Geology of the National Parks

GEOSC 10 Syllabus, Fall 2024


Welcome to Geology of the National Parks, Fall 2024 Syllabus

This syllabus is divided into several sections. 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."

Photo of Richard Alley
Dr. Richard Alley, Ph.D.


Dr. Richard Alley, Ph.D.
Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences
College of Earth and Mineral Sciences
The Pennsylvania State University
517 Deike Building
University Park, PA 16802

  • Email: Please use the course email system in Canvas
  • Office Hours: By appointment

Teaching Assistants

There will be three Teaching Assistants this semester. Together, we hope to make this semester smooth and straightforward for you.

  • Email: Please use the course email system in Canvas
  • Office Hours: By appointment

Course Overview

GEOSC 10: Geology of the National Parks (3 credits).

Prerequisites: None - However you do need to make sure that you can meet the technical requirements for completing the course...refer to the University Guidelines and the relevant Course Orientation materials (for computer setup)..and are confident using online materials (refer to this Learning Online guide for hints).

GEOSC 10 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 12 units that will be completed at a rate of 1 per week.

Course Philosophy

This is a fun course. Our four goals for the course are:

  • to help you become better-informed citizens on topics that may affect you in the future such as groundwater pollution, biodiversity, volcanic hazards, etc.;
  • to demonstrate what is and is not believable about science—those subjects on which scientists are usually correct versus those on which scientists have no special expertise;
  • to give you enough geological background that you will get more out of your next visit to a national park;
  • to show you enough beautiful places that you can’t wait to go out and visit some of them.

We must do this within the framework of Penn State General Education by providing a comprehensive view of a recognized subject area (geology and related topics), thus stimulating critical thinking and cross-disciplinary understanding, etc.

What I expect from you

On average, most students spend eight hours per week working on course assignments. Your workload may vary depending on your prior experience with computing and the Web in general, and with geology in particular.

We have worked hard to make this the most effective and convenient educational experience possible. The Internet may still be a novel learning environment for you, but in one sense it is no different from 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 the instructional team.

Required Course Materials

Online Lesson Content

All learning materials needed for this course are presented online right here. In order to access the online assessment materials, 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 Outreach Helpdesk.

Assignments and Grading

Your grade in GEOSC 10 will be based on the total number of points you accumulate. We consider 100 points to be a perfect score, although, with extra credit, you can go over that (and many students do). You earn points this way:

Class Participation Surveys ("StudentsSpeak") (10 points)

There are twelve surveys. You get one point for each survey you complete up to a maximum of 10 points. (So, if you complete 9 surveys you get 9 points; completing 10 surveys gets you 10 points, but completing 11 or 12 surveys gets you only 10 points—we let you skip 2 of the 12 surveys if you wish.)

Surveys are a useful tool for getting feedback from you about the main ideas presented each week. I will integrate what I learn from them each week into my weekly posts. Please take these surveys seriously and contribute to them meaningfully.

Weekly Quizzes ("RockOns") (45 points)

There are 12 quizzes, one each for unit 1 through unit 12. (You also have to take a “quiz” for unit 0 to prove that your computer can read everything we supply and that you know what is expected of you and of us, but no points for that one.) Each quiz is worth up to 4.5 points. If you get all the questions right on a quiz, you get 4.5 points. If you get half of the questions right on a quiz, you get half of those 4.5 points, or 2.25 points (.5 * 4.5 = 2.25). If you get 85% of the questions right, you get 3.8 points (.85 * 4.5 = 3.8). Then, to make your life easier, we take your ten highest scores and add them together, so you can get up to 45 points from quizzes. You are welcome to take all 12 quizzes, and we’ll count the 10 highest. Or, you can choose to skip 2 of the quizzes, but we suggest taking all of them just in case you catch the flu or run into technical difficulties along the way and want to use that week for your dropped grade.

Exercises (25 points)

There are six exercises. The first exercise goes with the first two units, the next exercise goes with the next two units, and so on. Each exercise is worth 5 points. Like the quizzes, if you get 100% on your exercise, you will receive 5 points, a grade of 50% gives you 2.5 points and a grade of 85% gives you 4.25 points, and so on. We add up the points from your 5 highest exercises, so you can earn up to 25 points. We encourage you to try all 6 exercises; the material on an exercise is considered part of the class and may appear on the final or on quizzes after an exercise is completed. If you skip an exercise, you will get 0 points for it, but if you get all the points on the other 5 exercises, you’ll still get the full 25 points for exercises.

Due dates are posted on our course calendar. Penn State General Education requires active learning in all courses, so this is your chance!

Comprehensive Final Exam (20 points)

The best way to do well on this exam is to stay current with all the material and to carefully review the feedback I provide in the weekly unit quizzes. The final exam will be similar to the quizzes, but will not repeat exactly the same questions as the quizzes.

The final is worth 20 percent of your final grade. If you get all of the questions right on the final, you get 20 points toward your final grade. If you get half the questions right, you will get 10 points toward your final grade, etc.

Please see the course calendar for specific dates.


On quizzes, exercises, or other things handed in, please check your answers before you submit them electronically. Materials submitted online are graded in the same way as any other course submissions—we grade what you submit. If the answer is D but you chose C, the answer is wrong...whether you accidentally wrote C by hand, or you accidentally colored in the C circle on the scantron sheet with your #2 pencil, or you accidentally clicked on C with your mouse.

You are also responsible for your computer connection. If you were driving to campus to take an in-class exam, the instructor would not come out to get you if your car broke down. If you are taking an online quiz and your apartment's wireless goes down, the situation is the same. Thus, you should find a good, solid connection. We let you "drop" two quizzes, two surveys, and one exercise when calculating your grade, and this should cover an occasional electronic disaster on your end. But, if you are in doubt, use a Penn State computer lab (where available).

Overall course grades will be determined as follows:

Percentages refer to the proportion of all possible points earned. So, if you add up all the points you earned as described above, and you have 94, you earned 94% of the available points, and you have an A. (And, if you have 92 points as described above, but nabbed 2 more points from the extra credit described below, then your total is 94 points, which is equivalent to 94%, which is still an A.)

Letter Grade and Corresponding Percentages
Letter Grade Percentages
A 93 - 100 %
A- 90% or above (and below 93%)
B+ 87% or above (and below 90%)
B 83% or above (and below 87%)
B- 80% or above (and below 83%)
C+ 77% or above (and below 80%)
C 70% or above (and below 77%)
D 60% or above (and below 70%)
F Below 60%
X Unsatisfactory (student did not participate)

Please note that 89.9 is below 90, and thus is a B+, not an A-, and that similar rules apply for all grades—the table says what it means.

Extra Credit

Four extra-credit opportunities are available throughout the semester. These opportunities will involve contributing to the course experience for everyone in some way: introducing yourself to the class, sharing your own park photos by creating your own "vTrip" to be viewed by the class, completing an online mid-course survey (to help us improve the course), and writing your own quiz questions. Availability and due dates of the extra credit opportunities will be available on the course calendar. Extra credit will NOT be granted for doing extra homework, term papers, etc.
Up to a maximum of 6 extra credit points can be earned through the extra credit options, which will be added to your grade after the curve has been calculated. The personal introduction will be worth 1 point, the vTrip will be worth up to 2 points, the mid-semester survey worth 1 point and the Quiz Questions worth up to 2 points. Thus, if you have a 79% for a C+ before the extra credit, earning 3 extra-credit points will raise you to 82% for a B-, and all 5 extra-credit points will raise you all the way to an 84% for a B. You just add the extra credit points to your final percentage for the course.


We shoot for a lot of good grades in this course, and we try hard not to give bad grades to students who actually do all the work and put in a real effort to learn the material. If everyone earned an A according to the grading scale just above, we would smile and give you all A’s. However, if you all ended up with C’s and D’s, we would curve to raise the grades. We will never curve to lower grades. We will curve to raise grades if and only if that proves to be necessary to make the grades high enough to keep us happy. We will decide on a curve only after all grades including the final are in.

General Tips about Grades

Material from video-lecture presentations, the exercises, course Web pages, videos and animations, book chapters, and emails are all fair game for unit quizzes and the final exam. The book chapters are keyed both to the video-lecture presentations and the online units and reading the chapters is the best way to connect the various forms of course material. On quizzes and the final, the big stuff matters, not the little introductory stories about the parks. Each chapter begins with some site-specific information about a national park (for example, that a lava flow dammed a river 35 million years ago at Florissant Fossil Beds, or that John Muir took Teddy Roosevelt out to Glacier Point in Yosemite and convinced him to hire rangers). Such specific material is included only to give you a better feel for the parks, and will not be on the tests. However, more fundamental information may be on a test, such as that Grand Canyon was carved by a river and Yosemite Valley was carved by a glacier.

Make-up Exam and Late Policy

Students (and professors and TAs) do get sick or have other University activities that interfere with class. I try to make appropriate allowances for you, and I hope you’ll do the same for me. But, to be fair to the rest of the class, absences or schedule deviations for late exercises or quiz submissions must be pre-approved by the professor or a TA. It is indeed a rare illness that is so severe that someone can’t phone or email before homework or a quiz is due; in those rare cases, we will happily accept a doctor’s excuse. Failure to comply will result in a score of zero for the quiz or homework involved. (And remember, you’re able to drop one of the six exercises, two of the twelve quizzes, and two of the twelve surveys, so missing one item is not an automatic cause for panic.)

GEOSC 10 Course Schedule

imagePrintable Schedule

In order to work through all of the course materials and activities together and in an "orderly fashion," we follow a set schedule each week. Yes, you will have the flexibility to work on the course in your bunny slippers, but you will be responsible for meeting set date/time requirements within the confines of a given week.

Basically, you should plan on studying most days of the week in order to keep on top of things in GEOSC 10. On Sundays, the quizzes are due, and on six of the Sundays during the semester you will also have exercises due. On Mondays (after the previous unit quiz closes), the new unit opens, and you will get access to a survey for the following unit. On Wednesdays, the survey closes and on Thursdays, the end-of-unit quiz (RockOn) opens. Please remember that all references to time in this course (and hence all deadlines) are in Eastern Standard Time Zone or E.S.T.

See the course Calendar or Canvas Syllabus for a full semester calendar of events.

Weekly Schedule
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday

Lesson opens

Practice Quiz Opens, 12:00 am

StudentsSpeak Opens, 12:00 am

Exercise Opens, 12:00 am (every other Monday)

Practice Quiz Due, 11:59 pm

StudentsSpeak Due, 11:59 pm

RockOn Opens, 12:00 am

RockOn Due, 11:59 pm

Exercise Due, 11:59 pm (every other Sunday)

The Dates and Course Units
Week Unit Title
WEEK 1 Unit 0 Course Orientation
WEEK 2 Unit 1 Welcome to Science
WEEK 3 Unit 2 Plate Tectonics I: Making Mountains, & Earthquakes
WEEK 4 Unit 3 Mountain Building & Volcanism
WEEK 5 Unit 4 Mountain Building, Obduction & Tsunamis
WEEK 6 Unit 5 Tearing Down Mountains: Weathering, Mass Movement, & Landslides
WEEK 7 Unit 6 Tearing Down Mountains: Groundwater and Rivers
WEEK 8 Unit 7 Glaciers, Ice & Permafrost
WEEK 9 Unit 8 Coasts & Sea-level Changes
WEEK 10 Unit 9 Deep Time: Stratigraphy and the Sedimentary Record
WEEK 11 Unit 10 Uniformitarianism and the Age of the Earth
WEEK 12 Unit 11 Evolution & Extinction
WEEK 13 Unit 12 Biodiversity, Global Warming, and the Future
Week 14 BREAK Thanksgiving
WEEK 15 STUDY Study Week
Week 16 FINAL Final Exam available to take

Course Communication

All communications pertaining to GEOSC 10 should be carried out within Canvas. We endeavor to reply to your inquiry within 24 to 48 hours (often sooner) and to inform you in advance of occasions when this response time may be extended. Please remember to make allowances for communications that are sent late-night or during weekends; responses to such inquiries will likely take longer.

  • Email: Please use the course email system and address to 'All Teachers' and 'All Teaching Assistants' - If you are not familiar with using Canvas communications, please review the overview of Course Communications in the Course Orientation.

Communicating effectively is one of the challenges of the online environment. It is important to practice this skill during this class and to remember the importance of presenting yourself professionally whether it be online or not, i.e., using the same care for spelling and grammar as you would in any other written assignment. Refer to "Netiquette: The Rules of the Internet" for guidelines on courteous communications and "Style for Students Online" for guidelines on writing style.

Course Policies

Academic Integrity

Penn State asks each professor to clarify his/her usage of integrity standards for that class. So, be nice. In legalistic detail (and I apologize for having to do this):

It is my fond hope that the rules here are unnecessary and that we all get along without needing to refer to them.

Violation of these rules will lead to failure of the exam or exercise on which the violation occurred. A second violation will lead to failure of the course. Additional insight is available in the Academic Integrity Policy of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

In return, of course, you can expect the professor to be polite, punctual, fair, informative, etc. If you do not think I am meeting these requirements, there are several options open to you, including i) talk to me, in public or in private, alone or with a group; or ii) talk to one of my "superiors":

The University also has ways for you to complain, but you are probably better off staying closer to the source. If you are having problems unrelated to me, you are also welcome to contact any of these sources; they are good people.

Academic Integrity Specifics for GEOSC 10:

  • Exercises: You are free to discuss the work with others and to compare answers, but you must actually do the work you hand in. Direct copying from others is not allowed.
  • Quizzes: Quizzes are timed, individual assessments, and each quiz is unique thanks to a revolving database of questions. Quizzes are, however, open book - students may consult the online textbook, notes, online course materials, and exercises in the completion of quizzes.
  • Exam: The procedure and expectations for the final exam are the same as for the quizzes.
  • Class: The class "room" is non-traditional due to the online nature of this course. Please note that sharing answers to quiz questions or exercise problems is a direct violation of academic integrity. Additionally, please do not request from others or provide to others copies of the quiz questions or quiz feedback; they are Penn State's, provided to you for your personal educational use only. You have one opportunity to print the feedback yourself after each quiz so please take it!
  • As in any class, all of you paid good money to attend, and deserve to be respected by the other members of the class as well as by the instructional team. You wouldn't stand up in the middle of a lecture and try to sell your football tickets or ask whether anyone knows the answer to quiz question 3, but both happened via whole-class email during an earlier semester. After many well-justified complaints from students suffering the email onslaught, we were forced to block email spamming throughout the course. We are confident that at least some of you could outsmart our block. Please don't—your classmates deserve better. And, we will consider it a violation of academic integrity if you email the whole class, or any sizable subset of the class, for any reason, and we will proceed to lower your grade in response. We supply the list of people to whom you can complain if you think we're not doing our jobs. You will just have to find some other place to arrange ride-shares and new roommates.
  • Geoscience Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs, Maureen Feineman
  • Geoscience Department Head Dr. Andy Nyblade
  • College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Associate Dean for Education Yvette Richardson
  • College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Associate Dean for Educational Equity, Victoria Sanchez

Emails from the Instructional Team

Emails from the instructional team to you are part of the class, and you are responsible for them. They will be considered part of the course materials, which means that you are required to read them and respond appropriately. If you do not know how to read email in Canvas, and you have not set up Canvas to forward your email to an account that you do read, you must figure out how to do so now by reviewing the Canvas Overview in the "Course Orientation". We will limit the number of emails we send to keep from filling your inboxes, and we will use announcements in Canvas as appropriate. However, communications are required in a large and computer-intensive course, and email will be used.

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.

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.