The Critical Zone

EARTH 530 Syllabus (Fall 2020)


Earth 530: Syllabus (Fall 2020)

EARTH 530: Earth Surface Processes in the Critical Zone

This syllabus is divided into several sections, as follows. It is essential that you read the entire document as well as the material covered in the Course Orientation. Together these serve as our course "contract."

  • Instructor
  • Course Overview
  • Course Goals
  • Required Course Materials
  • Assignments and Grading
  • Course Schedule
  • Course Policies


Photo of Dr. Tim White
Dr. Tim White

Dr. Tim White
Research Professor
EMS Earth and Environmental Systems Institute
The Pennsylvania State University
2217 Earth-Engineering Sciences Building
University Park, PA 16802


I will read and respond to e-mail and discussion forums 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!

Course Overview

EARTH 530: EARTH PROCESSES IN THE CRITICAL ZONE (3 credits). Introduction to Earth surface processes including weathering and soils, geomorphology, erosion and sedimentation, hydrogeology, low-temperature geochemistry, and Earth systems.
Prerequisites: None

Rapid changes at Earth’s surface, largely in response to human activity, have led to the realization that fundamental questions remain to be answered regarding natural functioning of the Critical Zone, the thin veneer at Earth’s surface where the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere interact. To understand these processes requires a broad array of scientific expertise including, but not limited to, geology, soil science, biology, ecology, geochemistry, geomorphology, and hydrology. 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. Those who successfully complete EARTH 530 will be able to apply their knowledge of fundamental concepts of Earth surface processes to understanding outstanding fundamental questions in Critical Zone science and how their lives are intimately linked to Critical Zone health.

EARTH 530 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 twelve lessons divided into seven units in EARTH 530. Each unit may contain interactive exercises, links, animations, movies, and novel explanations of the basic scientific principles of Critical Zone science.

What I Expect of You

On average, most students spend ten 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 the natural sciences and 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 within each lesson. The class schedule is published under the Calendar tab in Canvas (the course management system used for this course).

Course Goals

The overarching goal of the course is to help secondary science teachers understand Earth surface processes at a level they can communicate to their students. These processes will be presented in a Critical Zone framework—the teachers and subsequent students will leave with a better knowledge of how their daily lives are impacted by natural processes, and conversely how their daily activities impact Earth’s surface and the Critical Zone.

Required Course Materials

All materials needed for this course are presented in our course space in Canvas. 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 your campus Registrar.

Assignments and Grading

EARTH 530 will rely upon a variety of methods to assess and evaluate student learning, including

  • Lesson activities (short papers, data analyses, brief reports) that require students to apply the principles they have learned to outstanding questions in Critical Zone science.
  • Participation in online discussion forums to provide students opportunities to discuss how unit topics might be applied to their own teaching environments.
  • A semester project that will be used to evaluate students’ knowledge and skills through the production of a learning module that they, in turn, will be able to use to teach course concepts to their own secondary school students.


All formal written assignments must be double-spaced in 12 point Times Roman font.

Breakdown of course assignments as a percentage of the total course grade
Assignment Percentage
Lesson Activities and Discussion Forums 70%
Semester Project 30%

Final overall grades will be determined based on averaged grades of assignments. So that you know where you stand, all grades will be posted in Canvas with each assignment. You will be able to track your progress and calculate your average as the course goes along.

Letter grades will be based on the following percentages:

Letter grades and corresponding percentage ranges
Letter Grade Percentage Range
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%
X Unsatisfactory (student did not participate)

Percentages refer to the proportion of all possible points earned by the student.


Do not expect me to round up or curve grades during or at the end of the semester. Grades will not be curved. Put your best effort into all of the assignments as you complete them.

Earth 530 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 twelve weeks in length, with an orientation week preceding the official start of the course. Each lesson is one week long and opens on Saturday.

Week 1
Lesson 1
  • Activity: Semester Project - Identifying your project region and topic
UNIT 2 (Lesson 2) - SOIL
Week 2
Lesson 2
  • Activity: Answer questions about soil erosion
  • Activity: Answer questions about soil orders
  • Activity: Short report on Web soil survey
  • Activity: Discussion - Teaching and learning about soil
UNIT 3 (Lessons 3 - 5) - CLIMATE
Week 3
Lesson 3
  • Activity: Calculating carbon footprints
Week 4
Lesson 4
  • Activity: Short (2 - 3 page) paper on "Exploring the links between paleoclimatology, the Critical Zone, and modern society"
Week 5
Lesson 5
  • Activity: Discussions on regional climate issues
  • Activity: Short (2-page) paper on links to the Critical Zone
  • Activity: Discussion—Teaching and learning about atmosphere and climate
UNIT 4 (Lessons 6 - 7) - CLIMATE
Week 6
Lesson 6
  • Activity: Report on StreamStats
Week 7
Lesson 7
  • Activity: Report (6 - 7 pages) on groundwater studies
  • Activity: Discussion - Teaching and learning about water
UNIT 5 (Lessons 8 - 9) - LANDFORMS
Week 8
Lesson 8
  • Activity: Report on parent material questions
  • Activity: Report on exploring geologic maps
Week 9
Lesson 9
  • Activity: Report on soil catena concept
  • Activity: Report on aerial photo analysis
UNIT 6 (Lessons 10 - 11) - BIOTA
Week 10
Lesson 10
  • Activity: Report on site-specific ecological processes
  • Activity: Discussion
Week 11
Lesson 11
  • Activity: Report on biotic links to the Critical Zone
Week 12
Lesson 12
  • Create a qualitative Critical Zone system model
  • Complete and submit the Semester Project

Course Policies

Late Policy

All course-related assignments, quizzes, and exams must be completed by the assigned date. 5% of the grade for a course exercise will be subtracted for each day late. Late completions must be by prior arrangement.

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.

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.