The Ocean Planet

Amber Harris
University of Rhode Island


This course examines the Earth in three different settings. First, the Earth's place in the universe (origins of the universe, sun, Earth and other planets). Second, the Earth as a whole (Earth structure, earthquakes, volcanism). Third, the surface of the Earth (ocean, atmosphere, climate). The course concludes with student led group presentations on human modifications to the Earth (climate change, use/abuse of natural resources).

Course Type: Intro Level Earth System Science
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites. Typically, 90% of the students take the course to satisfy a general education requirement, and 10% take the course as a required class for their minor.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? no

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? no

Course Content:

The Ocean Planet course focuses on the Earth at various scales. The farthest 'zoomed out' subject matter covers astronomy, the solar system, and sun formation. At the next level, the course covers large-scale Earth structure, plate tectonics, geodynamics, earthquakes, and volcanism. Finally, at the most 'zoomed in' level, the course covers the basics of the four sub-disciplines of oceanography: Geological oceanography - ocean basin structure, ocean sediment distribution and type. Chemical oceanography - special properties of water, salinity, temperature, density. Physical oceanography - density driven circulation, wind driven circulation, waves, tides, upwelling/downwelling. Biological oceanography - nutrient transport, productivity, trophic levels, food webs. Student projects will also cover the topics of climate change, and human impact on Earth.

Course Goals:

As an introductory course, I want younger students to be able to learn how to extract important information from the lecture and learn what is important to study. For all students, I want them to see the relevance of earth science in their daily lives and be able to connect what they've learned with what they hear and read in the news. Finally, I want students to be able to break down a topic to its simplest parts and give a clear presentation that will teach the other students what they have learned.

Course Features:

Students make their own sample quiz questions at the end of each class, which I use some of to make a quiz for the beginning of the next class.

Each student is responsible for bringing in one news article per semester, which is relevant for that day's lecture topic. They give the class a 5-minute summary and have a discussion question.

The course also has a group research project where students investigate a topic of their choosing that is related to climate change, alternative energy, or some form of human impact on Earth. Various tasks throughout the semester help them prepare for the final presentation - they turn in a proposal, learn 'backwards mapping' techniques for organizing their talks/papers, give a 20 min talk to the class, and write a paper on the topic.

Course Philosophy:

Because this class only meets once per week for three hours, this structure helps me to break up the time and keep students actively engaged in learning.


The first two goals are difficult to assess because they should be life long learning achievements. The final goal can be assessed by how effective their papers and presentations are.

References and Notes:

Course readings: Each student is responsible for reading the news articles which other students present.