Prehistoric Life: DNA to Dinosaurs (Geology 121)

Dr. Alison Olcott Marshall, Assistant Professor, and Kelsey S. Bitting
Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Geology, University of Kansas

SENCER Model Course Logo

Geology 121, “Prehistoric Life: DNA to Dinosaurs” is an introductory level course that primarily serves as an opportunity for students to fulfill their general education requirement of one science course (KU Core General Education Goal 3: Breadth of Knowledge). This course also satisfies KU Core General Education Goal 1: Critical Thinking and Quantitative Literacy, Learning Outcome 1 (which includes the ability to analyze and evaluate assumptions, claims, evidence, arguments, and forms of expression, including the ability to select and apply appropriate tools to interpret those elements). While it can count for elective hours in the geology major if taken during the first 60 credit hours of the student’s degree program, geology majors typically account for <10% of the course enrollment.

The course explores the traditional geology content of deep time, evolution, extinctions, and the fossil record through the lens of the modern biodiversity crisis across the globe today. Student learning outcomes for the course are as follows:

  1. Students will be able to analyze the extinction pressures acting on modern organisms into the context of those organisms’ geologic, evolutionary, and climatic history.
  2. Students will be able to construct an action plan for mitigating the current mass extinction event that is informed by their understanding of organisms’ roles in and relationships with the Earth system.

Linking Science and Social Issues

  • Causes of mass extinctions taught through Climate change and food-web disruption
  • Extrapolation of ancient environments through the fossil record taught through Habitat shift produced by climate change
  • Shift in reef-builders through geologic time taught through Ocean acidification
  • How and what type of animal interactions are preserved taught through Modern extinction of amphibians
  • Rates of change on ancient earth systems and their effects taught through Rise of CO2 since industrialization

The Course

Syllabus: Prehistoric Life

Download (PDF, 104KB)

Geology 121, “Prehistoric Life: DNA to Dinosaurs” is an introductory level course that primarily serves as an opportunity for students to fulfill their general education requirement of one science course (KU Core General Education Goal 3: Breadth of Knowledge). This course also satisfies KU Core General Education Goal 1: Critical Thinking and Quantitative Literacy, Learning Outcome 1 (which includes the ability to analyze and evaluate assumptions, claims, evidence, arguments, and forms of expression, including the ability to select and apply appropriate tools to interpret those elements). While it can count for elective hours in the geology major if taken during the first 60 credit hours of the student’s degree program, geology majors typically account for <10% of the course enrollment.

Evaluating Learning

Course learning outcomes were assessed through student teams’ presentations of their final research project: Students selected a modern threatened or endangered organism and an extinct ancient relative or organism that filled a similar ecological niche. Through extensive, scaffolded literature research, students developed a science-fair-style presentation that compared and contrasted their organisms’ ecologies and their extinction pressures, and proposed concrete mitigation strategies to preserve the modern organism that leveraged all the content we had explored throughout the semester.

Background and Context

In redeveloping the course for the fall 2014 semester, we prioritized active learning and student exploration over content delivery. Prior to each class period, students read a selection that ranged from scientific articles to chapters from Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, which connects our planet’s ancient past to processes such as climate change, ocean acidification, and the extinction of a myriad of organisms in parallel with the rise of human civilization. As they read, students completed reading roles worksheets that guided them to engage substantively with the text and seek out additional information and connections to the course and to their lives. In class, students discussed their reading in teams and as a class, reviewed concepts from prior class periods by responding to clicker questions, then worked in teams through a series of activities that asked them to recognize their prior knowledge, form hypotheses about data, and seek ways to test their hypotheses before reviewing and synthesizing their ideas in a class discussion format. Summative assessment (two essay exams and one final project) focused on higher-level skills of application, analysis, and synthesis of ideas, and encouraged students to seek out and question additional sources.

Ultimately, our students were far more engaged than in prior semesters, taught as lectures that focused exclusively on geologic content, and we observed that their critical thinking skills, understanding of the scientific process and its application to real-world problems, and ability to seek and use new information, grew significantly over the course.

Many students commented on how much more deeply they understood our world and the challenges facing humanity at the end of the semester.

Related Resources

Our redesign of the course was supported by internal funds in the form of the University of Kansas Course Transformation Initiative, which provided the three-year fellowship that brought Bitting to the department to help interested faculty, such as Olcott Marshall, implement evidence-based teaching practices in introductory courses. We also received a Graduate Research Consultant Award from the University of Kansas Center for Undergraduate Research to help us manage the final project assignment, and support from The University of Kansas Commons, The University of Kansas Memorial Unions, and Coca-Cola for our PaleoCon event in which students showcased their final projects.