Essentials of Oceanography

EARTH 540 Syllabus


Summer 2020

This syllabus is divided into several sections. That being said, 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 Eliza Richardson and daughter
Eliza reads "Soup for the King;" Linda fends off the papparazzi.

Dr. Eliza Richardson(link is external)
Associate Professor of Geosciences
Department of Geosciences
The Pennsylvania State University
409 Deike Sciences Building
University Park, PA 16802

Course Overview

EARTH 540: ESSENTIALS OF OCEANOGRAPHY FOR EDUCATORS (3 credits). Chemical and physical principles of the oceans and their interaction with the biosphere, atmosphere and the solid Earth.

Prerequisites: None

EARTH 540 is an elective course in the Master's Degree Program in Earth Science Education. The course is designed specifically for science teachers who seek to enrich their knowledge of oceanography and contemporary principles of the fluid Earth and who are able to study only part-time and at a distance. EARTH 540 introduces knowledge and broadens understanding of the oceans and their role in climate, coastal processes, and life within the fluid Earth. You will gain insight into the physical and chemical processes that determine properties of the ocean and govern interactions between the ocean, atmosphere, groundwater, and the fluid/solid Earth. Topics reinforce fundamental scientific principles such as heat transfer, chemical equilibrium, and conservation of energy.

We strongly recommend taking EARTH 501 prior to taking EARTH 540

EARTH 540 combines digital video, audio, simulation models, virtual field trips to on-line data resources, text, and interactive quizzes that provide instantaneous feedback. The course consists of 9 lessons within three broadly defined units, a capstone unit, plus a course orientation week at the beginning of the semester. Lessons consist of interactive exercises, links, animations, movies, and novel explanations of basic scientific principles of how the oceans work.

What we 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.  Similarly, you will find that some lessons will require more work/time and others will require less. You should plan to visit the course web site and discussion boards once per day.  A link to the course discussion rubric can be found here.

We will work together with you to make this an effective and convenient educational experience. The Internet is a novel learning environment, but many aspects of this course should be 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 material, and if you take advantage of opportunities to communicate with your instructor, as well as with your fellow students.

Specific learning objectives for each lesson and project are detailed within each lesson. The Course Schedule is published under the Resources dropdown above.

Course Goals and Learning Objectives

By the end of the course, successful students will be able to

  • Conceptualize principles of ocean science and use them to think critically about ocean-related issues
  • Discuss ocean currents and atmospheric winds in the context of heat transfer and climate regulation
  • Develop an appreciation for the complexity of life in the ocean
  • Explain the uncertainty inherent in predicting climate change and ocean-atmosphere interactions
  • Explain the advantages and pitfalls of aquaculture as a societal approach to sustainable fisheries
  • Describe the concept of Geologic Time and how oceans have changed during Earth’s history
  • Explain the hydrologic cycle and geochemical cycle of inputs and outputs in the ocean
  • Write reflectively about their learning

Unit I Learning Objectives: Creating the Seas: Ocean Basins and Water (Lessons 1-3)

By the end of these lessons, successful students will be able to

  • Explain the Scientific Method and the concept of Multiple Working Hypotheses
  • Describe statistics as related to data collection and sampling
  • Explain current thinking about the origin of water on Earth
  • Explain current thinking about the existence of liquid water within our solar system
  • Explain the Goldilocks principle of life on Earth
  • List the important characteristics of ice, water, and vapor
  • Describe latent heat, heat capacity, and sensible heat.
  • Explain why water is the universal solvent
  • Speak knowledgeably about the origin of salts in seawater
  • List the factors that determine seawater salinity
  • Explain the hydrologic cycle
  • Explain geochemical residence time in the oceans

Unit II Learning Objectives: A Global Balancing Act: Ocean-Atmosphere-Continent Interactions (Lessons 4-6)

By the end of these lessons, successful students will be able to

  • Explain the main factors that determine surface and deep ocean currents
  • Describe the ocean conveyor and its role in global heat transfer and climate regulation
  • Explain the origin of global wind belts and their basic patterns
  • Explain the ocean’s role in heat redistribution
  • Describe, precisely, the Coriolis effect and its influence on global winds and ocean currents
  • Detail the basic properties of deep and shallow water waves
  • Explain why beaches are dynamic features subject to continual change
  • Explain long shore currents, sand transport, and wave reflection
  • Explain the implications of global warming for sea level change
  • Explain the basic factors that determine ocean tides
  • Differentiate between the equilibrium theory of tides and the dynamic theory of tides
  • Explain tidal amphidromic points and their origin
  • Identify the relative roles of the sun and moon for tides
  • Describe the anatomy of a hurricane
  • Explain the role of latent heat in hurricanes

Unit III Learning Objectives: Life Goes On (Lessons 7-9)

By the end of these lessons, successful students will be able to

  • Explain how corals eat, live, and prosper
  • Explain the interdependencies and ecology of coral reefs
  • Explain the role of global change and the negative impact of carbon dioxide and sea-surface temperature on coral
  • Discuss the oceanic food chain and the key role of photosynthetic organisms
  • List the key nutrients upon which ocean life depends
  • Explain the factors that make oceanic deep water like fertilizer
  • Explain how fishes breathe and swim
  • Explain the concept of eutrophication and the key factors that lead to hypoxia
  • Describe the factors that produce red tides and harmful algal blooms (HABs)
  • Identify the actions taken to reduce overfertilization, and other forms of pollution, in The Chesapeake Bay and cite evidence of the benefit and signs of recovery

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 the World Campus.

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. If you anticipate that you will have connectivity problems while taking this course, please contact me right away so we can discuss your situation.

Assignments and Grading

EARTH 540 will rely upon a variety of methods to assess and evaluate student learning. You will be required to:

  1. Participate in weekly discussion forums that will serve to highlight common questions and connections between key topics and principles, as well as to help students to relate course topics to their own work as secondary science educators.  Participation is expected on a regular basis.  A link to the course discussion rubric can be found here.
  2. Complete weekly Lessons and Advancement Assessments
  3. Complete 3 end-of-unit Quizzes
  4. Turn in a Capstone project during the semester that will require you to use the skills and knowledge you develop in the course to produce a learning module that you, in turn, will be able to use to teach course concepts in you own classroom. Project exercises will be evaluated, communally, by all course participants and will become available to all students in the class.

Details of Lesson and Assignment weights and our grading rubric can be found here:

You will earn a grade that reflects the extent to which you achieved the learning objectives listed above.

Breakdown of each lesson's value as a percentage of the total course grade
Activity Percentage of Grade
Lesson Discussions and Activities (drop lowest) 50%
3 Quizzes 24%
1 Project 26%

Grades are assigned by overall performance using a standard scale from A to F. I will use the Canvas gradebook to keep track of your grades. You can see your grades in the gradebook, too, by clicking the "Grades" link in Canvas. 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 92-100%
A- 89-91%
B+ 86-88%
B 81-85%
B- 77-80%
C+ 74-76%
C 65-73%
D 60-64%
F <60%
X Unsatisfactory (student did not participate)

EARTH 540 Course Schedule

Printable Schedule

As the schedule may change, please be sure to check it often! If you have a question about when something is due, ask your instructor!

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 orientation week.

Course Orientation
Date 1st week
  • Personalize your Canvas space
  • Add an address for your Canvas e-mail
  • Login to this Website
  • Introduce yourself and meet the rest of the class!
  • Take the Course Information Quiz
  • Feel free to start Lesson 1 at any time. It's a good one to get a head start on.
  • This lesson is due prior to the start of the next lesson

Unit I: Creating the Seas: Ocean Basins and Water

Lesson 1: The Water Planet: Earth and the Goldilocks Principle
Date 2nd week
  • Venus, Earth, and Mars — Earth is just right
  • Ocean origins: inner rumblings or cosmic slam?
  • Coevolution of oceans and life
  • Note that Lesson 1 is extensive. Get an early start
  • Weekly discussion, Calculations
  • Activity 1 is due at the end of the week 2
  • This lesson is due prior to the start of the next lesson
Lesson 2: Living on an Island: Origin of Ocean Basins and Sea Floor Morphology
Date 3rd week
  • Hot spots and volcanic arc edifices: building islands and an island change.
  • Motion under the ocean: plate tectonics and the changing face of Earth
  • Earthquakes & tsunami!
  • Continental margins
  • Note that Lesson 2 is extensive. Get an early start
  • Weekly discussion, Calculations
  • Activity 1 is due at the end of Lesson 2
  • This lesson is due prior to the start of the next lesson
Lesson 3: From Rock to Salt
Date 4th week
  • Ice, water, and vapor
  • Salt as the commodity and the age of the oceans
  • Latent heat and heat capacity
  • Water as the universal solvent
  • Why the sea is bitter
  • It’s all about cycles: from vapor to rain to snow to rivers and the ocean.
  • Geochemical residence time
  • Problem sets, Weekly discussion
  • End-of-unit quiz (open for the last three days of this lesson)

Unit II: A Global Balancing Act: Ocean-Atmosphere-Continent Interactions

Lesson 4: The Global Thermostat. The Ocean-Atmosphere-Climate Connection
Date 5th week
  • Solar energy, pressure and wind belts
  • Redistributing Earth’s heat, wind, and currents
  • Coriolis: the Earth turns and momentum is conserved!
  • Ekman transport—the spiral path
  • Unceasing motion and ocean gyres
  • Sailing the Seven Seas and how to get from here to there in a boat
  • Problem sets, Weekly discussion
Lesson 5: The Sea is Rising, the Sea is Rising
Date 6th week
  • Buying beach property? How long do you plan to keep it?
  • Surf’s up! Waves from deep to shallow and top to bottom
  • Currents and sand transport. The beaches are moving
  • Reflection and dissipation: The seasonal beach
  • The sea also rises: the future coastline of Eastern North America
  • Global warming: implications for glacial melting and sea level
  • Problem sets, Weekly discussion
Lesson 6: Tides Turning and the Planetary Connection
Date 7th week
  • Fishing the tide from the Bay of Fundy to Mont Saint Michelle
  • A matter of gravity, orbit, and rotation: Earth’s attraction to the sun and moon
  • Time and tides: tide charts and their interpretation
  • Dynamic theory and the amphidromic system
  • Back to the Bay of Fundy: energy from tides?
  • End-of-unit quiz (open last three days of lesson 6)

Unit III: Life Goes On

Lesson 7: Environmental Issues: Coral Reefs Imperiled, The Dead Zone and Hypoxia
Date 8th week
  • Estuaries and coastal zones as protein resources
  • The Chesapeake Bay estuary then and now
  • When rivers run too fertile: should I fertilize the lawn?
  • Exceeding the limits of tolerance
  • Eutrophication and hypoxia
  • Red tides and harmful algal blooms (HABs)
  • When action is taken there is some good news
  • Problem sets, Weekly discussion
Lesson 8: The Secret Lives of Fishes and the Great Meal Deal
DATE 9th week
  • Will we be dining on Jellyfish tonight?
  • What can we learn from pirates?
  • The oceanic food chain—what does it take to make a Tuna?
  • Photosynthetic recipes: Fertilizer from the deep feeds surface crops
  • Breathing, predation, salt, and slime: a fishes’ life
  • How efficient can we be with fishing?
  • Moving down the food chain, moving up ocean’s end
  • Reading, Weekly discussion
  • End-of-unit quiz; (Open last three days of lesson 8)
Lesson 9: Capstone Project
DATE 10th week - end of course
  • Project due on last day of classes

Hot Tips for Success in EARTH 540, with acknowledgments to Prof. Richardson and her content from 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.

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.