Earth and the Solar System

Sara Harris
University of British Columbia


This is high enrollment science course for non-science students in which we examine the evidence for how geological, biological, atmospheric, oceanic, and climatic processes work and interact here on Earth. We then attempt to apply those processes to other planets in our solar system. The course structure includes pre-class student preparation and in-class small group activities to require students to engage with the material regularly throughout the term.

Course URL: restricted access
Course Type: Intro Level Earth System Science
Course Size:
greater than 150

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This course has no prerequisites, does not serve as a prerequisite for any other courses, and includes introductory-level material. Students must have 2nd-year standing and must be in a Faculty other than the Faculty of Science. Most students take this class to satisfy a general education requirement and have little Earth Science background.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? yes
Our situation is slightly different than described in this question. We have introductory courses for anyone (majors and non-majors), and we also have introductory-level courses specifically for non-science students.
If students take a "non-majors" course, and then decide to become a major, do they have to go back and take an additional introductory course? yes

Course Content:

The course includes 6 broad topic areas: Origins and structure of the solar system; planetary structure; plate tectonics; atmospheres; oceans & life; and planetary climates. Students have opportunities to examine data and evidence, link processes among the 6 topic areas, and relate course material to today's situation on Earth.

Course Goals:

1. Apply an evidence-based, logical, scientific approach to ask and address questions about our planet and solar system.
2. Explain everyday observations of the natural world in terms of planetary processes.
3. Interpret observations of other solar system bodies using knowledge of how Earth works.
4. Recognize the complex links among geologic, oceanic, and atmospheric processes.
5. Identify and use appropriate time scales to describe and link different planetary processes.
6. Articulate the relevance of earth science to individuals and to society.
7. Evaluate earth science-related topics presented in the media, on the basis of the evidence presented and your knowledge of physical processes.

Course Features:

I use close to a "just-in-time-teaching" approach in this course. Prior to each class, students are required to do some pre-class preparation (usually reading), and take a short on-line quiz. One of the quiz questions is always "Articulate a question you had about the reading or a question that follows from the reading". I examine the quiz results and read the student questions prior to class and can adjust my plans according to concepts that students found particularly challenging (or not challenging). Also, each class period includes an activity that students usually complete individually first, then in small groups, followed by whole-class discussion. The purpose of the activities is to provide opportunities for students to engage with the material in a brief, focused manner. Students turn in their responses on index cards and those serve as feedback to me regarding what they think and what misconceptions they might have. Two example activities are Relative Dating on Earth and Mars and Testing the Fixed-hotspot-moving-plate model. Exams include questions quite similar to the in-class activities, with a different scenario, or applied to a different planet. This structure allows students to make mistakes and learn during the low-stakes in-class activities, and lets them know what I consider important, because it appears again on the higher-stakes assessments.

Course Philosophy:

These are two techniques that are relatively easy to implement in a large class, yet allow the students to have an experience like that in a smaller class (working with peers). The on-line quizzes (which count for marks) encourage students to keep up with the material on a regular basis, which they do, and for which they usually report they are ultimately grateful, since exam preparation is much less stressful if they've kept up. All of my students are not science students, so this course would otherwise be quite low on their priority list (understandably) and most students would put off the work until the end, then cram. Also, as an instructor, I very much enjoy some unstructured time in class, when student input and responses might take us in an interesting direction, or might elucidate student thinking of which I was unaware.


I attempt to link my quizzes and exams to course learning goals, but have not yet fully succeeded. I also conduct an on-line, anonymous, end-of-term survey that specifically asks students to rate how well the class helped them achieve each of the learning goals. The variability in the distribution of responses gives a qualitative sense of student perceptions about their achievement.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) PRIVATE FILE 79kB May7 08)

References and Notes: