Another Earthy MOOC (short version)

Course: Our Earth: Its Climate, History, and Processes

School: University of Manchester (UK) via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Prof. David M. Schultz, Dr Rochelle Taylor
This course focuses on a basic science understanding that demonstrates how the processes on Earth (including biological processes) lead to natural climate changes that have shaped the planet and the path of evolution. Students are challenged to think of the Earth as an integrated system made up of water, air, ice, land, and life.

I was inspired to take several science courses following last fall’s Origins. This was one of them.

It covered much of the same ground, in some cases filling in some gaps, and occasionally venturing into different areas. It’s a short course, only four weeks of content, so of course the breadth and depth are a bit abbreviated, but it’s a very nice place to start if you’re not looking for a long-term commitment. I particularly enjoyed the sequences on the earth’s magnetic field (one of those things I’ve always been a little fuzzy about – especially the thing with the poles reversing), and about earthquakes. I was also glad to find more information about the geology I’d learned about in Origins. By the way, I found a terrific documentary in my travels, one that made the whole “but where did the continents come from in the first place” issue a little clearer to me. Somehow, earth science courses like to talk about plate tectonics and Pangaea a lot, but then they talk about the incredibly old formations and fossils in Australia or Canada separately and somehow it gets lost (to me, at least) that Australia and Canada weren’t then where they are now.

In addition to video lectures and weekly quizzes (more of the crazy-making “we won’t tell you which 2 questions you got wrong, but you can try twice more if you like” – I didn’t play this time), each week featured a Google Earth tour of various sites of interest. An additional application, Build Your Own Earth, was also featured to show the interaction of atmosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere. Though BYOE was a major reason I took the course, I found these applications more frustrating than instructive, though I suspect those who more appreciate high-tech gadgetry – and have the time to play with things and figure out how to get the most out of them – will be more enthusiastic. As for me, well, I appreciate the effort that went into preparing the materials. I would’ve rather seen clearly labeled photos, but that’s me; others in the course were very happy with these supplements.

It’s a fine course for anyone looking to dip a toe in the water of earth science – and if you have a better feel for simulation software, and/or more time to play with it, I suspect you’ll have a great time.


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