Paleontological Field and Museum Methods

Andrew Heckert

Department of Geology, Appalachian State University
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


Two-week trip to visit Triassic field localities in the American Southwest.

Subject: Geoscience:Paleontology
Resource Type: Course Information
Grade Level: College Upper (15-16)
Theme: Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Paleontology
Course Size:
less than 15

Course Context:

This is a two-week field trip involving all aspects of paleontological field research and some exposure to museum methods. We travel to fossiliferous Upper Triassic outcrops and prospect and excavate vertebrate fossils before returning to a museum to document localities and begin preparation of specimens.

The course is open to any geology major (or promising minor) who has passed Evolution of the Earth (a 2000-level historical geology class).

Course Goals:

Students learn how to measure and describe stratigraphic sections and make basic depositional interpretations based on lithology.

Students learn to perform basic field prospecting and orienteering, using GPS and paper maps, recognize fossils in the field, place localities into local stratigraphy.

Students participate in actual fossil "digs," including activities thought to be glamorous (plaster jacketing) and tiring (removing overburden).

In the lab, as time permits, they document localities, begin basic cleanup and preparation of fossils, etc. These are skills that are applicable, in a broad sense, to other geoscience disciplines as well.

For many students, this is the first opportunity to apply basic principles of physical and historical geology (Steno's principles, etc) in the field, or at least in a region with extensive outcrop exposure.

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

Students learn by doing. Over the course of this trip, they prospect, they excavate, they measure stratigraphic sections, and identify rocks in the field. Sometimes we even screenwash in the field. Similarly, they perform documentation and preparation activities in the museum, learning by actively being engaged in a long-term research project.

Skills Goals

The intensive nature of field work results in extensive development of:
working in groups
surviving in suboptimal conditions

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

Intensive travel (2 days across the country, in a van) and field work result in tight student bonding. Because the course is open to all qualified majors (and older majors may go on multiple trips) there is extensive peer teaching as more experienced majors tutor those that are in the field for the first time. Group work is, of course, essential.

Attitudinal Goals

Builds students' confidence and abilities in paleontology generally and in their ability to perform geological work.

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

This course is often students' first substantial field experience. The combination of high outcrop quality, textbook exposures, and relatively simple stratigraphy and structure make the course a confidence-builder. Similarly, the field areas are often ridiculously fossiliferous, so everyone finds catalogable fossils and participates in excavations.


Students are responsible for maintaining a field notebook. This and their museum documentation form the basis for much of their grade, and a rich source of assessment. The two-day van ride back allows for much "debriefing" as well.


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