The Critical Zone



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Registered students should begin with the Course Orientation, located in the Orientation menu.

Not registered? Students who register for this Penn State course gain access to assignments and instructor feedback, and earn academic credit. Information about registering for this course and about the online Masters of Education in Earth Sciences is available at the program's home page.

Quick Facts about EARTH 530

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Tim White


Tim White, Research Professor, Penn State Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.


EARTH 530 is an elective course in Penn State's online Masters of Education in Earth Sciences. EARTH 530 will introduce you to the basic information necessary for understanding Earth surface processes in the Critical Zone through an integration of various scientific disciplines including the study of weathering and soils, geomorphology, erosion and sedimentation, hydrogeology, low-temperature geochemistry and Earth systems. Those who successfully complete EARTH 530 will be able to apply their knowledge of these fundamental concepts to understanding how all of these factors affect our daily lives within the Critical Zone. The concepts covered in the course material are based on ongoing research funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the European Commission.

Learning Environment

This Web site provides the primary instructional materials for the course. The Resources menu links to important supporting materials, while the Lessons menu links to the course lessons. Canvas, Penn State's course management system, is used to support the delivery of this course, as well, as it provides the primary communications, calendaring, and submission tools for the course.

Topics of Study

This course is organized into seven units. The structure was chosen to include a focus on the four driving questions which active Critical Zone science leaders have identified as the most important for understanding the Critical Zone.

  1. The science lesson in the first unit will introduce you to the concept of the Critical Zone.
  2. Units 2 through 6 will cover issues related to soil, the atmosphere and climate, water, landforms, and ecosystems, respectively, as they relate to Critical Zone studies.
  3. Finally in Unit, 7, we will integrate the lessons learned in Units 2 through 6 into an Earth Systems framework and consider the impacts of human society on the Critical Zone. With your newly attained knowledge of the Critical Zone, we will revisit the outstanding questions in Critical Zone science and consider the implications of the state of the Critical Zone to the overall health of life on Earth.

NOTE: This course is offered as part of the Open Educational Resources initiative of Penn State's John A. Dutton e-Education Institute. You are welcome to use and re-use materials that appear in this site (other than those copyrighted by others) subject to the licensing agreement linked to the bottom of this and every page.