Initial Publication Date: August 17, 2022

Teaching Temporal Thinking Across the Geoscience Curriculum

Temporal thinking is fundamental to the geosciences (e.g. Kastens et al., 2009; Manduca and Kastens, 2012). To produce graduates who are proficient at it, we need to infuse it in our undergraduate curricula. Although courses on Earth history or historical geology are excellent (and obvious) places to start students thinking about geologic time, a single course will not produce students who have mastered temporal thinking. Moreover, addressing the rates of geologic processes, as well as the dates of key events, will help students to develop a deeper understanding of geologic time. Here are a handful of examples of how geoscience faculty have incorporated temporal thinking in their undergraduate courses, outside of dedicated Earth history or historical geology courses.

Jump down to exercises for introductory courses or upper-level courses.

Temporal Thinking in Introductory-Level Courses

  • Teaching with Video Snips uses short video segments of live footage of geologic processes to engage students and foster discussion. Potential discussion topics include the rates of geologic processes.
  • The Ocean Stratigraphy Challenge is a complex puzzle beginning with a description of a stratigraphic section from a deep-sea core. Students are asked to deduce the geologic history from the sequence of rock and sediment types. It is intended for students with some prior knowledge of oceanography, sedimentary geology, and plate tectonics and requires them to synthesize all of this knowledge to answer the question.
  • Sea Floor Spreading is an introductory Excel tutorial in which students use Excel to explore the geodynamics Model equation for ocean depth around a sea-floor spreading center (see Turcotte and Schubert, 2002). The activity is primarily an introductory tutorial on Excel for students with no prior Excel experience. The use of the equation relating ocean floor depth to sea floor spreading rate and distance from spreading center provides a geoscience context and engages students in thinking about the rates of geologic processes.

For more ideas, explore the complete collection of temporal thinking teaching activities

Temporal Thinking in Upper-Level Courses

  • In Mapping a Local Dune Field and Estimating Paleowind Speed and Direction, students map a dune field from aerial photographs and a DEM, measure the grain size distribution of sand samples collected from the dune field, and estimate paleo-wind speed and direction.
  • In Using NOAA NCDC Pollen Database to Study Vegetation History, students work through a set of simple exercises that query the NOAA NCDC pollen database, and then finish the lab with an exercise that uses pollen data to reconstruct vegetation history.
  • What can zircons tell us about the Early Earth? has students create U-Pb concordia plots in Excel to experience the methods used to date the world's oldest zircons and use these results to explore what geologic processes were active on the Early Earth.
  • When and How Did Continental Crust Form? has students explore the question of crustal genesis and evolution through guided discovery of the primary scientific literature to find and critically evaluate the major lines of evidence that address these various models for crustal genesis and evolution.
  • In this Radiocarbon Dating Project, groups of students calculate radiocarbon ages from radiocarbon data collected on mammoth fossils from the Upper Missouri River Basin, calculate the calibrated calendar ages from the radiocarbon ages, and compare mammoth habitation fluctuations to climatic changes inferred from oxygen isotope records.
  • In the Marine Oxygen Isotopes and Changes in Global Ice Volume exercise, students explore marine oxygen-isotope data from cores collected by the Ocean Drilling Program. The activity gives students access to real paleoclimate data, develops their skills in organizing and graphing data, and provides an opportunity for students to discover trends in a time series pertaining to long-term ice volume changes.

For more ideas, explore the complete collection of temporal thinking teaching activities


Kastens, K.A., C.A. Manduca, C. Cervato, R. Frodeman, C. Goodwin, L.S. Liben, D.W. Mogk, T.C. Spangler, N.A. Stillings, and S. Titus (2009). How Geoscientists Think and Learn: EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 90, n.31, pp. 265-266.

Manduca, Cathryn A. and Kim A. Kastens (2012). Mapping the domain of complex earth systems in the geosciences, in Kastens, K.A. and Manduca, C.A., eds., Earth and Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences: Geological Society of America Special Paper 486, pp. 91-96.