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Life on Earth: How Biology Built a Planet (and vice versa)

Author Profile
James Farquhar

University of Maryland
a
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs
.

Summary

The history of Earth and the history of life are intricately intertwined through climatological, geochemical, and biochemical conceptions. The evolution of Earth systems in deep time, a time frame that extends across nearly 3/4 of Earth's history, was influenced by external factors such as the infall of cometary material and the intensity of solar luminosity change as well as internal feedbacks between the oceans, the atmosphere, and the solid Earth. Changes in Earth's earliest environments also occurred as a result of biological innovation and widespread microbiological activity.

In the past five years, the sector of Earth science that deals with early Earth studies has been incredibly dynamic, with new findings published almost weekly in major scientific journals such as Science and Nature. Using selections from the recent peer-reviewed literature and from other accessible texts, this course will provide an introduction to the origin and evolution of Earth's early atmosphere, oceans, and early greenhouse condition. We will examine the geological evidence for microbial innovation and its interconnections with Earth's early environments. We will evaluate evidence for changes in Earth's surface environments from a perspective that draws on the geological, geochemical, and biological records of Earth materials, and will reconcile these records with models of planetary radiation balance, and solar system evolution.

Course URL:
Subject: Biology:Evolution
Resource Type: Course Information:Goals/Syllabi
Topics: Biosphere:Evolution, Time/Earth History
Course Size:

15-30

Course Context:

This is a seminar-style, topical introductory course with no prerequisites that serves as part of the UM CORE curriculum. CORE is a Liberal Arts and Sciences program. CORE goals include learning how to learn and to value lifelong learning. The course is writing intensive.

Course Goals:

Goal 1: I want students to be able to use library resources such as the WOS to identify the initial studies, the most influential studies, and the most recent studies that are relevant to geologic topics. Related to this, I want students to be able to use these library resources to write a cogent research paper that ties together geochemical data with published background material on the geologic context, biology, and prevailing hypotheses about the evolution of Earth's early environments.

Goal 2: This class may be one of the only times that some of these students work with geologic reasoning and geologic data. I would like the students to be able to read and evaluate geologic findings that are reported in the popular science literature (the news, magazines, and books).

Goal 3: I want students to be able to use observations and reasoning from geology, biology, and geochemistry to reconstruct the conditions for some of Earth's earliest environments and to compare these with prevailing hypotheses. As part of this goal, I would like students to be able to devise plausible forcing and feedback loops and to investigate their implications the changes that Earth's environments underwent early in Earth's history

Ancillary goals relate to writing and feedback in writing. The elements of writing that I have focused on in the past have been (in addition to basic issues of English) organization, presentation of observations and hypotheses, and selection of reference materials. I intend to have one project that involves handing in a final draft towards the end of the term, receiving comments and suggested revisions, and then revising to make a second final draft for the end of term. I am considering doing this assignment as a team effort assignment with pairs of students writing each paper.


How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

The course will focus on five broad content units and repeat the same basic structure for each of these. These Units will include a team based approach to working with the material, a team based approach to focusing and interpreting a laboratory demonstration, and an assessment (exam) conducted both using a two stage exam technique with an initial exam, followed by team discussions, a class discussion, and then the option of a take home retake of the exam.

There will be approximately 5 class meetings of 1:15 hr for each Major content topic. One of these will be a demonstration/lab format meeting, and the other four will be divided into the following format:
a) I will give a reading list at the start of the major content topic, and will select from that a relevant chapter/paper/article for each class meeting. Drawn from this reading will be a question-of-he day/think pair share exercise for each subtopic/concept.
b) The middle part of these class periods will be broken down into three parts- which I am still fuzzy on, but which will likely include a first and third part that involve a mini-lecture format with guided questions, and a middle part with a specific exercise that is related either to the reading/subtopic/concept for the class meeting, or to the design of the laboratory/demonstration exercise or to the theme of forcing/response and feedbacks.
c)At the end of the classes I will ask for a minute paper.
d) the fourth class meeting will consist of four short 5-7 minute summaries of the highlights of each groups' findings by a member of each group.

The lab/demonstration meeting will involve discussion of the experimental design and recording of the experimental goals, design, results; which in many cases will be group results, and interpretations. Unfortunately my lab will not lend itself to the whole group working on these experiments, but I will not discourage interest by members of the class in working on the experiments outside of class.

The final class of the Broad topic content unit will consist of a 45 minute essay exam, a reassignment of groups using the jigsaw principle, followed by a discussion of the exam question—for example what would a complete answer to the exam question include. I will ask that this is discussed first within each of the new groups, and then as a discussion among the groups and involving myself. The option then will exist for the students to answer the exam question as a take home question (which if they do, will constitute 30% of their grade on the exercise, and if they choose not to do this, their grade will be from the in-class part). The new groups will form the basis for the next broad content unit.

Skills Goals

Writing


How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

The elements of writing that I have focused on in the past have been (in addition to basic issues of English) organization, presentation of observations and hypotheses, and selection of reference materials. I intend to have one project that involves handing in a final draft towards the end of the term, receiving comments and suggested revisions, and then revising to make a second final draft for the end of term. I am considering doing this assignment using an on-line discussion format as a way for the students to work with the material that they are writing about, and to discuss their own ideas about the material.

Attitudinal Goals

One of my general goals is for students to have a positive attitude about science as well as learning about the Earth. For the most part, this seems to be one of the reasons that the students sign up for ths type of class. As a result, I don't plan on having it as a goal per se.

Assessment

The Assessment for this course will take several different forms:

There will be questions of the day that will be assessed, but mostly to encourage class preparation and participation.

The team project and presentation for each broad content unit will be graded and feedback will be given.

There will be several two stage essay questions given in the class that will serve as exams for the content that is covered in the broad content units.

There will be a course research project that will be assessed in three parts (the outline, the final draft, and the revised final draft).

Syllabus:

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