GEOL 204 Dinosaurs, Early Humans, Ancestors & Evolution:
The Fossil Record of Vanished Worlds of the Prehistoric Past

Spring Semester 2021

Assorted fossils from Johann Georg Heck's 1851 Iconographic Encyclopaedia of Science, Literature, and Art

Lecture Review Meeting: 9:30-10:45 am Eastern (although likely much shorter than that) via Zoom

Discussion Sections (you must attend the specific section for which you are registered):
0101 M 3-3:50 pm Eastern via Zoom
0102 M 4-4:50 pm Eastern via Zoom
0103 M 5-5:50 pm Eastern via Zoom
0104 M 3-3:50 pm Eastern via Zoom
0105 M 4-4:50 pm Eastern via Zoom
0106 M 5-5:50 pm Eastern via Zoom

Instructor: Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Room: Geology Building (237 GEO) 4106
Office Hours: Th 11 am-noon, or by appointment
Phone: (301) 405-6965, Email: ELMS or

Teaching Assistants:

Laura Sammon (Sections 0101, 0102, 0103)
Office Hours: TBA
Email: ELMS or

Zachary Zega (Sections 0104, 0105, 0106)
Office Hours: TBA
Email: ELMS

NOTE: It is your responsibility as a student to completely read through and understand this syllabus. If you have questions about it, please contact Dr. Holtz. You will be held responsible for following all requirements of this syllabus.

Course Description: Where did we, and the other living things on Earth, come from? What lived here before us? How do we know? The questions of the origins of humanity and of the other inhabitants of our world have intrigued cultures throughout history. During the last several centuries scientists have develop ed many techniques in the natural historical sciences-geology, paleontology, biology, archaeology-which allow us to answer those questions. "The Fossil Record" will consider the many different types of evidence from used to reconstruct events in the history of life by looking at particular case studies of the fossil record. In discussion sections students will be introduced to reading the scientific literature and interpreting examples of data sets, plots, and charts used to interpret the fossil world. Additionally, we will discuss some of the various reasons that otherwise-knowledgeable people reject the scientifically incontrovertible evidence for an ancient Earth and the evolution of life and humanity. We will also examine how the fossil record informs our understanding of (and possible response to) the recent and near-future impact of human technology and activity on the Earth systems and planetary biosphere.

What this course isn't: This is NOT my course on dinosaur paleontology! Please note that there are many words in the title of this course after "Dinosaurs"... In fact, the short name for this course is "The Fossil Record". If you want a course mostly about dinosaurs, try my Fall semester class GEOL 104 Dinosaurs: A Natural History. (Don't worry, though: we do cover some dinosaur paleontology in this class!) This is also neither an overview of the History of Life (that's GEOL 102 Historical Geology) nor a course that gives you the main techniques and methods you need to identify and interpret fossils (that's GEOL 331 Principles of Paleontology).

I-Series Courses: The I-Series courses are designed to address important issues that spark the imagination, demand intellect, inspiration, and innovation, and conclude where possible with real-world implementation. They are intended to fulfill university general education requirements in a creative and contemporary way and to challenge students to apply diverse intellectual traditions to today's big issues.

Learning Outcomes: By the end of the semester, every student should be able to:

Course Themes: This course examines how scientists reconstruct events and life forms of the prehistoric past. Over this time we will explore several big themes:

Lecture Themes: Each lecture will have one (sometimes more) central question presented towards the beginning, and over the course of the lecture you will see how paleontologists and related scientists answer those questions. It is important that you pay attention to HOW such questions are answered, and not merely what the answers are.

A Note on Content: Science is demonstrably Humanity's most effective way of assessing reality about the natural world. Many of its discoveries contradict deeply held traditional, religious, political, or personal beliefs. In this particular course, we shall examine what Science has uncovered about the age of the Earth and its inhabitants, the origin and interrelationships of species (including our own), and the reality of climate change (including human contribution to this phenomenon). We will not shy from indicating where the scientific discoveries demonstrate that other beliefs about these aspects of the natural world are in error. If you find it distressing to hear people's beliefs called 'inaccurate' (whether you hold them or not), this may not be the course for you; there are many other courses available at the University which fulfill the same requirement. If, however, you wish to understand not merely what Science has discovered but also HOW it discovered it-regardless of its implications for traditional, religious, political, or personal beliefs-then we encourage your active participation.

Texts: No single textbook is planned for this course. Selections of short peer-reviewed technical and review papers will be made available on ELMS; these must be read by the discussion day they are listed. Also, please keep current with the online lecture notes. There may be some occasions when some extra lecture material will be presented as Panopto videos on ELMS; please watch these by the date announced.

Course Organization: Discussion Sections as synchronous Zoom meetings with your TA at 3 (0101, 0104), 4 (0102, 0105), or 5 (0103, 0106) pm Eastern. Please only attend the particular discussion section for which you are registered.

Review Meeting as synchronous Zoom meeting with Dr. Holtz at 9:30 am Eastern Tuesday.

2 lectures per week. These are asynchronous Panopto videos, typically broken into segments of ~15-20 minutes. You must watch the videos prior to the following Monday's Discussion Section.

Item Percentage
Online Midterm Exam I (2/24-26): 15%
Online Midterm Exam II (4/7-9): 15%
Final Exam (May 13-15): 15%
Discussion Participation: 10%
Homework: 10%
Quizzes: 10%
Platform Presentation: 10%
Student-Generated Questions: 10%
"The Fossil Record in Popular Culture" Project and Presentation: 5%

All students who participate in the group receive the same grade for in-class small group projects.

Grade Scale: The numbers given represent the thresholds that must be passed in order to reach that grade (for example, A+ is 97.000... and any number greater). There is no rounding for letter grades; the thresholds must be passed. F is any grade below D-. Thresholds: 97, A+; 93, A; 90, A-; 87, B+; 83, B; 80, B-; 77, C+; 73, C; 70, C-; 67, D+; 63, D; 60, D-; < 60, F.

The Final Grade is the algebraic sum based on the numerical grades.

Online Midterm Exams (15% each): Two online exams on February 24-26 and April 7-9, respectively. For each of these there will be a section comprised of true/false, matching, multiple choice, and similar type questions, as well as a few short answer questions and an essay. These exams are open note but timed (75 minutes) and are subject to the Honor Pledge; you may not seek help from students or other people in doing these. If you encounter a technical problem, please contact for help (and Dr. Holtz so that he is aware of your situation.)

Final Exam (15%): The online final exam during the regularly scheduled exam season. It is cumulative for the entire course, although it focuses on material from the second exam onward. Format is similar to the mid-term exams but will be timed for 120 minutes. The exam will be available THURSDAY to SATURDAY MAY 13-15: please plan your end-of-semester travel (if any...) accordingly!! (It that means informing your parents about this now, please do so!)..

Discussion & Review Participation (10%): An essential element of education in general (and the I-Series in particular) is discussion, reflection, and clarification of key concepts. That is one of the main functions of the discussion sections. In each discussion section there will be a review of the previous week's lectures and readings; a review of homework assignments; the assignment and explanation of new homework projects; and so forth. In some situations there will be interactive activities.

In order to get the complete Participation grade you must:

The TA may (at their own discretion) award up to 2 more percentage points as extra credit for particularly helpful or effective participation in the discussion for students in their section. Students who are present for all discussion sections but are non-participants or are disruptive may be docked up to 2 and 4 percentage points (respectively) at the TA's discretion.

Attendance in Discussion Section and Review Meeting: While the expectation is that students attend EVERY lecture and EVERY discussion section, it is recognized that occasionally conditions (accident, illness, etc.) arise that prevent such. To recognize that, every student is allowed one (1) absence in discussion section without penalty, so long as:

  1. It is not the date of their Platform Presentation or Popular Culture Presentation.
  2. They inform their TA by email (cc:ing Dr. Holtz in the email) before hand (if at all possible), or certainly by the end of that same day that they will be absent and the reason for that absence.
  3. When returning to class, students must bring a note identifying the date of and reason for the absence, and acknowledging that the information in the note is accurate.
  4. NOTE: excused absences from Discussion Section do NOT excuse students from quizzes, homeworks, and student-generated questions. These must still be submitted in a timely fashion or they will be graded as "0".

Should these conditions not be met, the students will receive a 0 for the grade for that discussion section meeting. Additionally, if there is more than one absence the student will receive a 0 for the grade each additional discussion section meeting missed.

If there is a medical condition or other extraordinary circumstance that does require missing more than 1 discussion section meeting-or missing the date of the Platform Presentation or Pop Culture-the student must provide documentation from the appropriate sort of official (health professional; court official; etc.) explaining the absence.

In cases of dispute between student and TA over the Discussion Participation grade Dr. Holtz (as "instructor of record") will be the final arbiter (but be informed he will take the TA's advice very seriously).

Homework (10% each): Throughout the course (and particularly towards the beginning of the course) there will be short homework projects provided on ELMS. The homeworks are submitted as ELMS quizzes (occasionally this requires an image upload). These packets are intended to allow you to use and interpret the type of data (some of it directly from the peer-reviewed literature) that paleontologists and other scientists employ in understanding the fossil record. Your TA will discuss aspects of the homework in class, and you may discuss the packets with your classmates, but the answers you turn in must be your own. If there is even the appearance that you collaborated on homework answers, your homework will be turned over to the Office of Student Conduct for evaluation.

Quizzes (7%): These will be provided and submitted on ELMS. These are short answer (typically true/false, multiple choice, or matching questions) referring to material from the previous two week's lectures. The lowest quiz grade is automatically dropped. Quizzes will typically be due every other Friday.

Individual Platform Project "Notes from the Fossil Record" (10% total): As a term project for the course you will have an individual presentation about a recent technical research paper in paleontology, which will be presented as an in-Discussion section platform (e.g., PowerPoint) presentation. More details about the logistics of the project, choosing your paper, grading rubric, etc., will be made available later this semester. Your grade will be assigned in part from your peers and in part from you TA.

Student-Generated Questions (10% total): Every week we will ask you to provide a question, its answer (and in the case of a matching or multiple-choice question, additional incorrect options) from each of the two lectures presented the previous week. Creating your own question is an effective way of better understanding the material. These questions will be made available to all. A selection of these will be used in the midterm and final exams.

NOTE: in each Discussion section meeting a student will be called upon to give their question for one of the lectures, to serve as the prompt for a section-wide review of the subject of that lecture. Failure to be able to give a response will result in a drop of one point for that discussion section meeting grade.

"The Fossil Record in Popular Culture" Project & Presentation (5%): Organisms and aspects of the fossil record are widespread in popular culture: not just movies and TV shows, but games, political cartoons, toys, commercial products, and more. Late in the semester each student will find an example of such (not including the Jurassic Park/World franchise!!), which they will evaluate and present in Discussion section. The details of this assignment (both the part turned in on ELMS and the student presentations) will be provided later in the semester.

LATE ITEM POLICY: Late Homework Assignments will be docked 25% of the total grade if not turned in on time, but turned in (at the TA's mailbox in the Geology Building or at their office) prior to the next day, or docked 50% if handed in the next day. After that point, the grade for that assignment will be a 0.

Expectations and Policies

Expectations & Attendance:
Attendance in Discussion Section and Review Meetings is required.: see the grade items for "Discussion Participation" above for details. NOTE: Attendance means more than mere presence: it means "paying attention". Please take out your ear buds and refrain from texting/web-browsing/doing homework/etc. in class and in lab.

Viewing the Panopto lectures is also required. Lecture notes are provided online, but they are not the script of the videos. You can be held responsible for any material presented in lecture in terms in quizzes or exams.

Communication in this course will primarily be by means of the ELMS Inbox email system. Even given its online nature, there is the possibility that due to inclement weather or other unexpected emergencies, the University may close. Please consult the University main webpage or call 301-405-7669 (SNOW) to confirm such cancellations. Dr. Holtz will contact students via ELMS in order to inform them concerning delays of due dates for projects to be handed in or for exams: typically these will be shifted until the next available day.

As part of the nature of the course, there will be a lot of memorization (less than a foreign language class, but more than that found in more mathematically-oriented introductory science classes). This will include lots of anatomical, geological, and paleontological terms, as well as evolutionary and temporal relationships. If you have difficulty memorizing, this may not be the class for you. Also, if there are words or concepts with which you are not familiar, feel free to ask Dr. Holtz (in class, after class, over email, etc.) for an explanation or clarification.

General Policies:
The University has provided a page on Academic policies here. Each student is responsible for reviewing this page with regards to issues of Academic Integrity; the Code of Student Conduct; Sexual Misconduct; Discrimination; Accessibility; Attendance, Absences, or Missed Assignments; Student Rights Regarding Undergraduate Courses; Official UMD Communication; Mid-Term Grades; Complaints About Course Final Grades; Copyright and Intellectual Property; Final Exams and Course Evaluations; and Campus Resources. For specifics with regards to this course, see the following:

Laptop/Tablet/Smartphone Use:
Given the reliance on technology this semester, please make certain that you have access to appropriate hardware, software, and Internet connections. If you are concerned about your ability to connect remotely for this course, please consult the following information about solutions provided by the Division of Information Technology:

Course Evaluations:
CourseEvalUM will be open for students to complete their evaluations during the last two weeks of the semester. Students can access CourseEvalUM through ELMS to complete their evaluations. You will be alerted about these dates and provided more information closer to that time, and students will be alerted via their official University e-mail account.

Copyright © 2021 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. as to this syllabus, all lectures, and all written material provided in this course. Students are prohibited from copying and selling course materials, from selling lecture notes, and from being paid to take lecture notes without the express written permission of the professor teaching this course. Violations of this prohibition will be treated as violations of the University Honors Code and reported and dealt with accordingly.

To Lecture Notes.

For a formatted printable copy of the complete syllabus, click here.

Last modified: 8 April 2021

Assorted fossils from Johann Georg Heck's 1851 Iconographic Encyclopaedia of Science, Literature, and Art