Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

GEOG 30N Syllabus, Summer 2018


GEOG 30N: Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

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. That being said, it is essential that you read the entire document, as well as material covered in the course orientation. These resources will not only prepare you to be successful in this course, but they will also help you prepare for the "Course Information" quiz at the end of the orientation. Together these serve the role of our course "contract."


Michelle Ritchie, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Geography
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802
Office Hours: This course takes place entirely online so please correspond via email. I will do my best to reply to emails within 24 hours. Before emailing with an administrative question, kindly check the course syllabus. As many students tend to have the same questions, you may find it more convenient to use the course Q&A discussion board in the course Canvas page (under Discussions). I will reply to these posts on a daily basis (excluding weekends).  

Course Overview

GEOG 30N: Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems (3 credits) GEOG 30N is an integrative study, inter-domain general education course. Students who started at Penn State prior to summer 2018 can apply these credits to either GS or GN requirements. The course also covers U.S. or international cultures requirements.

Prerequisites: None

This course introduces the study of sustainability and human-environment interactions from a geographic perspective. We examine both the influence of humanity on the environment and the influence of the environment on humanity, with attention to the sustainability of current human activities. We take a complex systems perspective on major environmental and societal challenges and examine linked human-environment issues in a variety of contexts. We emphasize the major individual and societal decisions which impact the environment and the ethical views implicit in the decisions. We explore key concepts such as cartography, systems analysis, and individual and collective action, as well as various topical issues related to climate change, agriculture, biodiversity, and development. Course discussions and activities highlight both major themes in human-environment geography and the experience of what it is like to perform human-environment geography.

There are 10 modules that will be completed at a rate of approximately 7 days per module. GEOG 30N will be conducted entirely on the World Wide Web. There will be no set class meeting times, but students will be required to complete weekly assignments. Each module contains interactive exercises, links, animations, movies, and novel explanations of the basic principles related to sustainability and human-environment systems. Each unit will conclude with an open book, on-line assessment, and the course will finish with an open-book, comprehensive final exam. 

GEOG 30N can be applied toward Penn State's General Education "Social and Behavioral Sciences" (GS) and "International Cultures" (IL) requirements.

Most modules run for 7 days. You have this 7 day period to access each module and complete the readings, learning activities, quizzes, and self-checks. Please check Canvas regularly to ensure that you are completing each module on time and submitting the assignments by the due date. Anything not completed by the due date at midnight will be considered late. Modules will be graded with feedback in a timely manner, generally during the 10 days following their submission. Due dates for the assignments must be strictly followed. An exception will only be made in case of an official, written documentation of a family or personal medical emergency. Lack of internet access is NOT a valid exception. Do the work ahead of time and you should easily avoid this issue.

Please note that the final exam must be completed by Wednesday, August 8, at 11:59 pm EST. Late exams will NOT be accepted.


All components of this course will be conducted entirely online You do not have to be in University Park campus at any point of the course period or afterward for course completion, so long as you have reliable access to the internet.

What I Expect of You

I expect that you will treat this course in the same manner you would a credit-bearing face-to-face section of an introductory level course. You should expect to spend the same amount of time on this course that you would spend in and out of class in your other courses. On average, that may be about eight hours per week. However, you will find your workload depends on your familiarity with the technology needed to take an online course and any past experience you have with the subject matter.

In my experience, the students who reach their goals in online courses are those that are able to motivate themselves to keep up with the coursework and those that take the opportunity to communicate with the instructor and their peers. I encourage you to ask as many questions as you would in a face-to-face class. If you are struggling with any aspect of the course, I can only help you if you ask for help.

Specific learning objectives for each module and assignment are detailed within each module.

Course Goals, Objectives, and Outcomes

Through completion of course modules, learning activities, quizzes and the final project, successful students will:

  • understand foundational principles of nature-society geography
  • build a toolkit of key concepts and theories for analyzing human-environment systems
  • evaluate how biophysical and social environments are intertwined and shape one another
  • critique specific nature-society problems across a range of geographic contexts
  • develop possible solutions for addressing contemporary sustainability challenges

Required Course Materials

All instructional materials needed for this course are presented online— no textbook is required.

In order to access the online course materials, you need to have an active Penn State Access Account user ID and password. If you have any questions about obtaining or activating your Penn State Access Account, please contact the World Campus.

Assignments and Grading

GEOG 30N will rely upon a variety of methods to assess and evaluate student learning, including:

  • Professional participation and communication in online discussions and emails with the instructor and classmates.
  • Learning Activities which are graded discussion-based activities spread throughout the course.
  • Automated Online Quizzes that allow you to practice your mastery of the concepts in the modules.
  • A Final Exam that will assess your grasp of course concepts and your ability to apply them to sustainability topics. 

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 module's activities. Below is a breakdown of each assignment's value as a percentage of the total course grade.

Breakdown of course assignments as points and a percentage of the total course grade
Assessment Points Total Points % of Course Grade
Participation 50 points 50 5%
Introduce Yourself Activity 50 points 50 5%
Learning Activities (8) 75 points each 600 60%
Quizzes (3) 50 points each 150 15%
Final Exam 150 points 150 15%
Total Possible 1000 100%

Late Policy

Please make sure you complete quizzes by the due date. You will NOT be able to take a quiz after the due date except in the case of University-excused absences. The final exam deadline is final, and no late exams will be accepted.

Late Learning Activities will be penalized at 10% per day. Activities more than ten days late automatically receive zero points. All assignments have precise (to the minute) deadlines that are understood in terms of Eastern Standard Time (EST), and will be under Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) as applied in Penn State's resident campuses in Pennsylvania. Anything past the deadline is automatically late, even if it is just one minute late. Every 24 hours (to the minute) after the deadline, another day of late penalty is incurred.


I will use the Canvas gradebook to keep track of your grades. The minimum scores for course grades are as follows.

Letter Grades and Points
Letter Minimum Points Needed to Earn this Grade
A 94% (940 points)
A- 90% (900 points)
B+ 87% (870 points)
B 84% (840 points)
B- 80.0% (800 points)
C+  77% (770 points)
C 70.0% (700 points)
60.0% (600 points)
F 0.0% (0 points)
Unsatisfactory (student did not participate)

GEOG 30N Course Schedule

imagePrintable Schedule

Course length: 10 weeks

Below you will find a list of modules and the assignments as well as their associated time frames. Assignment information will be located on each module's checklist - so you will need to check there for the full set of details and deliverables. Sometimes, the details for each module can change, and it's possible that the syllabus may not be updated as quickly as the module checklists, so always check specific module checklists and course announcements for the latest details. This course is 10 lessons in length, with an orientation week preceding the official start of the course. Each module is one week long and opens on Wednesday.

Course Assignments and Activities
Week Module Assignments
Week 0 Module 0: Orientation

Complete the steps outlined in our site orientation.
(Click on the Orientation link to begin the orientation.)

Complete the Course Information Quiz

Week 1

Module 1 - Geographic Perspectives

Learning Activity: Getting to Know You Discussion

Week 2 Module 2 - Coupled Human-Environment Systems Learning Activity: Drawing Systems Diagrams
Week 3 Module 3 - Ethics Learning Activity: Arguing Environmental Ethics
Week 4 Module 4 - Individual and Collective Action

Learning Activity: Water Usage and Tracking

Unit 1 Quiz

Week 5 Module 5 - Development Learning Activity: Development Case Studies
Week 6 Module 6 - Food and Agriculture Learning Activity: Food Choice and Social Norms
Week 7 Module 7 - Urban Planning

Learning Activity: Sustainable Cities

Unit 2 Quiz

Week 8 Module 8 - Natural Hazards Learning Activity: Vulnerability Reduction
Week 9 Module 9 - Climate Change Learning Activity: Climate Diplomacy
Week 10 Module 10 - Biodiversity Unit 3 Quiz
Final Exam Final Exam

Tips for Success in GEOG 30N

Pay extra attention to course announcements

Read all the email announcements and read the whole announcement when you do. Unlike offline courses where instructors have more diverse means to get your attention, online courses typically have email as the only channel through which you can get news and reminders. Not paying full attention to the emails may result in your missing deadlines and opportunities, which will be detrimental to your grade.


In order to make the most out of this opportunity, you will need to be actively involved in this course. Your discussions with me and with your peers will be as important to your learning as your study of the material presented in the modules and activities. Discussions offer you the opportunity to organize your thoughts about the content under discussion, to present a logical argument about the topic, and to give and receive feedback.

Do the work on time

I see my role in this course as lead facilitator; that is, it is my job to help you achieve your educational objectives. I set deadlines to keep everyone on track to reach those goals. I think that if you do your best to adhere to those deadlines (for example, setting up a routine schedule when you work on the course), you will succeed. I strongly suggest setting a personal deadline that is earlier than the class deadline, which will help you avoid most issues that tend to cause delays. As described earlier in this syllabus, I am firm on deadlines. However, I do understand that emergencies may arise, and I am willing to work with you if I am informed (preferably ahead of time) and the reason was unavoidable. 

Keep your integrity

I will assume that everyone in the class will behave with integrity. As a student at Penn State, this goes beyond simply avoiding "what you assume" as lying and cheating, but accepting and adhering to what Penn State regards as academic integrity and violation of the value. You will have to actively study to be a person of integrity and remain as one. Penn State defines academic integrity as "the pursuit of scholarly projects 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." I have zero tolerance for plagiarism, including self-plagiarism, and I will be checking for it. Penalties for violations of academic integrity may include course failure and I have observed students failing the course as a consequence. If you are unclear about these policies please review the material at

Struggling? Get help!

There can be a case where you are paying full attention to the announcements and working hard for this course, but still somehow struggling. If this is you, please ask for help! The instructor can be a source of help. Let me know of your concerns (e.g. ways to improve your upcoming assignment) and the situations you want us to take into consideration when instructing and grading. Also, in case you didn't know, you can go to Penn State to get institutional yet individualized help! if you would like advice on writing, please go to Penn State Learning website for more resources ( They give you a range of tutoring options from online tutoring to in-person meetings by appointment.

Course Policies

Academic Integrity Advice 

  1. Your violation being an "honest mistake" may help reduce the severity of your sanction, but it does NOT make your violation a non-violation. If you are really an honest person and made one mistake, you will naturally want to study to make sure you don't do it again. Penn State does have buffer measures for its members (e.g. your one-time breach will amount to nothing in terms of your career until you make two more breaches) but it does NOT have enough measures for those people who simply do not care if they repeat similar kind of mistakes or not.
  2. Remaining a student of academic integrity needs active work. You need to study what academic integrity means to avoid violation of it. Individuals do NOT define what academic integrity is and what actions violate it. It is Penn State who defines it for its members. This is because individual opinions vary and we cannot accommodate all. But as you understand the process of making Penn State policy, you will probably understand how the policies we have, came to exist and what purposes they serve.
  3. If in doubt, please consult official materials and relevant person(s) before taking any action.
  4. You may collaborate before actual taking of quizzes (working toward making an efficient summary of course materials), but you may not communicate anything related to quiz content in any form during the quiz with your coursemates or any person, once the quiz questions are revealed to you.
  5. Do not procure actual quiz questions from former takers of quizzes. Yes, it is a violation of academic integrity.
  6. Nobody can stand in for you. Do not let any other person take any part of your quiz for you or lend knowledge of questions. This applies to you being the source of information.

Citation and Reference Style

In this course, you will be expected to follow a specific formatting guideline for your references. You should use the Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition) for all citations done in all assignments in this class. You can see specific examples of how to cite different types of references (books, journal articles, website, etc.) by visiting the Chicago Manual of Style online reference guide created by Purdue University's Online Writing Lab. Please make sure that you have selected 'Author/Date' not 'Notes and Bibliography' when reviewing the formatting guidelines. To make this process as easy as possible, you may use a free citation manager, such as Zotero, to collect, organize, and format your references.

You can also visit the Academic Integrity and Citation Style Guide to learn more about how and when to cite.


The term "Netiquette" refers to the etiquette guidelines for electronic communications, such as email 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. Most importantly, do not use slang, informal language or text messaging jargon when communicating via email or when posting to the discussion board. Emails and posts should never begin with "Hey" or similarly informal language.

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).

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 the guidelines 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 Plagiarism Tutorial 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 Student Disability Resources (SDR) website provides contact information for every Penn State campus: Contacts for Student Disability Resources at all Penn State Campuses. For further information, please visit the Student Disability Resources (SDR) 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 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor. To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to your instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. It is up to your instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If, for any reason, the course work 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 with you via e-mail, course announcement and/or course discussion forum.