Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Teaching Activities > Field Lab - Stromatolites

Field Lab - Stromatolites

Emma Rainforth
Ramapo College of New Jersey
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This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: May 28, 2009


The lab requires students to make detailed observations on an outcrop, both about the fossils (stromatolites) and the lithology. It addresses the two 'content goals' of the course: assessing mode of life of an organism and determining the paleoenvironmental context.

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  • Undergraduate (300-level) required course in paleontology for environmental science majors and elective for biology majors. The course is oriented towards 'environmental and ecosystem change'.
  • Students will have already had 200-level ecology (which has 100-level biology as a prereq). 100-level geology is recommended but not required (the environmental science majors are likely to have taken geology already; biology majors will not).

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Identification of sedimentary rocks and structures.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is the first field lab and the first lab where fossil groups are explored. In class, students have had an overview of the Precambrian history of life. It is an introduction to reconstructing paleoenvironments, which is built upon in the following two field labs.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Students will apply the principle of superposition, and identify lithologies, sedimentary structures and fossils, in order to reconstruct the physical environments represented in this succession.
  • Students will analyze the succession to determine how environments were changing through time
  • Students will apply the principle of initial horizontality, and identify the Quaternary (glacial) processes that acted upon these strata, in order to describe the post-depositional history of the rocks represented in this outcrop.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will collect and interpret data (lithologies, sedimentary structures, rock attitude) in order to reconstruct the geologic history of the site.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Students will work collaboratively throughout the field trip.
    • Students who have not had an introductory geology class may observe features but be unable to identify or interpret them; students who have had introductory geology will act as teachers to the other students in the class.
  • Students will organize their field observations and site interpretations into a formal written report
  • Students will gain practice making detailed field observations, and using prior knowledge and first principles to interpret their observations.

Description of the activity/assignment

By this point in the semester students have had a refresher of basic geologic principles (Steno's laws) and depositional environments. On this trip students explore a roche moutonnee that has been cut in half by a road exposing the tilted strata in cross-section. The top surface (and others) are stromatolitic. Students are set loose on the outcrop with no prior information about the outcrop or geologic setting, and make observations at both large and small scales. We then walk the outcrop as a group to ensure all features are observed. Students then ascertain the variation in depositional environments over time, as well as the post-depositional history of the outcrop.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students submit a written report. A rubric is used (and is provided to students along with the report instructions so that they know how to organize their report).

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