Earth History and the Fossil Record

James R. Ebert

State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oneonta
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs


This course is an overview of the history of the Earth with emphasis on how we know this history. Lectures focus on major events in Earth history and labs develop skills in observation and techniques used to interpret Earth History. The course culminates with a field project in which the students reconstruct the geologic history represented in a complex outcrop.

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Course Context:

This is a lower to upper division course required of majors in Geology, Water Resources (hydrogeology), Earth Science and Adolescence Education Earth Science. It is typically the second course that students take in these majors. It is also commonly taken by majors in Elementary Education who have concentrations in Earth or General Science. Because it is writing intensive, the Earth History course meets the General Education requirement in writing.

Course Content:
The content of Earth History is very conducive to incorporating the methods of geoscience. I informally divide the class into in-class activities and lectures that explore the "what we know" of Earth history and labs and field experiences which ground the students in "how we know it."

This course emphasizes observation in the laboratory and field. Students build skills of observation and interpretation, building toward a culminating activity in which they describe and interpret a complex outcrop.

Weekly labs build skills in observation and interpretation. Two during-lab field trips help students apply these skills in the field prior to the full-day field trip in which they are taken to a complex outcrop and told "Figure it out."

Course Goals:

  • Students should be able to observe textural and compositional aspects of sedimentary rocks and use them to classify these rocks.
  • Students should be able to recognize common sedimentary structures and interpret the processes that formed them.
  • Students should be able to recognize common invertebrate fossils, describe their mode of preservation and make interpretatons regarding paleoecological conditions of the environment.
  • Students should be able to utilize observations to discern pertinent geologic features and use these observations as a basis for interpretation of environments of deposition, paleoecology and overall geologic history represented in outcrop.
  • Students should be able to reconstruct tectonic settings from the sedimentary record that results from tectonic processes.
  • Students should be able to read geologic maps and understand the relationships between bedrock geology and present topography.

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

    Students are guided through a series of increasingly complex laboratory experiences that first focus on observation of a single category of sedimentary or paleontologic features and make interpretations based on these features. As the course progresses, students begin to synthesize a variety of types of features to form more detailed interpretations. Two "mega-labs" which focus on facies migration and paleoclimatic changes serve as waypoints in gaging the students' developing level of sophistication as the course progresses. The class culminates in two field projects. In the first, students interpret environment of deposition of an outcrop with one or two facies present using texture, composition, sedimentary structures and assemblages of fossils. In the second, students must reconstruct the depositional and deformational history of a complex outcrop which features three formations which have been folded and repeated by thrusting.

    Skills Goals

  • Increase skills in observation, interpretation and logical reasoning
  • Interpret conditions of formation of various rock units and reconstruct geologic histories represented by multiple rock units
  • Improve scientific writing
  • Work effectively in groups
  • Develop a sense of spatial and temporal scale

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

    Weekly lab activities and reports develop skills in observation, interpretation, scientific writing and working in groups. The combination of lecture, lab and field activities assist students in developing a sense of spatial and temporal scale critical to geology.


    Student learning is assessed through weekly lab activities, two mega-labs and in-class activities which account for half of their grade in the class. Two to three field projects provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their mastery of skills and geologic concepts. These projects account for roughly one third of the students' grade. Two written examinations comprise 10% of students' grades. These exams focus on major events in Earth history and challenge students with questions which require them to synthesize information rather than simply recall it. Five percent of the students' grades is based upon participation and professionalism, which includes attendance.


    References and Resources

    Stanley's Earth System History
    Compton's Geology in the Field

    This course has supplemental information submitted as part of the InTeGrate Teaching the Methods of Geoscience workshop in June 2012.