Plate Tectonics and People

Earth 520 Syllabus - Spring 2021

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Syllabus Spring 2021

EARTH 520: Plate Tectonics and People: Foundations of Solid Earth Science

This syllabus is divided into several sections as outlined below. It is essential that you read the entire document, as well as the material covered in the course orientation. Together these serve the role of our "course contract."

  • Instructor
  • Course Overview
  • What I expect of you
  • Course Goals and Learning Objectives
  • Required Course Materials
  • Assignments and Grading
  • Tips for Success
  • Course Policies
Instructor Eliza Richardson and daughter
Eliza reads "Soup for the King;" Linda fends off the paparazzi.

Dr. Eliza Richardson
Associate Professor of Geosciences
Department of Geosciences & Dutton e-Education Institute
The Pennsylvania State University
409 Deike Sciences Building
University Park, PA 16802

EARTH 520: PLATE TECTONICS AND PEOPLE: FOUNDATIONS OF SOLID EARTH SCIENCE (3 credits). Solid Earth geophysics and geological hazards presented within the grand unifying theory of plate tectonics.

Prerequisites: None

In this course, we will explore a variety of topics from different disciplines within the solid Earth sciences. My goal for each lesson is to review appropriate background material along with some cool, current, cutting-edge research relevant to the topic at hand. In each lesson, we'll also touch briefly on some ways the topic links to other scientific disciplines. I feel that this is the best way to appreciate the interconnectedness of all the sciences. So, for example, if you think that the Earth's magnetic field has nothing to do with biological processes, think again! We'll talk about this later on. I intend the subject matter and the rigor with which I treat it to be beyond the level found in typical secondary-school or even 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-school student (or a teacher of secondary-school students) would need to place the cutting-edge research in context. Gaining an appreciation of how scientists choose the subjects they study is as fundamental to Earth science as the discovery of the facts themselves. 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 to complete the activities in each lesson. I have specifically designed the lessons with publicly available datasets because I want you to be able to use the data and lessons from this course in any courses you teach.

EARTH 520 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 eight lessons that will be completed at a rate of approximately one or two weeks per lesson. Lesson learning activities will be in the form of 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 where you will construct a teaching plan based on the topic of your choice.

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 from 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:

At the successful completion of this course, students should be able to summarize current thinking on several specific areas of solid 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 - The Giants of Science

  • Meet fellow students by presenting and critiquing each other's results.
  • Become familiar with constructing a page in this course Web site.
  • Become conversant with the historical background and personalities involved in the scientific revolution of plate tectonic theory and some other cool solid earth geophysicists.
  • Know the technological advances that improved observational capacities in geophysics.
  • Define and explain the following terminology: plate, lithosphere, asthenosphere, crust, mantle, the difference between "continental drift" and plate tectonics, seafloor magnetic anomalies, seafloor spreading.

Lesson 3 Learning Objectives - The Geodynamo

  • Know what happens at each of the three types of plate boundaries.
  • Know the map symbols for each type of plate boundary.
  • Know the forces that drive plate motion.
  • Calculate plate speed using a variety of measurement techniques.
  • Read and interpret a magnetic anomaly map.

Lesson 4 Learning Objectives - Journey to the Center of the Earth

  • Know the approximate speed and wave-motion associated with basic types of earthquake waves.
  • Learn how to find the epicenter and the origin time of an earthquake using actual seismograms.
  • Describe the path taken through the Earth by a seismic wave.
  • Explain the meaning of the following terminology: shadow zone, discontinuity, body wave, surface wave, turning point, ray path, Snell's law, reflection, refraction.

Lesson 5 Learning Objectives - Forensic Geology

  • Locate on a world map the regions of volcanic activity.
  • Predict compositions of the magma produced at different locations based on knowledge of different plate tectonic regimes.
  • Learn which minerals to expect in soil that contains the weathered products of local volcanoes.

Lesson 6 Learning Objectives - Living in the Shadow of a Volcano

  • Explain the plumbing of a volcanic eruption, how to melt a rock, how lava mineralogy and viscosity affect eruptions and volcano-building.
  • Know why some volcanoes emit different materials than others and why some volcanoes emit different materials over their active lifespan.
  • List and describe important historical eruptions.
  • Investigate seismic monitoring using real-time data from Kilauea, Hawaii.

Lesson 7 Learning Objectives - Faults and Earthquakes

  • Be able to download, manipulate, and analyze publicly available earthquake catalog data from the Incorporated Research Institutions in Seismology [IRIS] and from the United States Geological Survey(USGS).
  • Discover how frequently earthquakes happen around the globe.
  • Know how earthquake magnitudes and energies are measured.
  • Know the mathematical relationship between seismic magnitude and seismic energy released.
  • Know the physical meaning of earthquake magnitude.
  • Know the physical meaning behind the observation of a power-law distribution.
  • Know how to construct a dataset appropriate for comparing with a given empirical observation.
  • Describe the earthquake cycle of a fault in terms of time, stress, and slip.
  • Know how to predict the approximate timing, sizes, and areal extent of aftershocks following an earthquake of given magnitude.
  • Use geodetic data to study plate motion and an earthquake

Lesson 8 Learning Objectives - Capstone Project

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

All materials needed for this course are presented in this Webspace, or accessible with your PSU credentials. There is no separate textbook. 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.

Assistance with Textbooks: Penn State honors and values the socioeconomic diversity of our students. If you require assistance with the costs of textbooks for this course, contact the Office of Student Care and Advocacy, 120 Boucke Building, 863-4926. For additional needs related to socioeconomic status please visit Project Cahir.

In EARTH 520, I will rely upon a variety of methods to assess and evaluate student learning including:

  • Required participation in online discussion forums to provide opportunities for me to gauge your progress and your 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 or give help when performing the data analyses.
  • Data analyses and write-ups require you to collect and interpret datasets.
  • A capstone project that will be used to evaluate your knowledge and skills by the production of a learning module that you, in turn, will be able to use to teach these 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 - 7 data analyses + papers 50%
Lessons 2 - 7 discussion participation 30%
Capstone Project 15%

I will use the Canvas gradebook to keep track of your grades.

Letter Grades and Corresponding Percentage Ranges
Letter Grade Percentage Range
A 90-100%
A- 87.5-89.9%
B+ 85-87.4%
B 80-84.9%
B- 77.5-79.9%
C+ 75-77.4%
C 70-74.9%
D 60-69.9%
F <60%
X Unsatisfactory (student did not participate)


Many 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 huge lecture hall where nobody wants to draw attention to themselves. This class is not large 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, plus the odd whiny colleague who will show up at my door with dumb questions to waste my time. I know how hard it is to work, study, be a parent, and occasionally 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. Let me know about any difficulties so that I can help you! Unforeseen emergencies excluded, my late policy is that you need to discuss any potential problems with me 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. Please review our course policy on Academic Integrity linked from the Resources menu.

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 (for World Campus students) or Penn State's IT Help Portal (for students at all other campus locations).

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.

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.


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).

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

This course follows the procedures for academic integrity of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Penn State defines academic integrity as "the pursuit of scholarly activity 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. 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 Office for Student Disability Resources website provides contact information for Campus Disability Coordinators at every Penn State campus. For further information, please visit the Office for Student Disability Resources website.

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled. You will participate in an intake interview and provide documentation. See documentation guidelines at Applying for Services from Student Disability Resources. 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 well-being.  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 to others whom you do not know.

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.


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.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Respect

Penn State is “committed to creating an educational environment which is free from intolerance directed toward individuals or groups and strives to create and maintain an environment that fosters respect for others” as stated in Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance. All members of this class are expected to contribute to a respectful, welcoming, and inclusive environment and to interact with civility.

For additional information, see:

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. All changes will be communicated to you via e-mail, course announcement and/or course discussion forum.