Wooster’s First Paleoecology Course

This semester we introduced a new course into the Earth Sciences curriculum: Paleoecology (ESCI 215). It is the first new course I’ve developed in many years. It is designed to introduce students to ecological concepts and principles using the fossil record and the history of life. And to introduce students to the history of life and the fossil record using ecology! Our material was also continually informed by evolutionary theory, so much so that we could probably call the course Evolutionary Paleoecology. Our Paleoecology course website has all the details, including the syllabus, assignments, and weekly readings. The first Wooster paleoecology students are shown above at the start of the semester. I was fortunate to have a small class (nine students) and a superb Teaching Assistant (Alexis — in blue, closest to the camera).

This was a difficult course to plan because the students had such diverse course backgrounds. Some have had my Invertebrate Paleontology course. Some are veterans of History of Life. Some had both of these courses; some had neither. Ideally I would teach Paleoecology requiring the above two courses as prerequisites, but there is no way we could actually do that in our curriculum and course scheduling. (And it would be a small number of students who would take the thread that far.) So the Paleoecology course had to be challenging for the most experienced students and comprehensible for the rest. I think it worked. I certainly learned many new teaching techniques in the process. The following are snapshots of the students and some of our course activities.

You can’t have a paleo course of any kind in Ohio without using the extraordinary fossils found in the Upper Ordovician of the Cincinnati region. We had an extensive lab exercise with brachiopods collected from outcrops in SE Indiana. Above Will and Hannah are sorting and identifying specimens. Again, the Ordovician Atlas was a critical aid and inspiration.

We also benefited from the wonderful lab spaces in Scovel Hall, especially on the second floor. Paleoecologists need plenty of room to spread out!

Above our TA Alexis is advising Justine and Srushti on their brachiopod analyses.

The Biology Department occupied much of our lab space for two years as their new building was being constructed. When they moved out they generously left us several cabinets, tables and chairs that are now the basis of our new Imaging Lab on the second floor. Half of the lab is shown above. The students are “picking” foraminiferans from Eocene sediments for a paleoenvironmental exercise.

A highlight on a cold November day was our field trip to Brown’s Lake Bog, led by Greg Wiles and Nick Wiesenberg. We wanted students to see this extraordinary ecosystem and learn how Quaternary climates and environments can be tracked through the accumulated sediments. (Photo by Justine)

Will is here using a soil probe to measure the thickness of the soft bog sediments. (Photo by Justine)

This is our host Greg Wiles. It is such a good image I just have to post it!

Nick Wiesenberg extracted a peaty sediment core for us as a demonstration. We later examined a similar core in the lab. (Photo by Justine)

Andy kept us informed about the local reptiles and amphibians. He caught a frog and the snake above, returning them to the grass below after we admired them.

The capstone assignment for the paleoecology students was a GSA-style presentation on a paleoecological topic of their choosing. They each had remarkably clear, interesting and informative talks, from which I learned a great deal. I intentionally gave few guidelines for these student teaching episodes to encourage diversity of form and independence. Each student mastered the challenge — and enjoyed describing fascinating paleoecological case studies of their choice. Ciaran is shown above presenting her work on a group of Permian therapsids.

The paleoecology class on our last day, with a ghostly Anomalocaris lurking above. Alexis the wonderful TA is on the left. This was an excellent group of students with curiosity, intellect, and patience for my many teaching experiments. I’m looking forward to the next version of this course!

About Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson is a Professor of Geology at The College of Wooster. He specializes in invertebrate paleontology, carbonate sedimentology, and stratigraphy. He also is an expert on pseudoscience, especially creationism.
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2 Responses to Wooster’s First Paleoecology Course

  1. Suvrat Kher says:

    Mark – Very interesting course. I miss being a student! ..and love the course website. Will dive into some of the readings.

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