Teach the Earth > Hydrogeology > Hydrogeology, Soils, Geochemistry 2013 > Course Descriptions > Geobiology


Penelope Boston,
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology


This course is designed to provide a broad perspective on the ongoing effects of biological processes and entities on the development of Earth as a geological object. Very early in the history of Earth, life emerged and the history of Earth has been profoundly affected by this circumstance ever since. Life distinguishes Earth amongst its fellow planets in our Solar System.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in separate lecture and lab components. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is one of 5 200-level (sophomore) fundamental courses required of our Earth and Environmental Science majors. We also attract Biology, Chemistry, Mineral Engineering, Petroleum Engineering, and Environmental Science majors who take it as an elective. Limited prerequisites include Geol 101 - General Geology or other 100 level (freshmen) geoscience class.

Course Content:

The scope of Geobiology is extremely broad encompassing topics as widely separated as classical paleontology and global scale biogeochemical cycles. We present the most significant of the long list of possible topics focusing on both ends of the geological time spectrum from ancient to modern trying to point out parallels in geobiological processes and events across the vast span of deep time. Geology, geochemistry, hydrology, climatology, biology and other topics are interwoven to paint a picture of Earth as an inherently geobiological planet.

Course Goals:

I want to open students' eyes to the many biological influences on geological processes. I want them to approach classical Earth science topics with an eye to the potential role of biology in those where that makes sense. I try to impart a sense of the amazing record of life contained within the rock record, and how that story can be read in real time in the field. Even if they go on into fields of science or engineering that have little directly to do with biology, they are citizens who live on a planet dominated by biological processes, they face decisions as voters that should be based on a good grasp of the technical issues involved, and they are biological organisms themselves in fact!

Course Features:

I use the Socratic method, I try to elicit actual brainwaves in the students, I try to strike a balance between chunks of formal presentation, and informal probing of those concepts in real time in the class.

The capstone laboratory activity requires the students to select different events, epochs, and transformations in the geobiological history of Earth. They create physical signs with text and drawings illustrating the events, and then make a spatial translation of the sweep of geobiological time into a campus-sized display. Students communally develop the best scale to use to represent events as recent as a few thousand years ago, to the earliest record of potentially water-influenced minerals on the planet (e.g. zircons) at 4+ billion years ago.

Course Philosophy:

It suits my hyperactive personality! It suits the needs of trying to impart a feel for working across very different disciplinary lines.


The obvious, pre-test at the beginning of the semester, the usual exams, written responses to in class assignments, synthesis of the presented ideas in new situations in small-group exercises.


Syllabus for the 2013 version (Excel 22kB Apr25 13)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Earth: Portrait of a Planet by Steven Marshak
We are using it as the fundamental text for the entire suite of 200 level classes in our core curriculum.

I assign a small number of easy to tackle journal articles, articles in broad interest magazines like Scientific American.

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