Field Lab - Ecosystem and Paleoenvironment analysis

Emma Rainforth
Ramapo College of New Jersey
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  1. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

    This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

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  2. 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

This page first made public: Jun 4, 2009


Students collect from two Devonian field sites. The goal is to determine the depositional environment and whether these are life or death assemblages.

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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

Basic sedimentary rock identification; identification of the major fossil taxa; life vs death assemblages, taphonomy/biostratinomy

How the activity is situated in the course

The lab is 2/3 of the way through the course; students have already surveyed the major fossil groups. It is a more advanced version of an earlier field lab (on stromatolites), and the lab final exam follows the format of this lab (with specimens rather than the field part of the lab!)


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Students will identify lithologies, sedimentary structures and fossils, in order to reconstruct the physical environments and ecosystems represented at this sites.
  • Students will analyze the assemblages in order to ascertain whether they are life or death assemblages

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will collect and interpret data (lithologies, fossils)

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

Students collect from two Devonian field sites. Each student works on their own collections; each genus is identified (and detailed sketches made), preservation noted, relative abundance reported; together with lithological information students are able to ascertain the mode of life of the fossils, and ascertain the depositional environment and whether these are life or death assemblages. The lab addresses the two 'content goals' of the course: assessing mode of life of an organism and determining the paleoenvironmental context.

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).

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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