Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Course Descriptions > Paleontology


Julie K. Bartley

Gustavus Adolphus College
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


Catalog Description: The life of the geologic past, including the application of the study of fossils to evolution processes, paleoecology, and biostratigraphy. Laboratories will emphasize invertebrates including specimens collected on field trips to southeastern Minnesota and northern Iowa. Fall semester, odd years.

Course URL:
Subject: Geoscience:Paleontology
Resource Type: Course Information
Grade Level: College Upper (15-16)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Paleontology
Course Size:

less than 15

Course Context:

This is an upper-division survey of paleontology with no prerequisites, although most participants will have had physical and historical geology. The majority of participants are geology majors, but some environmental studies and biology students may also take the course. The course has three 50-minute lecture sessions per week and one 3-hour lab each week.

Course Goals:

1)Students will taxa representing the major lineages of organismal life through study of their anatomy and diversity.
2)Students will observe the skeletal remains of organisms and make grounded biological inferences about the soft-bodied organism that produced them.
3)Students will explain the significance of the major transitions in organismal evolution, such as endosymbiosis of organelles, multicellularity, photosynthesis, skeletonization, bilaterality, modularization, mobility, and carnivory.
4)Students will list and describe the major events (extinctions, diversifications, and environmental transitions) in the history of life and relate these events to possible causes.
5)Students will make inferences about the paleoecology and functional morphology of extinct organisms by interpreting their environmental distribution, morphology, taphonomy, and ichnology.
6)Students will make correct stratigraphic designations for strata based on their fossil content.
7)Students will understand and practice the analytical methods of paleontologists, including statistics, simulation models, calculation of evolutionary rates and diversity curves, morphospaces, and phylogenetics.
8)Students will articulate critical issues in evolutionary and ecological theory, including competition, evolutionary mechanisms, natural and species selection, extinction, progress, and escalation.
9)Students will practice the skills of reading and writing scientific prose by researching a peculiar aspect of paleontological inquiry in the primary paleontological literature.

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

The learning outcomes above are addressed by specific lecture and lab activities. For example students research and write about a group of fossils that poses an as-yet unresolved paleontological problem. In completing the assignment, students must "think like a paleontologist," thereby addressing several learning outcomes simultaneously. A combination of teamwork and individual accountability allows students with disparate content backgrounds to support one another, but retain individual ownership of their work.

Skills Goals

Goal 9 above is both a skill goal and a content goal, emphasizing the development of reading (primary literature) and writing (scientific prose).

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

Reading and writing are embedded throughout the course; students read an accessible book about paleontology throughout the course; read the primary literature; and generally interact with complex material in a variety of ways. Writing assignments are dispersed through the course as well; low-risk, short writing assignments build up to the larger research paper.

Attitudinal Goals

Since I'm new to my institution, I need to know the students better to develop ideas about attitudes. However, my general experience is that students are a bit apprehensive about paleontology; this course would strive to make them comfortable with the content in a paleontology course.

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

This course provides numerous opportunities for students to make choices about what they do in the course. My experience indicates that students engage material more willingly when they are partners in the process of learning and are called upon to make meaningful decisions about their learning.


In addition to lecture exams (which are take-home, open book writing assignments) and lab practicals (in-class, closed book assessments of learning), students in this course produce a number of tangible products by which their learning can be evaluated, both by me and by the rest of the students and faculty in the department. The students' individual research projects are presented in the last week of class, poster-style, to the department. This allows the students to reflect on their learning, and additionally provides me opportunity to assess their learning in more than one way.


Syllabus for Paleontology (Microsoft Word 93kB Jun4 09)

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