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Teaching Paleontology in the 21st Century
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Paleontology

Author Profile
Rowan Lockwood

The College of William and Mary
a
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate
.

Summary

Paleontology is the study of the history of life and ancient environments. Historically, the practice of paleontology has focused on the description and classification of fossil species. This approach has undergone a fundamental shift in the last two decades as paleontologists have sought to apply more rigorous, quantitative techniques to the fossil record and have recognized the relevance of fossil data to evolutionary, plate tectonic, developmental, environmental, and ecological questions. Fossils are now frequently used in interdisciplinary studies to determine the nature and tempo of biological evolution, to recognize ancient environments and climates, to subdivide geologic time, to reconstruct the motions of tectonic plates, and to answer a host of other geological and biological questions. This course will focus on both traditional and more modern techniques in paleontology, demonstrating the importance of a quantitative, interdisciplinary approach to this fascinating subject.

Course URL:
Subject: Geoscience:Paleontology
Resource Type: Course Information
Grade Level: College Upper (15-16)
Course Size:

15-30

Course Context:

This is an upper-division elective course with prerequisites of introductory geology (one semester) or biology (two semesters). The course meets for two two-hour sessions per week; each session combines lecture, class/lab activity, and discussion. The course also includes two required (three days total), and one optional (one day) fieldtrips.

Course Goals:

- Students should be able to identify major groups of fossils and use these identifications to reconstruct time interval, paleoenvironment, and paleoclimate
- Students should be able to identify modes of preservation and quantify how preservation bias affects the quality of fossil data
- Students should be able to apply graphic correlation and other biostratigraphic techniques to correlate sections
- Students should be able to calculate confidence intervals for stratigraphic ranges and use these intervals to determine whether an extinction is sudden or gradual
- Students should be able to apply similarity coefficients (e.g., Simpson, Jaccard) to determine how similar fossil samples are and to reconstruct biogeographic trends through time
- Students should be able to apply techniques (CLAMP, stomatal density) to reconstruct paleoclimate
- Students should be able to apply cladistics to fossil data to reconstruct phylogeny
- Students should be able to calculate extinction and origination rates based on fossil occurrence data
- Students should be able to quantify fossil morphology and use it to distinguish fossil species and to develop morphospaces


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

I achieve the technique-based goals through a combination of: (1) class and field activities that focus on applying techniques, (2) problem sets that give students practice applying techniques, and (3) exams that test students' aptitude with these techniques.

Skills Goals

- Students should be able to synthesize and evaluate the primary literature in paleontology
- Students should be able to develop novel research questions/hypotheses
- Students should be able to develop approaches to data collection and analyses
- Students should improve writing skills
- Students should improve discussion skills


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

I achieve the research-based goals through a combination of: (1) class activities that focus on hypothesis generation and testing, (2) class discussions that dissect primary literature papers, and (3) a final grant proposal project that requires students to formulate their own novel research question, survey the literature, and propose a project to tackle this question.

Attitudinal Goals

- Building student's confidence in research-related skills
- Changing student attitudes toward soft-rock geology
- Changing student attitudes toward organismal biology
- Improving student understanding of evolution and how it works


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

I achieve attitudinal goals primarily via class and field activities, lecture, and discussions.

Assessment

I assess student learning via informal class participation, formal class participation (grading of class activities), class discussions (grading of discussion participation), problem sets, grant proposal projects, one midterm, and one final exam.

Syllabus:

Course information (Microsoft Word 46kB Jun11 09)

Course schedule (Microsoft Word 45kB Jun11 09)

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