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Historical Geology

Mike Phillips
Illinois Valley Community College
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This course is an introductory study of geologic history of the Earth. Emphasis is placed on interpretation of rocks and fossils as a means of understanding the Earth's history.

Course URL:
Course Type:
Entry Level :Historical Geology

Course Size:

Course Format:
Integrated lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This is an introductory-level historical geology course with no prerequisites. The course is four credit hours with two one-hour lectures and one one-hour seminar each week. Students are expected to spend approximately two hours per week in an "open lab." Typically 2-5 students are geology majors, the rest are taking the course to fill a gen ed requirement.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? no

If students take a "non-majors" course, and then decide to become a major, do they have to go back and take an additional introductory course? no

Course Content:

Historical Geology focuses on observation and interpretation of rocks and fossils. Students describe and interpret rocks in detail and develop their abilities to share meaningful descriptions and interpretations with other students. Students learn how to associate specific rock types with rock-forming environments and explain the basis for such interpretations. Students working in groups use a variety of resources to develop presentations describing the Earth's history. Students make observations and interpretations of past life based on fossil evidence.

Course Goals:

1. Students will be able to interpret the geologic history of a rock, an outcrop, a core, an area, and a map and cross section.

2. Students will be able to describe key events for a portion of the geologic time scale and explain how those interpretations were developed.

3. Students will be able to evaluate their personal concepts of evolution (and those of others) with respect to the scientific concepts of evolution via natural selection.

Skills: Students will be able to think critically & reflectively and to communicate clearly with others.

Course Features:

Historical Geology is organized around two parts. The first half of the semester, the focus is on rock interpretation. Instead of examining a pile of rocks, students examine and describe, in detail, three rocks, and small groups of students discuss the origins of a small set of rocks and develop a descriptive card for each rock. The rocks are placed in the lab with the cards as a reference. A series of diagrams of rock-forming environments is developed in class, and students match the lab rocks with the rock-forming environments on their diagrams. Students then visit field locations, examine rocks in outcrop, and discuss history of the area. The second half of the semester, small groups of students select portions of the geologic time scale and research and report to the class on key geologic events of their time segment with a 30-minute presentation followed by a discussion. Groups submit questions for a portion of the final exam, and, during the final exam, individual students may consult with members of the appropriate group when answering the student-submitted questions. Student engagement has improved as the format includes more discussion and relies more on student work. Students like the idea of "reading the rocks."

Course Philosophy:

Most students in the course take it as non-majors, and it is a general education course with no prerequisites. I would like the students to develop an overall understanding of the Earth's history and evolution. I would also like students to develop critical thinking skills. This design works well for the constraints and my goals.


I review student work as they progress through various activities and I collect and grade a variety of work including "lab" assignments, exams, and a term project. In addition, I use formative assessments (CATs) throughout the semester.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 61kB Jul11 08)

The course website (link at top of page) provides the up-to-date description of how the course is currently taught.

Teaching Materials:

Term project assignment (Microsoft Word 48kB Jul11 08)

References and Notes:

Course texts:
Historical Geology (5th ed.), Wicander & Monroe
It is the best textbook resource for students to use and matches well with the way I teach the course.
Historical Geology: Interpretations & Applications (6th ed.), Poort & Carlson
It has good exercises with which I can focus on interpretation of rocks and EOD. The chapter on paleontology has a broad variety of fossils and includes most of the common fossils found in Illinois.

Other readings:
Illinois State Geological Survey publications (esp. field trip guidebooks, Handbook of Illinois Stratigraphy, fossils guidebooks, and geologic maps of Illinois), the Paleomap Project web site, web Geological Time Machine.

Pedagogic references:
Introduction to Classroom Assessment Techniques, Tom Angelo & Patricia Cross; Classroom Research: Implementing the Scholarship of Teaching by Cross and Steadman; and Journal of Geoscience Education. Also, I completed most of the design of this course as a participant in the Designing Effective and Innovative Courses in the Geosciences workshop (summer 2004) as part of the Cutting Edge Workshop series.

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