own." Penalties for violations of academic integrity may include course failure. To learn more, see Penn State's "Plagiarism Tutorial for Students." I cannot overemphasize the importance of academic integrity. DO NOT copy and paste from unreferenced sources. Without exception: if you use a direct quote from any source, as part of any submitted assignment, the quote must be clearly noted and properly referenced. (In-line references are fine.)

All course materials that students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. Per University Policy AD40, students may use course materials and make copies for their own use as needed, but unauthorized distribution and/or uploading of materials without the instructor’s express permission is strictly prohibited. Students who engage in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials may be held in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct, and/or liable under Federal and State laws.

Citation and Reference Style

It is important (not only in this course but in all courses and professional documents you produce) to employ proper citation methods for the sources you utilize. Failure to do so reduces the credibility of your work at best and can lead to suspicion of intentional plagiarism at worst. We don't want either of those things to happen! While we do not have a strong preference for which citation format you elect to use, we do require that you use one and that you use it consistently throughout an assignment.

If you are interested, Penn State has many about citations at Citation and Writing Guides. You can also check out Style for Students Online - an excellent, in-depth tutorial on how and why we cite things. And, as always, just contact your instructor if you have any questions.

Accommodating Disabilities

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University's educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Penn State Student Disability Resources site provides contact information for every Penn State campus. Please see Contacts for Disability Resources at all Penn State Campuses. For further information, please visit Penn State Educational Equity: Student Disability Resources.

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation. Please see Penn State Educational Equity: Documentation Guidelines. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.

Military Personnel

Veterans and currently serving military personnel and/or spouses with unique circumstances (e.g., upcoming deployments, drill/duty requirements, disabilities, VA appointments, etc.) are welcome and encouraged to communicate these, in advance if possible, to the instructor in the case that special arrangements need to be made.

Inclement Weather

In case of weather-related delays at the University, this online course will proceed as planned. Your instructor will inform you if there are any extenuating circumstances regarding content or activity due dates in the course due to weather delays. If you are affected by a weather-related emergency, please contact your instructor at the earliest possible time to make special arrangements.


The term "Netiquette" refers to the etiquette guidelines for electronic communications, such as e-mail and bulletin board postings. Netiquette covers not only rules to maintain civility in discussions, but also special guidelines unique to the electronic nature of forum messages. Please review Virginia Shea's "The Core Rules of Netiquette" for general guidelines that should be followed when communicating in this course.

Connect Online with Caution

Penn State is committed to educational access for all. Our students come from all walks of life and have diverse life experiences. As with any other online community, the lack of physical interaction in an online classroom can create a false sense of anonymity and security. While one can make new friends online, digital relationships can also be misleading. Good judgment and decision making are critical when choosing to disclose personal information to others whom you do not know.

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Disclaimer: Please note that the specifics of this Course Syllabus can be changed at any time, and you will be responsible for abiding by any such changes.