Controversies in the Earth Sciences

Syllabus (Fall 2019)


Syllabus (Fall 2019)

Earth 501: Contemporary Controversies in the Earth Sciences

This syllabus is divided into several sections, as listed below. You should read the entire document, as well as the material covered in the course orientation.

  • Instructor
  • Course Overview
  • Course Goals and Learning Objectives
  • Required Course Materials
  • Assignments and Grading
  • Course Schedule
  • Tips for Success
  • Course Policies


Eliza Richardson
Associate Professor
Department of Geosciences
College of Earth and Mineral Sciences The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802

  • Phone: (814) 863-2507
  • Email: eur10 at
  • Office Hours: My office hours, when I will be available for phone calls or chat are Tuesday, Thursday 10-12. I can also be available at other times with advance notice. Please contact me to make an appointment if you want to be sure to meet on a given day/time.

Course Overview

EARTH 501: CONTEMPORARY CONTROVERSIES IN THE EARTH SCIENCES (3 credits). Exploration of current areas of research in the Earth sciences.

Prerequisites: None

This course will introduce you to a variety of topics from different disciplines within the Earth sciences, with the aim of piquing your interest in areas of current research being conducting by myself and my colleagues here at Penn State. I intend the subject matter and the rigor with which I treat it to be beyond the level found in typical secondary school or introductory college textbooks. However, this should not deter anyone who feels they have a limited science or math background! On the contrary, I have designed each unit to present both the cutting-edge science as well as the background a secondary student (or a teacher of secondary students) would need to place the cutting-edge research in context. Gaining an appreciation of how scientists choose the subjects they study and why certain topics elicit controversies is as fundamental to Earth science as the discovery of the facts themselves. The topics we are covering in EARTH 501 include subjects in which a consensus has recently been reached as well as scientific questions that are so far unanswered. You will learn the appropriate state-of-the-art scientific content relevant to each topic by performing basic data analysis (e.g., collection, interpretation, and assessment) using publicly available data in order to complete the activities in each lesson. I have specifically designed the lessons with publicly available datasets precisely because I want you to be able to use the data and lessons from this course freely in any courses you teach.

EARTH 501 will be conducted entirely on the World Wide Web. There will be no set class meeting times, but you will be required to complete weekly assignments. There are 6 lessons that will be completed at a rate of approximately 2 or 3 weeks per lesson. Lesson learning activities will require background reading and discussion that outlines a current scientific problem or debate, the collection, and manipulation of appropriate data, and the assessment of the results of this work. By doing this, you will simultaneously become familiar with the content as well as the practice of science. You will also participate in online discussions about how to teach this content to specific secondary school audiences. You will complete a capstone project in which you will construct a teaching plan based on the topic of your choice.

What I Expect of You

On average, most students spend eight hours per week working on course assignments. Your workload may be more or less depending on your prior experience with computing and the Web in general, and with geology in particular.

I have worked hard to make this the most effective and convenient educational experience possible. The Internet is still a novel learning environment, but in one sense it is no different than a traditional college class: how much and how well you learn is ultimately up to you. You will succeed if you are diligent about keeping up with the class schedule and if you take advantage of opportunities to communicate with me, as well as with your fellow students.

Specific learning objectives for each lesson and project are detailed in each lesson.

Course Goals and Learning Objectives

Course Goals

At the successful completion of this course, students should be able to summarize current thinking on several specific areas of current research in the Earth sciences, collect and analyze data relevant to these topics, and formulate a plan to teach appropriate content from these topics to secondary school audiences.

Lesson 1 Learning Objectives

  • Become familiar with the expectations of this course.
  • Practice interacting and discussing in the online environment.
  • Choose a graphing tool to use in this course.

Lesson 2 Learning Objectives - "Does the Atlantic Ocean require a tsunami warning system?"

  • Describe the three types of plate boundaries, including what type of motion and stress accompanies each.
  • List ways tsunamis can be generated.
  • Calculate distance on a map using a great circle path.
  • Predict the arrival time of a tsunami given an earthquake location and origin time.
  • Read and interpret a tide gauge record.
  • Estimate tsunami risk at a given location.

Lesson 3 Learning Objectives - "Is the New Madrid Seismic Zone at risk for a large earthquake?"

  • Use a variety of methods to determine strain rate.
  • Describe the cyclical process of strain accumulation, earthquake generation, and post-seismic relaxation along plate boundaries.
  • Define "recurrence interval" and explain ways in which recurrence interval is estimated for a given fault.
  • Explain the basic mathematical and physical tenets of plate tectonics.
  • Summarize various hypotheses for the existence of seismicity away from plate boundaries.
  • Describe the 1811–1812 sequence of large events on the New Madrid Seismic Zone and explain how scientists have determined the properties of these events.
  • Describe potential hazards/consequences of a sequence similar to the 1811–1812 sequence occurring today.
  • Analyze a collection of various datasets to determine the likelihood of such a scenario.

Lesson 4 Learning Objectives - "How to kill a dinosaur: consensus in the craters?"

  • List the evidence for an extraterrestrial impactor at the K-T boundary.
  • List other hypotheses that have been proposed for the K-T extinction.
  • List the evidence for an extraterrestrial impactor at the Permian extinction.
  • List other hypotheses that have been proposed for the Permian extinction.
  • Explain the difficulties of finding ancient impact sites.
  • State how often the Earth is hit by extraterrestrial objects of various dimensions.
  • Describe the aftermath of an asteroid strike (i.e., immediate and long-term environmental effects).
  • Describe the effect on evolution/diversification of life following mass extinction events.
  • State the ages of the K-T extinction event and the Permian extinction event.

Lesson 5 Learning Objectives - "Recent climate change: what have we done and what can we do?"

  • Differentiate between data and models.
  • Combine several different datasets and models to analyze the extent to which global climate is affected by human activity.
  • Predict the short- and long-term consequences of global warming.
  • Quantify the uncertainties inherent in scientific measurements.
  • Define feedback mechanisms associated with climate systems.
  • Define the greenhouse effect and list greenhouse gases.

Lesson 6 Learning Objectives - "Capstone Project"

  • Explain recently acquired scientific knowledge and to a secondary school audience.
  • Prepare a lesson plan for a teaching module.
  • Assist classmates in revising and reflecting on their lesson plans.

Required Course Materials

All materials needed for this course are presented in our course website, in the learning management system, or available through library e-reserves. In order to take this course, 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 World Campus.

Assignments and Grading

EARTH 501 will rely upon a variety of methods to assess and evaluate student learning, including:

  • Required participation in online discussion forums, so I can gauge your progress and ability to articulate key concepts. I will assign weekly readings and ask you to discuss and debate the significance of these readings within the larger framework of the current lesson's topic. The discussions will also be a venue for you to get help or give help when performing the data analyses.
  • Data analyses and write-ups that require you to collect and interpret datasets.
  • A capstone project that will be used to evaluate your knowledge and skills through the production of a learning module that you, in turn, will be able to use to teach course concepts to your own students.

You will earn a grade that reflects the extent to which you achieve the course learning objectives listed above. Grades are assigned by the percentage of possible points earned in each lesson's activities. Below is a breakdown of each lesson's value as a percentage of the total course grade.

Breakdown of each lesson's value as a percentage of the total course grade
Lesson Percentage of Grade
Lesson 1
(based on participation)
Lessons 2–5 data analyses + papers 50%
Lessons 2–5 discussion participation 30%
Capstone Project 15%

I will use the gradebook in Canvas to keep track of your grades. You can see your grades, too, by clicking the Grades link in this course's Canvas space. Overall course grades will be determined as follows. Percentages refer to the proportion of all possible points earned.

Letter Grades and Corresponding Percentage Ranges
Letter Grade Percentages
A 90–100%
A- 87.5–89.9%
B+ 85–87.4%
B- 77.5–79.9%
C+ 75–77.4%
C 70–74.9%
D 60–69.9%
X Unsatisfactory (student did not participate)

Earth 501 Course Schedule

imagePrintable Schedule

Below you will find a summary of the learning activities for this course and the associated time frames. This course is 12 weeks in length, beginning with an official orientation week. We will also have a week-long break, usually in between lessons 4 and 5. In the fall semester, there will also be a break for the Thanksgiving holiday. I will make the actual dates of our schedule clear both in Canvas and in the lesson overview pages.

Lesson 1: Course Orientation and Pre-instructional Activities
Date Week 1
  • Perform tasks outlined in course orientation to become familiar with the course and the course environment.
  • Post a self-introduction to the course discussion forum.
  • Take the course orientation quiz.
  • Read and discuss papers.
  • Play with graphing tools.
  • Take the content background quiz.
Lesson 2: Does the Atlantic Ocean require a tsunami warning system?
Date Weeks 2 & 3
  • Read and discuss scientific articles concerning tsunamis.
  • Complete data analysis of tide gauge records from the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman tsunami and 2011 Tohoku-Oki tsunami.
  • Write a short paper arguing for or against a dedicated Atlantic Ocean tsunami warning system.
Lesson 3: How to kill a dinosaur: Consensus in the craters?
Date Weeks 4, 5 & 6
  • Read and discuss scientific articles concerning the K/T boundary extinction.
  • Read and discuss scientific articles concerning the P/Tr boundary extinction.
  • Construct a geologic timescale.
  • Complete data analysis of impact craters.
Lesson 4: Is the New Madrid Seismic Zone at risk for a large earthquake?
Date Weeks 7, 8 & 9
  • Read and discuss scientific articles concerning the 1811–1812 New Madrid earthquake sequence.
  • Read and discuss scientific articles concerning seismic risk in the central USA.
  • Complete data analysis of seismicity catalogs.
  • Construct a USGS-type fact sheet detailing seismicity risk in the New Madrid region.
Lesson 5: Recent Climate Change: Why did it take so long to convince?
Date Weeks 10 & 11
  • Read and discuss scientific articles concerning recent climate change and melting of Alaskan glaciers.
  • Plot climate data using NOAA's database.
  • Construct a lesson plan using the interactive Java Climate Model.
Lesson 6: Capstone Project
Date Weeks 12
  • Construct a new lesson plan of your choice that builds on one of the topics in Lessons 2–5.

Hot Tips for Success in EARTH 501


Plenty of students who have never taken an online course worry about feeling isolated. In fact, past experience shows that it is easier to feel isolated in a great big lecture hall where nobody wants to draw attention to themselves. This class is not enormous and you will find that regular participation in the discussion boards will not only make you part of the community of this course but will also allow you to organize your thoughts and logically process the science you'll be doing. I conceptualize the discussion forums the same way I do weekly lab meetings with grad students. Having to explain things to your peers is a great way to crystallize your own thinking about a topic. It is also the perfect platform for giving and receiving feedback about your scientific approach or your teaching approach.

Do the work on time

Please believe that I understand the time constraints placed on you. I have five kids, ranging in age from 20 years to 2 years. I know how hard it is to work, study, be a parent, and occasionally still try to stay up for a West Coast baseball game on TV. My suggestion is to treat this like a class that has actual hours and to set aside specific periods of time each week to do the work, think, and participate in the discussions. If you find you are falling behind, do not silently suffer and try to rush through the work. You must let me know of any difficulties so that I can help you! Unforeseen emergencies excluded, my late policy is that you need to discuss with me any potential problems regarding being on time before assignments are due.

Don't lie, cheat, or step on people's feet

You are an adult. You are a graduate student. Cheating and plagiarizing is a waste of your time and mine. If you are unsure what constitutes cheating and plagiarizing, then please review our course policy on Academic Integrity located below.

Course Policies

Academic Integrity

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.)

Citation and Reference Style

See our course "Academic Integrity Guide," accessible through the "Resources" menu.


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.

Penn State E-mail Accounts

All official communications from Penn State 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.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity is the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest, and responsible manner. Academic integrity is a basic guiding principle for all academic activity at Pennsylvania State University, and all members of the University community are expected to act in accordance with this principle. 

According to Penn State policy  G-9: Academic Integrity, an academic integrity violation is “an intentional, unintentional, or attempted violation of course or assessment policies to gain an academic advantage or to advantage or disadvantage another student academically.” Unless your instructor tells you otherwise, you must complete all course work entirely on your own, using only sources that have been permitted by your instructor, and you may not assist other students with papers, quizzes, exams, or other assessments. If your instructor allows you to use ideas, images, or word phrases created by another person (e.g., from Course Hero or Chegg) or by generative technology, such as ChatGPT, you must identify their source. You may not submit false or fabricated information, use the same academic work for credit in multiple courses, or share instructional content. Students with questions about academic integrity should ask their instructor before submitting work.

Students facing allegations of academic misconduct may not drop/withdraw from the affected course unless they are cleared of wrongdoing (see G-9: Academic Integrity). Attempted drops will be prevented or reversed, and students will be expected to complete coursework and meet course deadlines. Students who are found responsible for academic integrity violations face academic outcomes, that can be severe, and put themselves at jeopardy for other outcomes which may include ineligibility for the Dean's List, pass/fail elections, and grade forgiveness. Students may also face consequences from their home/major program and/or The Schreyer Honors College.

Please also see Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity Procedures, which this course adopts. To learn more, see Penn State’s “Academic Integrity Training for Students.

Course Copyright

All course materials students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. 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. University Policy AD 40, the University Policy Recording of Classroom Activities and Note-Taking Services addresses this issue. 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. For example, uploading completed labs, homework, or other assignments to any study site constitutes a violation of this policy.

Accommodations for Students with 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 Student Disability Resources (SDR) website provides the contact information for every Penn State campus. For further information, please visit the Student Disability Resources website.

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. See Student Disability Resources: Applying for Services. 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.

Change in Normal Campus Operations

In case of weather-related delays or other emergency campus disruptions or closures 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 these delays or closures. If you are affected by a weather-related emergency, please contact your instructor at the earliest possible time to make special arrangements.

Reporting Educational Equity Concerns

Penn State takes great pride in fostering a diverse and inclusive environment for students, faculty, and staff. Acts of intolerance, discrimination, or harassment due to age, ancestry, color, disability, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religious belief, sexual orientation, or veteran status are not tolerated (Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance) and can be reported through Educational Equity via Report Bias.

Counseling and Psychological Services

Many students at Penn State face personal challenges or have psychological needs that may interfere with their academic progress, social development, or emotional wellbeing.  The university offers a variety of confidential services to help you through difficult times, including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, consultations, online chats, and mental health screenings.  These services are provided by staff who welcome all students and embrace a philosophy respectful of clients’ cultural and religious backgrounds, and sensitive to differences in race, ability, gender identity, and sexual orientation.  Services include the following: 

Counseling and Psychological Services at University Park  (CAPS): 814-863-0395
Counseling Services at Commonwealth Campuses
Penn State Crisis Line (24 hours/7 days/week): 877-229-6400
Crisis Text Line (24 hours/7 days/week): Text LIONS to 741741

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.

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 with others whom you do not know. 

Technical Requirements

For this course, we recommend the minimum technical requirements outlined on the World Campus Technical Requirements page, including the requirements listed for same-time, synchronous communications. If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the IT Service Desk.

Internet Connection

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 Wi-Fi ® hotspot.


This course must be viewed using the latest version of Firefox, Safari, Chrome, or Edge. Internet Explorer is not supported. If you use any other browser, or if you are not using the latest version of your browser, some pages containing equations may not render properly. In addition, javascript must be enabled for equations to render properly. If you have any issues with equations not rendering properly, please update your browser to the latest version or try using a different browser. If you need additional technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the HelpDesk (for World Campus students) or the IT Service Desk (for students at all other campus locations).

Deferred Grades

If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time for reasons that are beyond your control, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor, following Penn State Deferred Grade Policy 48-40. To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to the instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. Non-emergency permission for filing a deferred grade must be requested before the beginning of the final examination period.  It is up to the instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If permission is granted, you will work with the instructor to establish a communication plan and a clear schedule for completion within policy.  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.

In EMS, inclusivity is one of our core values. We prioritize fostering a diverse and equitable community where each member knows they belong here and is inspired to succeed. We encourage everyone in our EMS community to be actively engaged in fostering this ideal, and all members of this class should contribute to a respectful, welcoming, and inclusive environment and interact with civility. Our commitment to inclusivity aligns with Penn State’s values and policies. 

To learn more, visit EMS Educational Equity.  Here, you will find information about the EMS ALLWE initiative, the Rainbow EMS Network, Anti-Racism, active ally-ship, bystander intervention, and more. The site also has resources for where to turn if you need assistance and links to University references.  Also, contact your EMS department’s Associate Head for DEI for more information about department initiatives. 


This course will be conducted entirely online. There will be no set class meeting times, but you will be required to complete weekly assignments with specific due dates. Many of the assignments are open for multiple days, so it is your responsibility to complete the work early if you plan to travel or participate in national holidays, religious observances, or university-approved activities.  If you need to request an exception due to a personal or medical emergency, contact the instructor directly as soon as you are able. Such requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Mandated Reporting Statement

Penn State’s policies require me, as a faculty member, to share information about incidents of sex-based discrimination and harassment (discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, and retaliation) with Penn State’s Title IX coordinator or deputy coordinators, regardless of whether the incidents are stated to me in person or shared by students as part of their coursework. For more information regarding the University's policies and procedures for responding to reports of sexual or gender-based harassment or misconduct, please visit Penn State's Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention & Response website.

Additionally, I am required to make a report on any reasonable suspicion of child abuse in accordance with the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law.


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. Changes to the syllabus shall be given to you in written (paper or electronic) form.