Paleonet: Teaching: making paleo relevant

Margaret Mary Yacobucci mmyacob at
Mon Feb 4 17:27:30 UTC 2013

Hi Tom,

I very much like your question!  I think the issues of scale and rate are important to get across to students-what we see happening today vs. the longer perspective of deep time.

In my "Life Through Time" course for non-majors, for instance, I present the basics of how we reconstruct atmospheric CO2 levels through the Phanerozoic and we talk about how these levels have changed over geologic time.  Then I tie it to contemporary concerns about anthropogenic global warming.  As Roy noted, students may immediately think that modern warming is no big deal since CO2 has been much higher in the geologic past.  I can then get them to think about rates of change - yes, CO2 was much higher in the Miocene, or Eocene, or Cretaceous.  But we're going to hit those levels in the next 100-400 years.  How do you think organisms will respond to 'going back to the Miocene' within the next 100  years?  Will there be time for natural selection to act?  What will the planet / North America look like if we hit 1400 ppm in a few centuries?

Karl's suggestion of Conservation Paleobiology is also great - if we're trying to restore habitats that have been disturbed by humans, what are we restoring them back *to*?  What evidence do we have of what the pre-disturbance habitat was like?  How far back do we need to go to see "natural" conditions?  Is 1,000 years sufficient (in North America)?  Or do we need to go back 20,000 years?

I also make the course relevant by tying course concepts to public policy and social issues.  After talking about early life on Earth, we connect those ideas to our current search for ancient life on Mars.  Is it worth the cost to taxpayers to send robot geologists to Mars?  How "pedestal-smashing" would the discovery of ancient life on Mars be?  How is such research paid for?  How are taxpayer dollars actually deployed among the federal agencies that support research?  Students often have no idea of how much research is done by the federal government or how little of the total US budget goes to it.  And they take widely varying positions on the merits of such activities-leads to good class discussions!

We also talk about the black market for fossils.  Students are surprised that illegal buying and selling of fossils is an issue, or that Hollywood stars shell out tons of money to display fossils in their homes.  Students have to work out the sorts of scientific information that might be lost when a fossil is collected illegally and then sold to a private buyer.  They then debate the relative merits of banning commercial fossil collection and sale vs. potential advantages (saving fossils that would otherwise never be found, getting kids excited about science, etc.).  Who "owns" fossils?  Is it "finders-keepers"?  Who is qualified to collect fossils?  Should the public be allowed to collect fossils from public parks?  Under what circumstances?

In both these cases, students have to understand the science behind the issues, but then also connect their own personal values and experiences to the issue.  I find that's an effective way to engage students and keep the material relevant to them.


Dr. Peg Yacobucci
Education and Outreach Coordinator, Paleontological Society
Associate Professor, Department of Geology
Bowling Green State University
190 Overman Hall
Bowling Green, OH 43402-0218
Office: 419-372-7982
Email: mmyacob at

From: paleonet-bounces at [mailto:paleonet-bounces at] On Behalf Of Thomas Hegna
Sent: Sunday, February 03, 2013 3:15 PM
To: paleonet at
Subject: Paleonet: Teaching: making paleo relevant

  To those of you who teach classes like Historical Geology, History of the Earth, and Paleontology: how do you make connections between events in the past (both in terms of mechanism and scale) and those we see today? I feel like thus far in my teaching I have kept these connections too general (sea-level rise, climate change, etc.) and not tied it down with meaningful specifics. How do others approach this?

Thomas A. Hegna

Department of Geology
Western Illinois University
Tillman Hall 113
1 University Circle
Macomb, IL 61455
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