Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Course Descriptions > Geobiology and the History of Life

Geobiology and the History of Life

Leif Tapanila

Idaho State University
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs


Principles of paleontology as applied to problems in geology and biology; a wide spectrum of fossil organisms will be covered in the course with an emphasis on invertebrate animals. Consideration is given to morphology, classification, evolution, paleoecology, taphonomy, and biostratigraphy.

Course URL:
Subject: Geoscience:Paleontology
Resource Type: Course Information
Grade Level: Graduate/Professional, College Upper (15-16)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Paleontology
Course Size:

less than 15

Course Context:

This is an upper division course required for the BA but not the BS. 50% students are BS majors taking the course as elective; 10-20% students are MS geology graduates taking the course as elective; 30% students are undergrads from other programs than geology; 10% students are geology BA students taking the course as a requirement. One major field trip is coordinated with the Sed-Strat course. A weekly 3 hour lab combines fossil identification and applied paleontology themes.

Course Goals:

- Students should be able to recognize common organisms of the Phanerozoic fossil record
- Students should be able to recognize the environmental and time significance of fossil groups
- Students should be able to understand how fossils can be used to address geological and biological problems.
- Students should be able to identify advantages and limitations of various analytical methods
- Students should be able to critically evaluating scientific literature
- Students should be able to explain evolutionary theory and the value of paleontology to anyone

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

The most critical overarching goal of the course is to be able to use fossils as part of the "geologist's toolkit". Lab and lecture stress identification and conceptual groupings of common marine fossils to identify time & environment in the rock record. Lab assignments, two midterms, a field-intensive project, oral lab exam, bell-ringer final lab exam and the final course exam focus on rigorously assessing students' ability to use fossils as a geoscientist.

Skills Goals

  • oral communication
  • accessing and critically reading the geologic literature

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

The term project has an oral presentation that is graded by myself. Students are also solicited to provide anonymous non-graded feedback to the speaker via little slips of paper: I review and collate these student comments and hand them back to the speaker.

The term project and final take home exam question requires literature reviews in current paleontology journals.Utility of these resources is part of the rubric in assessment of both projects.


Grading (aka "Assessment") is partitioned under the following scheme (see below). The oral exam for the lab is one of the more useful (perhaps not all that innovative) approach that I stumbled on for identifying weaknesses and strengths in students' paleo abilities. I do this a week or two before the final bell-ringer. Each student gets a 10 minute Q&A session alone with myself and my TA in a room with fossils that they need to describe and be able to use for various geologic interpretations. The student gets immediate feedback on whether they are correct or not, and where they need to focus their energy in studying for the final: all of this is done in the most constructive and gentle manner that I can muster. Paradoxically, although the students all declare that this is the most intense/terrifying 10 minutes of their degree, they have unanimously told me that this was one of their favorite/most useful parts of the course. So it goes.

Midterm 15%
Final Exam Take-home 10%
Final Exam In-class 20%
Field Trip Activity 5%
Term Project (paper) 15%
Lab Assignments (~12) 20%
Lab Oral Exam 5%
Lab Final 10%
TOTAL 100%


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