Marine Sediments and Sedimentary Rocks: A Dozen Dead Oceans

Time required to complete this unit:

This page is under development and may be edited at any time. Some resources have not been cataloged, pending project approval.
3 weeks, or 12.5 hours, or 750 minutes (estimated)

Earth Science Content:

Key Terms: Sediments, sedimentary rock, fossil, index fossil, superposition, original horizontality, lateral continuity, faunal succession, Cretaceous period, Geologic Time Scale, sediment core, transgressive sequence, regressive sequence, depositional environment

Life began in the ocean on Earth 3.5 billion years ago. The fossil record shows a general trend toward an increasing level of complexity of life forms, making it possible to also use the order in which fossils occur in rocks to establish relative geologic age (principle of faunal succession). Sediments on the seafloor of modern ocean basins are especially important for providing information about past environmental change, including the mass extinction that occurred at the end to the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago. Scientists examine these sediments by drilling and extracting sediment cores from the ocean floor.

Developed by the DIG Texas Blueprints Central Texas Development Team

Students will be able to (do)

  • Use the structure, sequence and properties of rocks, sediments, and fossils to reconstruct events in Earth's history.
  • Analyze and interpret authentic geoscience data.
  • Discern patterns in sediments and fossil data.
  • Trace the emergence of new species and the extinction of other species over geologic time in the fossil record.
  • Recognize change over time as revealed in sediment records and fossil evidence.

Students will know

  • Water, energy and life are inextricably linked.
  • Common sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks.
  • The processes that control erosion of rocks, and the transportation and deposition of sediments.
  • Earth's rocks and fossils provide a record of its history and provide information about past environmental change.
  • Fundamental principles of stratigraphy.
  • Eustatic sea-level changes result in transgressive and regressive sedimentary sequences.
  • Sediment cores reveal changes in environment and speciation in the past.
  • Life began on Earth 3.5 billion years ago.


The activities we have selected are congruent with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and are arranged to build upon one another. Therefore, to follow the storyline we recommend that teachers complete the activities in the order provided. To open an activity in a new tab or window, right click the activity link and select the preferred option.

Big Idea 5: Earth is the Water Planet

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This video details the importance to and relationships between water, Earth's processes, and life. It is Big Idea 5 (of nine) in a series entitled "Big Ideas in Geoscience," created by the American Geosciences Institute to accompany the Earth Science Literacy Initiative's "Big Ideas."

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Video

Time Required: 5 minutes

Understanding Geologic Time

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This interactive informational tour from the University of California at Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology conveys a basic understanding of geologic time, the evidence for events in Earth's history, relative and absolute dating techniques, and the significance of the geologic time scale.

Instructional Strategies: Reading

Resource Type: Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Stratigraphy and Evolution: Using Fossils to Tell Deep Time

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In this activity from TXESS Revolution students explore how fossils are used to "tell time" in sedimentary rocks. In the process, they discover the concept of "range" of a fossil when fossil distribution is looked at in stratigraphic order and develop an understanding the Law of Faunal Succession. The activity has multiple solutions, which reflects the reality of using fossils alone to construct a geologic timeline.

Instructional Strategies: Challenge or problem-solving

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 50 minutes

Fossil Rock Anthem

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This video by Tom McFadden was developed to align with California's 7th grade standards on Earth and life history and to examine the impact of music in science education as part of a Master of Science Communication at the University Otago in New Zealand.

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 10 minutes

Climate Detectives

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In this module of six lessons from the EarthLabs series, learners assume the role of participants on the International Ocean Discovery Program's drillship, the JOIDES Resolution. Using data collected from Expedition 341, students will explore how climatic changes are recorded in the rock record, learn about careers associated with the IODP, and gain an appreciation for the ocean drilling process, and data collection methods.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 750 minutes

For this unit, we have selected the following labs:

  • Preparing for the Voyage (Climate Detectives Lab 1A, 1C)

Lab 1A introduces the students to the JOIDES Resolution and its components that contribute to the drilling process. Lab 1C introduces the students to the area in the Gulf of Alaska where Expedition 341 collected sediment cores.

Time Required: 30 min

  • Coring is not Boring! (Climate Detectives Lab 2)

In this lab students learn about how scientists retrieve sediment cores from the ocean floor. Students then design and build a model drill.

Time Required: 45 minutes

Describing Cores

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This activity from TXESS Revolution sets the stage for learning activities that use authentic scientific ocean drilling data. The cores and logs provide geological, geophysical, geochemical, and environmental information that provides insight into the Earth system. Students apply basic stratigraphic principles, and introduces them to the purpose, history and technology of ocean drilling. They practice describing model cores designed to simulate real cores retrieved by scientific ocean drilling.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 200 minutes

Retreating Shorelines: Texas Gulf Coast

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The Texas Gulf coast is among the most dynamic environments on Earth. Research scientist Jeffrey Paine of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas talked to EarthSky about how scientists study one of the most important coastlines on the planet, and about the risks and value of human activity there.

Instructional Strategies: Reading

Resource Type: Interview with an expert

Time Required: 30 minutes

Field Trips

Studies that examine how geologists think and learn about the Earth point to the value of field experiences in helping students develop practices that constitute geologic reasoning. We encourage teachers to take students into the field as much as possible. To this end, we include ideas for virtual and actual field trips. The former recognizes the limitations of the K-12 classroom setting. Field learning provides a chance to encourage the ability to see features that are important to professional practice. Indeed, many geoscientists report that fieldwork was a key factor influencing their choice of geoscience as a career.

Virtual Field Trips 'NATURE: Prehistoric Life'

This website, maintained by the BBC in conjunction with the Series "Nature," explores how fossils are preserved and dated through the use of 1-4 minute long video clips.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Visualization

Time required: 45 minutes

Scaffolding Notes

Teachers must develop their own individual plan for how they will teach the unit. The learning activities and educational resources in this unit are intended to complement other instructional activities led by the teacher. Many of the selected learning experiences provide links to excellent background preparatory materials, additional hands-on resources, teaching tips, and cross-curricular connections.

Teachers will need to create their own multimedia presentations, deliver lectures and assign ancillary work to their students in order to set the stage for effective use of the learning activities contained herein. Therefore, it is imperative to allocate time to review the activities and background material prior to using the learning experiences in this unit and to probe students for their prior knowledge before starting an activity.

In addition, although some activities may incorporate assessments, teachers may need to create their own assessments to ensure that are appropriate for the students they teach.

Asterisks (*) indicate teacher resource and background information recommendations for activity support.


*This unit focuses on the processes by which the ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of the Earth. Many sedimentary rocks that are now exposed on land were formed in the ocean, thus giving us a way to look at and to interpret the record of Earth's ever-evolving surface. Therefore, we begin with an activity to review sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks, with the suggestion of emphasizing marine sedimentary rocks. The selected activities teach how the sequence of sedimentary rock layers and relationships between different rock units are used to establish the relative age of a rock unit. The key stratigraphic principles of superposition, original horizontality and lateral continuity are examined.

*As a teacher resource, we suggest the teacher read the following article by Aaron Cavosie: When did oceans form on Earth? What evidence is preserved in the rock record? in Teaching About the Early Earth: Evolution of Tectonics, Life and the Early Atmosphere. This article describes how oceans form and change through time and provides ideas on how to link this topic to the classroom.

The Big Idea 5 video can also be found on YouTube.

After watching the short introductory video, Big Idea 5, the following activity has students engage in a review of rocks. The TXESS Revolution unit, Rock Identification, is normally taught at the elementary and middle school levels, but it serves as a good review and helps set the stage for many learning activities that focus on geology. Marine sediments and sedimentary rocks are especially important for the activities in this unit. Therefore, emphasis should be placed on marine sedimentary rocks. We recommend that teachers review the different types of sedimentary rocks, especially those associated with marine environments. Note that this activity requires Ward's Natural Science classroom rock collection kit # 45H 3445.

*We include an advanced activity, Rock and Mineral Bingo, under "Additional Resources." Although the activity was designed for undergraduate student learners, it is a good fit for classrooms in which students have a well-developed knowledge of the properties of minerals and rocks.

Understanding Geologic Time requires that students have Internet access. The website has a student and a teacher portal. This activity is a part of the University of California at Berkeley's Explorations Through Time series. Each module includes pre and post-tests, focus questions, and answer keys.

Before utilizing Stratigraphy and Evolution: Using Fossils to Tell Deep Time, teachers should review the processes of weathering, erosion, and deposition, which are taught at the elementary and middle school levels, and introduce the stratigraphic principles of superposition, original horizontality and the law of faunal succession. Teachers should teach about the origin of life on Earth approximately 3.5 billion years ago, and the mass extinctions that have punctuated geologic time throughout Earth's history. This activity requires teacher prep ahead of time to create and cut out the fossil cards.

The Climate Detectives module from SERC's EarthLabs series requires teacher prep ahead of time in determining how best to present the activities. Videos included can be shown to the whole class, or students can watch them on their own individual computers. There are handouts for the "Stop and Think" questions in the module in addition to the lab activities. Lab 2: Coring Isn't Boring! requires collection of materials to construct a model drill ahead of time. Although Lab 1B: Meet the Scientists on Board Expedition 341 was not included in this unit, the teacher may choose to include it as an extra activity or may choose to highlight the roles of specific scientists on board by showing a few of the videos.

The Describing Cores Activity requires the construction of model sediment cores. The instructions, along with variations, are posted here: Instructions for making model cores. The required student documents are also found via the link provided with the resource. It is important that the teacher model/explain instructions for describing the core once the visual core description sheets have been distributed, so as to avoid any confusion. It is also important to discuss depositional environments, specifically marine depositional environments, during this activity. A possible resource for this is included here: Depositional Environment descriptions chart.

In Retreating Shorelines along the Texas Gulf Coast, an article in EarthSky online magazine, J. Paine discusses the dynamic nature of the Texas Gulf coast. There is a 90-second podcast that gives a synopsis. In the article, Mr. Paine gives a number of causes of the overall negative change in coastline in terms of natural sources, such as the melting of glaciers from the last ice age, subsidence, and storms, as well as anthropogenic sources such as the the use of groundwater, oil and gas drilling, urbanization, and climate change. He also discusses the use of mapmaking technologies, with maps included in the article.

We include a virtual field trip comprising ten short video clips from the BBC program NATURE: Prehistoric Life. Teachers may choose specific video clips and design a web quest or create a guided worksheet or a virtual field notebook.

@@ if need another resource, power point on What Grains Can Tell Us from UK GS site @@

Next Generation Science Standards

We anticipate that students should be able to achieve the NGSS Performance Expectation(s) listed after completing the activities in this unit. However, we have not carried out educational research to verify this.

MS-ESS1-4. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence from rock strata for how the geologic time scale is used to organize Earth's 4.6-billion-year-old history.

MS-ESS2-3. Analyze and interpret data on the distribution of fossils and rocks, continental shapes, and seafloor structures to provide evidence of the past plate motions.

HS-ESS2-7. Construct an argument based on evidence about the simultaneous coevolution of Earth's systems and life on Earth.

These Performance Expectations integrate the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross Cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices of the NGSS as shown in the unit table NGSS Congruence: Marine Sediments and Sedimentary Rocks (Acrobat (PDF) 173kB Jan24 16).

Additional Resources

The recommended additional resources may be used to extend or augment the storyline.

Rock and Mineral Bingo

This activity from the On the Cutting Edge Peer reviewed Teaching Collection is a fun way of assessing students' knowledge and rock and mineral identification skills. The activity requires a basic rock collection kit. Although initially designed for a specific rock and mineral kit, it can be adapted for any suite of samples.

Explorations Through Time

This series of interactive modules explores the history of life on Earth, while focusing on the processes of science. Each module contains suggested lesson plans and an extensive teacher's guide.

Hogan, Michael C. 2010, Limestone, Encyclopedia of Earth

This resource presents concepts related to the formation of marine sedimentary rocks, particularly limestone. The ideas can be tied to transgressive and regressive sequences on ocean settings, marine sedimentary processes, and discussions about societal uses for limestone. This scholarly article would make a good outside reading assignment and will take between 15-30 minutes.

Fossil Parks Through Geologic Time

This website is maintained by the National Parks Service. Its main page serves as a catalogue of the Services parks, and displayed by which of the four periods with which the fossils are associated. The Geologic Time Scale is a way of organizing Earth's 4.5 billion-year history. The time scale is divided into four large periods of time—the Precambrian, Paleozoic Era, Mesozoic Era, and Cenozoic Era. National parks preserve fossils from each of these time blocks.

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