Coal: The Geologic History of a Fossil Fuel and its Function in a Changing Climate

Tuesday 2:50pm-3:10pm Bruininks 131A
Teaching Demonstration Part of Tuesday Teaching Demos


Elisabeth Ervin-Blankenheim, Front Range Community College


The laboratory portions that will be shared for the EER are the instructor and student resources available, an overview of the lab, a short activity on aligning the continents based on the fossil finds of Glossopteris, and an adaptation of the writing project in small groups.


In this experiential laboratory, students explore the fossil fuel, coal, its geologic origins, its role in plate tectonics, and the implications of burning coal for climate change. The lab contains a virtual field trip to Joggins Fossil Park, where a coal forest is captured in the strata. Following is an activity where students plot the distribution of Glossopteris, a fossil coal plant, and align the continents to make sense of the fossil data (to form Pangea), which supported continental drift and ultimately plate tectonics. The lab concludes with a writing assignment on the impact of coal on global warming, answering guiding questions. This active learning experience weaves together theory and practice to develop a narrative of coal through the geologic record, bringing together biology, geology, climatology, and geologic time. The goals of introducing students to socioscientific issues and scientific literacy are covered in this laboratory by bringing geology "alive" through "doing science," working with data, and developing a narrative account of coal and its role. The outcomes for this lab are to encourage the participants to reflect on deep time, plate tectonics, challenging topics surrounding coal, and implications for issues the world is facing today.


This activity is used as an experiential laboratory for undergraduate geoscience students. It has been adapted, however, for more general audiences by taking them on the virtual field trip and having them engage in the narrative assignment.

Why It Works

The laboratory is part of a toolbox developed for geoscience instructors and their students and has been piloted through my doctoral study with feedback from instructors and professors. Research has shown that involving students in writing activities promotes scientific comprehension. The lab is innovative, and inquiry-based, representing the integration of biology, geology, climate, and geologic time, focusing on the Nature of Science and socioscientific issues.


Coal Lab: Teaching Demo Exercise 1

Teaching Demo No. 1 (Acrobat (PDF) 1.1MB Jul12 22)

Teaching Demo No. 2 (Acrobat (PDF) 465kB Jul12 22)

Teaching Demo No. 1 Solution (Acrobat (PDF) 144kB Jul12 22)