Using an Earth History Approach

This material was originally created for Starting Point:Introductory Geology
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.

Initial Publication Date: August 25, 2006

Created by Rebecca Teed, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College

Assorted Earth History Images

Statement of Purpose

This module is intended to:

  1. Help instructors who are developing or modifying courses or units
    • on Earth history/historical geology or
    • on contemporary topics that benefit from a historical perspective.
  2. Provide annotated lists of online and print resources that will be of use in the short term to people already teaching such courses (as well as to the developers above).

What Is an Earth History Approach?

Earth history is the study of changes in the Earth system over time. It:

  • Focuses not just on sequences of events but on patterns of change
  • Applies our knowledge of present processes to past events
  • Uses our knowledge of past events to better understand present processes
Learn more about the elements of an earth history approach

Why Teach with an Earth History Approach: The Past is the Key to the Present

Not only does Earth history have an initial appeal to students who might not otherwise take geoscience classes, this approach makes it possible, even straightforward, to teach the foundations of Earth science.

  • Changes in the Earth system need to be understood using evidence of past changes, because the forces that cause them operate too slowly or too rarely to be completely understood using modern observations.
  • The process of working out how Earth has changed in the past enables our students to understand how the world works today.
    For example, it would be useful for students to be able to compare the time it takes natural resources to form (such as Earth's oil reserves, midwestern topsoil, etc.) and to contrast those with the rates of human resource use and environmental degradation.

Learn more about the benefits of using an earth history approach

Using Earth History to Teach the Central Themes of Science

Even people who are not teaching historical geology (and people who are not teaching geology at all) are likely to find an Earth history approach a useful teaching tool for teaching some of the major ideas of modern science. Likewise, introductory Earth history courses are excellent vehicles for teaching non-science majors the big ideas of science.

Evolution, plate tectonics, and climate change are central to science and require an understanding of Earth history.

Earth history and modern observations make an excellent combination for teaching about topics with important modern-day ramifications such as the search for extraterrestrial life, geologic hazards, and global warming.

Learn more about teaching the central themes of science

How to Organize an Earth History Course or Unit

There are a number of ways to structure an Earth history course or unit, of which some are listed below.

Learn more about organizing a course

Addressing Creationism

One challenge faced by Earth history educators is how to teach concepts like geologic time and evolution by students who come into class with creationist beliefs.

  • Learning is a matter of building on what one already knows, so it can be difficult for students to build an understanding of evolution or Earth history on top of a belief system that opposes those ideas.
  • There are many ways to help students overcome misconceptions about evolution, geologic time, and science in general, by teaching about what makes science distinct from religion and by allowing them to do science instead of simply by hearing about it.
Learn more about addressing Creationism

Resources for Teaching with an Earth History Approach

The various lists below are far from complete, but include typical resources.

Some resources are also incorporated into the topics pages for Central Themes and How to Organize an Earth History Course

See a detailed list of teaching resources

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