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Starting Out With Earth History

Rebecca Teed (SERC)
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Distribute a blank geologic-history timeline to pairs or small groups of students at the start of an Earth History unit or course and ask them work on it together. Ask them to make their best guess as to when 6-10 major Earth history events occurred and put those one the timeline. You can give them a list of events, such as the death of the dinosaurs, the invention of writing, the formation of the Earth, the origin of life, and the breakup of Pangea, or have them come up with their own. Let the students brainstorm for 10-15 minutes, then turn in the project. Rather than handing or showing them a correct/complete timeline, put up another blank geologic time line using the board, an overhead, or projected computer image and spend another 10-15 minutes having the class fill it in together. Then, through questions, bring up important points such as how certain events are dated, where humanity fits in, and so forth.

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Learning Goals

This activity enables the instructor to:
  • Introduce the concept of geologic time
  • Assess the students' prior knowledge of Earth History
  • Get the students actively working together on the material from the start of the course

Context for Use

This activity is intended to be used at the start of an Earth history course or unit before any course material (other than the blank timeline itself) has been presented.

Teaching Materials

Below is my version of a blank geologic timeline, which other instructors may wish to modify for their courses:
  • pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 12kB Oct22 03)
  • rich text (Rich Text File 47kB Oct22 03) - a format easy for programs like MS Word to read

Teaching Notes and Tips

Teachers may wish to add a list of events to see if the students can place them on the timeline, especially if they wish to use this assignment as part of a pre- and post-course test.


One of my reasons for having students do this activity is to acquire information on how much students know about Earth history at the beginning of a class. I can give them another, more structured version of the project on an exam, asking them to place specific events on the timeline, and by comparing the difference between the average initial timeline and the one on the test, assess approximately how much the students have learned in class. If an instructor wishes for a more exact pre- and post test, the initial brainstorming assignment should be done individually, using the same list of events as the post-test will include.

References and Resources

University of California's Museum of Paleontology has created a hyperlinked University of California's Museum of Paleontology: Geologic Timeline (more info) with all sorts of details about each time unit that may be useful later in the course.