Earth and Life Through Time

Stuart Sutherland and Francis Jones
Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of British Columbia


Students' abilities to use both geological and biological reasoning are developed, to learn about how the rock and fossil records together characterize the history of interaction between biological and geological processes. 150 students attend three 50-min. lectures per week that use clickers and worksheets to enable active learning, peer instruction, and discussions.

Course URL:
Course Size:

Course Format:
Two thirds lecture, one third in-class activities, plus two lab exercises.

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an elective course for science undergraduates who are NOT majoring in a geoscience degree. We assume no geology in their backgrounds, but 3rd or 4th year standing in a science degree is required. The course is not required for any degree program - it is an "off-discipline science elective" for science students. There are three 50 minute lectures per week for 13 weeks, and some of these time slots are used for hands-on "lab" activities.

Course Content:

The broad objectives stated above are met using the following topic outline:
  • Introduction to Earth System Science
  • Basics of Stratigraphy
  • Facies: Sediments in Time and Space
  • Correlating Rocks: Biostratigraphy and Type Sections
  • The interpretation of fossils
  • Formation of Continents / Oceans/ Atmosphere
  • Early LIfe: The Paleontological evidence
  • Snowball Earth: the rise of the Metazoa
  • The Cambrian Explosion
  • Extinctions 1: The Mass Extinction Concept
  • Extinctions 2: P-Tr and K-P
  • The origin of the Vertebrates
  • Moving onto land

Course Goals:

Overarching learning goals for the course are:
  1. Express how the concept of geological time is an important factor in our understanding of the evolution of the Earth System.
  2. Apply basic geological principles and geoscience knowledge in the interpretation of Earth's geological and biological history.
  3. Describe how the biosphere has adapted to exploit various environments in the Earth's oceans over time
Each module does have specific, action oriented learning goals which students are expected to use as study guides, and which inform all class work and assessments. The complete list has been attached as a file to this course description.

Course Features:

Key features of EOSC326 and UBC, as of January 2012 are:
  • One instructor, and two graduate student teaching assistants who provide roughly 6hrs per week of time helping in class and marking assessments.
  • Face to face time includes three 50 minute lectures per week for 13 weeks.
  • Weekly pre-class assigned readings are tested with online quizzes. Content is mostly from the text, but some are from science literature or websites.
  • An online diagnostic test during the first week helps students self-assess, and remediate, basic background knowledge about geology (plate tectonics, rocks/minerals, etc.) Test deployment is carefully designed to motivate both the self-checking, and the remediation effort of students.
  • Two of 3 lectures per week are classic lecture style, but clickers are used to foster discussion, practice working with concepts, and enable "peer instruction".
  • One of 3 lectures per week is called an "active Friday". These usually involve work-sheet, group-based activities, which use instructor interventions and clickers to help with pacing, and in which the teaching assistants circulate to help group work. Work is collected and assessed, and feedback delivered collectively to the whole class using online facilities.
  • Two hands-on experiences are provided at the cost of 3 lectures each. These include handling and comparing rock and fossil samples using worksheets as guidance. Each of these experiences is followed up with a corresponding "Active Friday" event to resolve concepts and address misconceptions.
  • Marking involves all work (including class work) but the principle evaluative events are midterm and final exams.

Course Philosophy:

Teaching goals are as follows.
  • To provide science students with an opportunity to practice using the tools and modes of thinking used to study the tightly coupled geologic and biologic history of Earth.
  • Geologic and biologic processes are so inter-related that such a course needs both if non-specialists are to go away appreciating the unique nature of geoscientific thinking.
  • There is strong demand for this course, but we limit enrollment because of the importance of the hands on experiences. We can not have more than 50 students per lab session, and we do not have time for more than 3 sessions for each experience (hence the 150 students).
  • Our department is committed to an "active learning" philosophy, so we strive to be innovative with ways of running lecture-style courses. Hence the complexity and variety of teaching modes and student experiences.
  • Finally, developing this course has been to some degree experimental, and we hope to incorporate successes into other courses in our Department.


  • A pre-course diagnostic helps establish whether necessary foundations are in place.
  • During class, clickers, "peer instruction" and worksheet activities provide essential opportunities for rapid feedback to students (and instructors!) about comprehension and abilities to work with concepts. The instructor can modify work in subsequent lessons based on progress made visible in this way.
  • Online quizzing helps students self-assess comprehension of reading assignments. These quizzes are re-opened prior to exams.
  • The large class limits the high-stakes assessment opportunities to two or three exams that include both multiple choice and short answer (including simple sketching) question sets.
  • We are eager to investigate additional ideas for enhanced the variety and usefulness of assessments, especially ways of adding short writing exercises efficiently. This is work in progress.


Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

The Earth Through Time, Levin, Wiley.
Instructor's lecture material is made available, with some restrictions owing to evolving copyright laws in Canada. A few short articles from science literature or websites are included.