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Quaternary Geochronology

Mark Schmitz,
Department of Geosciences, Boise State University
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Summary


This course is designed to examine the principles and methods of the most widely used numerical dating methodologies for the Quaternary period (roughly the last two million years of Earth history), and how they constrain the timing, duration and rates of geologic and archaeological events and processes. Discussions focus on the resolving power, strengths and weaknesses of various geochronological techniques, and strategies for their successful application to a range of geological and geoarchaeological problems.

Course Size:
fewer than 15

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an upper division undergraduate course drawing from majors in both geology and geoarchaeology (joint anthropology-geosciences major). It has pre-requisites of introductory geology and college algebra.

Course Content:

Theory, application and interpretation of a number of commonly applied geochronological methods for the Quaternary. Sidereal (dendrochronology), radioactivity (radiocarbon, U-series), and physically-based (luminescence) methods are examined, with a focus on data analysis and interpretation. Data are derived from publications or in-house research projects, and students are required to interpret their results with the context of the scientific literature. Readings, data sets, and presentations are equally divided between geological and archaeological topics.

Course Goals:

1. Apply the principles and methods of the most widely used numerical dating methodologies for the Quaternary period, and how they constrain the timing, duration and rates of geologic and archaeological events and processes.
2. Apply critical thinking skills through the scientific method to address a range of problems in geochronology.
3. Develop the ability to critically read and comprehend research articles in geology and archaeology within the primary scientific literature (technical journals).
4. Demonstrate the ability to articulate the results of scientific research.

Course Features:

Each geochronological method is presented and studied in a three week module comprising lectures, reading of scientific literature, manipulation and analysis of scientific data bearing upon a research problem, and group poster presentations of research results. Students work in groups of 3-4 within each module. In each module, each group is given a different real world data set with which to learn how to derive, analyze, and interpret geochronological ages. The modules purposely follow a repetitive formula, which provides students an opportunity to learn from experiences in earlier modules, innovate upon earlier attempts to present their work for assessment, and hone their research skills.

Course Philosophy:

I designed the course as a means of teaching and learning through doing - emphasizing the processes of data analysis and interpretation to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different geochronological methods. I also wanted to provide an opportunity for students to develop their nascent research skills, both in terms of assessment driven by their specific desire to further understand the ages they were deriving.

Assessment:

Course assessment involves three forms:

1) individual summaries of scientific papers read in each course module
2) group poster presentations of the analysis of a data set for each geochronological method
3) final research proposal detailing the application of one or more geochronological methods to a scientific problem

The group poster presentation provides a particularly rich venue for peer assessment, dialog and feedback, with the opportunity for the students to edit and innovate upon their initial presentations.

Syllabus:

Course Syllabus and Schedule (Microsoft Word 34kB Feb20 12)

References and Notes:

Walker, Mike, 2005, Quaternary Dating Methods, John Wiley and Sons, 286 p.


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