Computation and Visualization in the Earth Sciences

Earth 801 Syllabus (Spring 2019)


Earth 801: Computation and Visualization in the Earth Sciences

This syllabus is divided into several sections. You can read it sequentially by scrolling down the length of the document or by clicking on any of the links below to “jump” to a specific section. It is essential that you read the entire document as well as material covered in the Course Orientation. Together these serve as our course "contract."


Dr. Eliza Richardson
Associate Professor
Department of Geosciences & Dutton e-Education Institute

The Pennsylvania State University
409 Deike Building
University Park, PA 16802

  • Phone: (814) 863-2507
  • Email:
  • Faculty website
  • Office Hours: I will be available for office visits, phone calls, or online interaction most weekdays. Please contact me to make an appointment if you want to be sure to meet on a given day/time.

Course Overview

EARTH 801: Special Topics: Computation and Visualization in the Earth Sciences
Prerequisites: None

EARTH 801 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 7 procedural lessons that will be completed at a rate of approximately 1 week per lesson. You develop procedural programming skills in a programming language designed for visual arts and visualization while exploring Earth science topics. In particular, you will learn and practice digital graphics capabilities in order to render Earth science concepts that are otherwise difficult to visualize due to complicated space and time scales. Both spatial and object visualization skills are key to success in the Earth sciences; you will build an awareness of these skills and practice them with an eye to being able to teach them to your own secondary school students.

In this course, you will interact with large, open, freely-available data sets by collecting, plotting, and analyzing them using a variety of computational methods. You will therefore be ready to teach your own secondary school students a range of Next Generation Science Standard skills involving data collecting, manipulation, analysis, and plotting.

You will also read and discuss current research regarding the teaching, learning, and evaluation of visualization skills, as well as multiple external representations of science concepts. For the course’s final project, you will apply your theoretical knowledge and practical skills by developing a teaching object for use with your own secondary science students.

This course is an elective in the Master of Education in Earth Sciences program. The program is designed specifically for credentialed secondary school Earth science or general science teachers, who are able to study only part-time and at a distance. It is offered exclusively through Penn State World Campus.

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 data visualization.

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.

Course Goals and Learning Objectives

Course Goals: You will read recent published papers dealing with object and spatial visualization skills, how to evaluate the worth of a still graphic or animation in explaining technical concepts, as well as how best to organize large data sets in ways that can be best interpreted visually. The major goal is two-fold: you will read and discuss papers to explore the theories, while at the same time put those theories into practice by learning to code a little bit.

Lesson 1 Learning Objectives:

  • Become familiar with the expectations of this course.
  • Practice interacting and discussing in the online environment.
  • install Processing and successfully write a simple program
  • Write a program that plots an assortment of shapes to the screen

Lesson 2 Learning Objectives:

  • write programs involving loops
  • write programs involving a variety of colors
  • write programs that use variables
  • Become conversant with cognitive scientists’ theories of object visualization v. spatial visualization.
  • Read and discuss papers involving how practitioners apply object and spatial visualization skills in the Earth sciences

Lesson 3 Learning Objectives:

  • write programs using if - else if - else structures
  • write programs that simulate animation
  • Discuss teaching and learning strategies to incorporate data visualization skills into secondary science educational settings.

Lesson 4 Learning Objectives:

  • write programs that involve user interaction
  • write programs that use functions
  • Explore theoretical frameworks for deciding the how to evaluate the ability of a graphic to explain a concept in the sciences.
  • Read and discuss papers involving teaching spatial and creative ability, how to measure the worth of a graphic in teaching Earth science

Lesson 5 Learning Objectives:

  • write programs that involve manipulation of text and typography
  • write programs that involve scaling, translation, and rotation of objects and text
  • Discuss teaching and learning strategies to incorporate animations of scientific concepts into the secondary science educational settings.

Lesson 6 Learning Objectives:

  • write programs using a 3D renderer
  • write programs that use externally-generated images
  • save output of programs to a file

Lesson 7 Learning Objectives:

  • practice simple text file manipulation and file structure navigation with unix commands
  • practice writing programs that use data arrays
  • Import a data file and analyze its contents
  • Practice the cognitive skills necessary to organize a set a of data and visualize it in a way that trends and relationships may be easily evaluated.
  • Explore educational psychology theoretical frameworks about how to evaluate animations v. still graphics when teaching technical content.
  • Read and discuss papers involving the use of animations in teaching Earth science

Small Projects Learning Objectives:

  • use skills built up in lessons 1-7 to create animations of Earth science concepts and visually interesting and engaging ways of presenting Earth science data
  • Read and discuss papers about graphical excellence and high resolution data graphics

Capstone Learning Objectives:

  • create a teaching object that employs a program you wrote or its output to teach an Earth science concept to another audience.

Required Course Materials

All materials needed for this course are presented in our course website and in the learning management system or are freely available from the internet. 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 801 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.
  • Programming activities
  • Two small projects
  • 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.

Grading breakdown for Earth 801
Assignment Percentage of Grade
Orientation (based on participation) 5%
Lessons 1-7 programs 30%
Discussion participation 25%
Small Projects 25%
Capstone Project 15%

I will use the grades tool in Canvas to keep track of your grades. You can see your grades, too, by clicking the Grades link in the Canvas environment.

Overall course grades will be determined as follows. Percentages refer to the proportion of all possible points earned.

Letter Grade Percentages
Earth 801 Grading Scale
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)

Earth 801 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 (summer) or 13 weeks (fall/spring). We will also have a week-long break, usually in between lessons 6 and 7. I will make the actual dates of our schedule clear both in Canvas and in the lesson overview pages.

Earth 801 Schedule
Week/Lesson Subjects Covered Tasks/Deliverables
Week 1: Course Orientation and Lesson 1 Course orientation and warm-up activities
  • 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.
  • Read and discuss an article.
  • Install Processing and play around with it.
Week 2: Lesson 2 Shapes, colors, variables, for loops, spatial v. object visualization skills
  • Read and discuss papers
  • Complete programming exercises
Week 3: Lesson 3 simulating movement, if tests
  • Teaching/Learning discussion
  • Complete programming exercises
Week 4: Lesson 4 user input, writing functions, teaching creativity, theory of multimedia learning
  • Read and discuss papers
  • Complete programming exercises
Week 5: Lesson 5 text, translation, scaling, rotation
  • Teaching/Learning discussion.
  • Complete programming exercises
Weeks 6 and 7: Lesson 6 3D rotations, file input/output, images
  • Complete programming exercises

Weeks 8 and 9: Lesson 7

unix, arrays, file input/output, animations v. static graphics
  • Read and discuss papers
  • Complete programming exercises

Weeks 10 and 11: Small Projects

conceptual animation, programming-assisted data analysis, visual display of quantitative information
  • Read and discuss book chapters
  • Create an animation or interactive learning device for an Earth science concept
  • Use your skills to find a data set, analyze it, present it in an accurate and visually arresting manner
Week 12 (summer) or Weeks 12 and 13 (fall/spring): Capstone Project final project
  • Teaching/Learning discussion
  • Create a teaching object that makes use of your programming skills

Hot Tips for Success in EARTH 801


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 (as of this writing) from 26 years to 8 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

Penn State E-mail Accounts

All official communications from the Penn State World Campus 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 Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity Guidelines. 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. 

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.

Inclement Weather

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

Reporting Bias-Motivated Incidents

Penn State takes great pride to foster 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 to others whom you do not know.

Technical Requirements

For this course, we recommend the minimum technical requirements outlined on the Dutton Institute 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 HelpDesk (for World Campus students) or the IT Service Desk (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 one of the following browsers: Firefox (any version), Safari (versions 5.1 or 6.0), Chrome (0.3 or later), or Internet Explorer with the MathPlayer PlugIn. If you use any other browser, there will be pages containing equations that do not render properly. If you need 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.

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:


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