There is no corequisite for this class, although priority will be given to students also enrolled in any other ESCI courses.  If you are having trouble registering, please contact Kirsten Siebach (

ESCI 111: Inhabiting Planet Earth  CRN 14786

Dr. Kirsten Siebach

Fall 2021 [3 credit hours]

Tu-Th  9:25 a.m.    10:40 a.m.

Fully Online


Course Page:

Course Description

Why is Earth habitable? How do we sustain our existence on this unique planet? This freshmen-only course will introduce students to our species’ interactions with Planet Earth. We will explore what makes a planet habitable, our planet’s history, and how humans are altering Earth’s future, along with an in-depth investigation into the geologic and paleoclimate history of the American Southwest. The course is designed around three case studies, each with a unique approach to interpreting the habitability of Earth. The first unit covers the building of Planet Earth and geologic factors that control habitability. The second unit covers the American Southwest and will involve a 3-4 day field trip to the Grand Canyon over the Fall Recess to put course objectives into practice in a field setting. The final segment of the course will focus on human impacts on our planet, environmental policy and reading the recently published National Climate Assessment.

Course Objectives

This course takes a case-study approach to exploring the fundamental properties of Earth: its formation, composition, climate, and processes that change it. A primary objective is to develop a broad understanding of how humans have interacted with and responded to environmental forcing over time, through lecture, reading, writing, and field exercises.  Students will learn to analyze earth science data sets, evaluate climate policies, and interpret the rock record & make field recordings. Students will be evaluated on both content knowledge and development of skills, including critical thinking, analytical writing, and working in teams.

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the scientific method as applied in the earth sciences
  • Explain Earth’s natural cycles characterizing both the solid and fluid envelopes of the planet (e.g. the hydrologic cycle, plate tectonics, carbon cycle, climate);
  • Broad knowledge of how scientists interpret the rock and paleoclimate record;
  • Explain how earth processes interact with human life, and create hazards to life and property;
  • Develop skills in field observation via class field trips;
  • Explain the causes and effects of global climate change;
  • Obtain knowledge of U.S. environmental policy over the 20th & 21st centuries, especially as applied to the American Southwest


  • Annals of a Former World (McPhee)
  • Merchants of Doubt (Naomi Oreskes)


All students are expected to attend lectures and participate in class discussions.

Grading Policy

We reserve the right to curve the scale dependent on overall class scores at the end of the semester (the highest grade will be assigned to 100%, and the curve will extend down from there). We will assign grades using the following numeric to grade conversion scale:

<60 60 63 67 70 73 77 80 83 87 90 93>
F D- D D+ C- C C+ B- B B+ A- A

The grade will count the assessments using the following proportions:

  • 20% of your grade will be determined by midterm 1
  • 20% of your grade is based on the field trip presentation (10%) and report (10%)
  • 20% of your grade will be determined by midterm 2
  • 10% of your grade will be determined by in-class participation and attendance
  • 30% of your grade is based on homework assignments

Course Policies:

Academic Integrity

In this course, all students will be held to the standards of the Rice Honor Code, a code that you pledged to honor when you matriculated at this institution. If you are unfamiliar with the details of this code and how it is administered, you should consult the Honor System Handbook at This handbook outlines the University’s expectations for the integrity of your academic work, the procedures for resolving alleged violations of those expectations, and the rights and responsibilities of students and faculty members throughout the process.

Copying/cheating of any sort will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent.

“If you must write prose/poems the words you use should be your own, don’t plagiarize or take

on loan” – Morrisey.

Academic Accommodations

If you have a documented disability or other condition that may affect academic performance you should: 1) make sure this documentation is on file with the Disability Resource Center (Allen Center, Room 111 / / x5841) to determine the accommodations you need; and 2) talk with me to discuss your accommodation needs.

During Class

I understand that the electronic recording of notes will be important for class and so computers will be allowed in class. Please refrain from using computers for anything but activities related to the class. Phones are prohibited as they are rarely useful for anything in the course. Eating is not allowed in class.


Successful students:

  1. Attend all classes
  2. Complete all assigned coursework
  3. Complete readings
  4. Participate in class discussions
  5. Follow current events involving climate change
  6. Treat all classmates and your professors with respect

If for any reason you have a personal emergency that prevents you from attending class, you may email your instructors 24 hours in advance of class to request make-up lecture materials.

Some more casual rules:

Ask questions when you don’t understand things; chances are you’re not alone.

Read the Syllabus.

Time extensions will not be given due to tardiness.



Schedule and weekly learning goals

The schedule is tentative and subject to change. The learning goals below should be viewed as the key concepts you should grasp after each week, and also as a study guide before each exam, and at the end of the semester. Each exam will test on the material that was taught up until 1 week prior to the exam. The applications in the second half of the semester tend to build on the concepts in the first half of the semester though, so it is still important to at least review those concepts throughout the semester.


  1. What is “Habitability”? + Building Earth (Planetary Formation, What is Earth made of)
  2. Planetary Energy Balance (Energy & Radiation (Energy types & conversions, Radiation, heat and temperature, Our star, the Sun) Energy and Radiation, The greenhouse effect, Insolation and Earth’s Seasons)
  3. How do Solid Earth Systems enable habitability? (Importance and Implications of Plate Tectonics, Linking deep Earth & Surface/Atmosphere)
  4. How have Earth’s inhabitants changed the planet? (Sedimentology record, Major events & ties between Earth and life)
  5. Linking Life and Paleoclimate: a timeline of Earth’s Climates (Paleoclimatology: the study of past climate states, Ice Ages: observations, Ice Ages: astronomical theory


  1. Geologic history of the southwest, paleoclimates of the southwest
  2. Maps and Remote Sensing over the southwest
  3. Water Management & the Colorado River, Future of the Southwest


Reading: The National Climate Assessment Report,

  1. Humans’ relationship with our Environment (Tragedy of the Commons, Societal collapse, migration, and climate change)
  2. Detection of Human Impacts on the Climate System (Attribution: The Hockey Stick controversy, human causes of environmental change, and how we measure changes in the atmosphere and oceans)
  3. Detection of Human Impacts on the Land Surface (Land Cover Changes, Engineering our Environment)
  4. Earth’s Future (A Greenhouse Future, Climate Modeling, Geoengineering, and potential solutions)
  5. Thanksgiving Holiday
  6. Environmental Policy in the United States (Reading: Merchants of Doubt, Climate Change and the media, Climate fallacies & how to talk to a skeptic, Climate Policy & Individual Action, and Environmental Ethics)