MEnvSci Environmental Science with a Research Placement

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Understanding the Earth

Course unit fact file
Unit code EART11100
Credit rating 40
Unit level Level 4
Teaching period(s) Full year
Available as a free choice unit? No


The Earth is unique in our solar system in being able to support life, but has this always been the case?  This lecture-based course unit takes students on an incredible journey through the Earth’s past, present and future.  The underlying ethos of the course unit is to engage students with current ideas at the forefront of Earth, planetary and environmental science research and to communicate the excitement of our science.  Workshops provide students with the opportunity for group discussion and to explore particular topics in greater depth.

The story, which is grounded in the fundamental sciences of geology, chemistry, physics and biology, is told in four interrelated chapters. In semester 1 we travel through time and explore the physical evolution of the known Universe from the earliest moments of the Big Bang, through the formation of the first stars, to the creation of the planets in our solar system.  We study the physical evolution of the Earth and its changing climatic, tectonic and geodynamic systems over its 4567 Ma year history (How to Build a Planet).  We trace the history of life on Earth, from the appearance of first simple life forms and how they evolved to more complex ones towards the present day, and the key biological and ecological events that punctuate the evolution of the Earth (How to Grow a Planet).  In semester 2, we focus on the present and future Earth. The Earth is a dynamic planet in which the transfer of mass and energy occurs as the result of major interacting cycles: the hydrological cycle, the rock cycle and various geochemical cycles.  We study the physical processes and relationships between the key components of these cycles (the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and geosphere) that govern how the Earth system works today (A Dynamic Planet).  In the final chapter of the unit (A Sustainable Planet) we will study the ways in which human demand for mineral, energy, water and food resources have impacted on the Earth system, including the climate system and ecosystems, and how this knowledge can be used to address global environmental challenges. We tackle this within the framework of The UN Sustainable Development Goals which provides us with a blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all.


Unit title Unit code Requirement type Description
The Natural Scientist's Toolkit EART11200 Co-Requisite Compulsory
Practical and Professional Skills Development EART11300 Co-Requisite Compulsory


The aim of this course unit is to convey a multidisciplinary understanding of the Earth as a system of interacting components.  The unit emphasises the importance of studying how the Earth has evolved through time, in order to understand the processes we see happening today, and so that we can plan for and influence the future. This unit provides a unifying narrative for the first year of the undergraduate degrees in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DEES), and is supported by EART11200 The Natural Scientists Toolkit and EART11300 Practical, Professional and Fieldwork Skills.


Learning outcomes

On the successful completion of the course, students will be able to:


describe the basic structure and composition of the modern, solid Earth (geosphere) and its hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere


outline the fundamental stages in the evolution of Universe, stars and planetary bodies


identify key geological, climatic, biological and ecological events in Earth history, when they occurred and their causes


describe the physical, chemical and biological processes that operate within and on the Earth and other Planetary bodies, and how they have combined to shape the evolution of the Earth and planetary system through geologic time


describe the formation, extraction and generation of mineral, energy, water and food resources, and discuss the environmental consequences of how these resources are utilised and managed for the Earth


list, in order, the principal divisions of geologic time and their defining biological, climatic and geological basis


identify the central paradigms of our science that shape our perspective of how the Earth and planets operate today, such as plate tectonics, evolution theory and uniformitarianism, and describe how these ideas developed historically


apply appropriate nomenclature to describe and classify modern and ancient organisms, and Earth materials such as rocks and minerals


synthesise a large body of factual and contextual knowledge by taking good lecture notes, through directed reading and independent study


engage with current ideas at the forefront of Earth, planetary and environmental science research, from a multidisciplinary perspective

ILO 1-8: Developed and assessed

ILO 9-10: Developed


There are four lectures per week throughout the year.  In each semester, two chapters run concurrently with two lectures per week each.

Semester 1 - How to Build a Planet / How to Grow a Planet 

Semester 2 - A Dynamic Planet / A Sustainable Planet

Teaching and learning methods

Through this course unit students will develop their ability to synthesise a large body of factual and contextual knowledge delivered in the lectures (ILO10), through directed reading and independent study (ILO 9).


Learning during this course unit builds from one week to the next and, to be successful, it is essential that students attend every class and revise the previous week's materials between classes. A wide variety of supplementary learning resources such as explanatory notes, additional reading, videos and short formative assignments are available on the unit Blackboard site to aid preparation and consolidation. The core course texts provide students with access to a wide breadth of additional online learning resources provided by the publisher to deepen understanding and for self-assessment.


It is not expected that students will learn by heart the full content of each lecture! The course is a foundation for all nine different pathways on two different degree programmes that students choose between at the end of the first year. Therefore, the intention is that the breadth and depth of material presented will allow students to personalise their experience and discover where their interests lie, by allowing them to pursue some topics in more detail, while developing a more basic understanding in other areas. To ensure all students gain an adequate foundation across the subject and are not overwhelmed by the amount of content available, a revision aid (in the form of a guide or quiz questions) is posted each week highlighting the core information students must know and will be assessed on.


The lecture series is supported a weekly workshop in Semester 1. The focus of the workshops is on the geological time scale. Through the workshops students will gain an appreciation of the immensity of geological time, how Earth history is subdivided on the geological timescale, when key events happened, how we can determine the age of rocks in the field and from maps, as well as an intuition for the scale of processes that happen at geological time scales. The workshops are a forum for group discussion, to explore particular topics in greater depth and to ask questions. The workshops will help students draw together what they have learnt in UtE with their other two units.


A formative test in week 6 of semester 1 is intended to allow students to see the importance of deep learning at the outset of their University career, to provide students with the opportunity to gauge their level understanding of the course material (ILOs 1-8), to monitor their own progress through the course, and to help students gain familiarity with the University exams process. The test provides forward feedback on the format and performance expectations for the summative exams. To encourage students to engage fully with the formative aspect of the test experience, test papers are not returned to the students. Instead, students are encouraged to consider their preparation as they tackle the questions during the test- have they understood and learnt the important information and in the right amount of detail? Individual marks and group feedback is provided in Week 7 and students are expected to meet with their academic advisor in Week 8 to reflect positively upon the test experience, their mark and their study habits.


Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 100%

Feedback methods

Assessment type

% Weighting within unit

Hand out and hand in dates



How, when and what feedback is provided

ILO tested

Exam 1

(How to Build a Planet)


January exam period

2 hours

General exam cohort-level feedback via blackboard, and students will be able to view marked exam scripts in a hosted open session.

ILOs 1-4, 6-8

Exam 2

(How to Grow a Planet)


January exam period

2 hours

General exam cohort-level feedback via blackboard, and students will be able to view marked exam scripts in a hosted open session.

ILOs 1, 3-4, 6-8

Exam 3

(A Dynamic Planet)


May/June exam period

2 hours

General exam cohort-level feedback via blackboard, and students will be able to view marked exam scripts in a hosted open session.

ILOs 1, 4, 7-8

Exam 4

(A Sustainable Planet)


May/June exam period

2 hours

General exam cohort-level feedback via blackboard, and students will be able to view marked exam scripts in a hosted open session.

ILOs 1, 4-5, 8

Formative Test 1

(Combined test: How to Build a Planet & How to Grow a Planet)


Week 6, Semester 1

1 hour

Class feedback end of week 7 and through discussion with individual academic advisor in Week 8

ILOs 1-4, 6-8


Recommended reading

*Grotzinger, JP & Jordan, TH, 2020, Understanding Earth, Bedford

*Marshak, S., 2019, Earth: Portrait of a Planet, 6th edition

Sadava, D, Hillis, D & Heller, H, 2020, Life: The Science of Biology, 12th edition, Macmillan International Higher Education

Begon, M, Townsend, CR, & Harper, JL, Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems, 4th edition, Blackwell Publishing

Craig, J, Vaughan, DJ, & Skinner, B, Earth Resources and the Environment: Pearson New International Edition

Hewitt, C.N. and Jackson A.V., 2009, Atmospheric Sciences for Environmental Scientists, Wiley

Houghton, J., 2002, The Physics of Atmospheres, 3rd edition Cambridge University Press


*One of these two texts will be provided in paper form to all students as the first year core text year core text

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 80
Practical classes & workshops 20
Independent study hours
Independent study 300

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
David Johnson Unit coordinator
Raymond Burgess Unit coordinator
Giles Johnson Unit coordinator
Merren Jones Unit coordinator
Victoria Coker Unit coordinator
David Schultz Unit coordinator
Rhodri Jerrett Unit coordinator

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