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

Spring Semester 2020 -- with COVID-19 updates

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

Lecture: Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center (ESJ 226) 2208 9:30-10:45 pm TuTh

Discussion Sections:
0101 Plant Sciences Building (036 PLS) 1158, M 3-3:50 pm
0102 Plant Sciences Building (036 PLS) 1158, M 4-4:50 pm
0103 Plant Sciences Building (036 PLS) 1158, M 5-5:50 pm
0104 Plant Sciences Building (036 PLS) 1168, M 3-3:50 pm
0105 Plant Sciences Building (036 PLS) 1168, M 4-4:50 pm
0106 Plant Sciences Building (036 PLS) 1168, M 5-5:50 pm

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:
Zachary Zega (Sections 0101, 0102, 0103)
Room: Chemistry Building (091 CHM) 1211B, Office Hours: Wed 9-11 am or by appointment
Email: ELMS

Christiana Hoff (Sections 0104, 0105, 0106)
Room: Chemistry Building (091 CHM) 0210A, Office Hours: Mon 1:30-2:30 pm or by appointment
Email: ELMS or

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: 2 lectures per week (Tuesday, Thursday), 1 section per week (Monday). NOTE: You must attend the particular discussion section for which you are registered.

Lectures lost due to University late openings or cancellations or instructor absence (OR FREAKING GLOBAL PANDEMIC!!!!) will be made up as Panopto video recordings on the ELMS page. Discussion sections missed due to early closings or cancellations will be handled on a case-by-case basis: expect an announcement on ELMS for these.

Students are responsible for a report on a self-guided tour of the various fossil halls of Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. This report is due on ELMS by discussion section time on March 30. Smithsonian self-guided field trip is cancelled due to the pandemic. But I encourage everyone who enjoyed the course to visit the museum when the outbreak is over.

Item Percentage
Online Midterm Exam I (2/26-3/1): 15.5%
Online Midterm Exam II (4/8-12): 15.5%
Final Exam: 16%
Discussion Participation: 10%
Homework: 7%
Quizzes: 7%
Platform Presentation: 12%
Team Poster Project: 10%
Lecture Summaries: 7%
Museum Tour Report: 10%

All students who participate in the group receive the same grade for that small group project.

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 (15.5% each): There are two online midterm exams. Each is available for a five-day period (February 26-March 1 and April 8-12, 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 closed-note and are subject to the University's Honor Pledge; you may not seek help from other people and sources in doing these.

The exams are delivered on ELMS using the LockDown Browser function: you may be required to download a plug-in to ELMS to implement this. You will have 75 minutes to complete the exam. You may only take it once. Since these are accessible on the web, there are NO EXCUSES for missing them (including illness; travel due to sports, band, etc.; and so forth.) Failure to correctly submit the exam on ELMS during the time period results in a 0 for that exam. If you encounter a technical problem, please contact for help (and Dr. Holtz so that he is aware of your situation.)

Final Exam (16%): Also online, the final is cumulative for the entire course but focuses on material since the second midterm. Format is similar to the mid-term exams. THURSDAY MAY 14 through SATURDAY MAY 16.

Discussion 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 occasionally some logistical items (for example, planning small group projects). 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: 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 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. They turn in any assignments due at the TA's office or mailbox in Geology the next working day.
  5. NOTE: excused absences from Discussion Section do NOT excuse students from quizzes, homeworks, and lecture summaries. These must be turned in or made up within the week of the absence or these 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 Team Project Presentation-the student must provide written 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 (7% each): Throughout the course (and particularly towards the beginning of the course) there will be short homework projects handed out in the discussion section to be turned in the following week. 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 held during the Discussion section, but represent their own graded item. These are short answer (typically true/false, multiple choice, or matching questions) referring to material from the previous week's lectures. Before CONVID-19 (BC) they will normally be held at the beginning of the Discussion section, so please be on time. (In the Age of Disease (AD...) they will be on ELMS, using the same types of protocols as the exams but open for only 8 minutes. The lowest quiz grade is automatically dropped. Only quizzes missed for excused absences can be made up; quizzes missed due to unexcused absences are simply graded as "0". (The first such missed quiz becomes your automatically dropped quiz grade.) Quizzes missed for excused absences MUST be made up before the next Discussion week, barring extraordinary circumstances: they are normally made up during the TA's office hours. If not made up within that timeframe, they are graded as "0".

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.

Team Poster Presentations "Museum of the Fossil Record" (10% total): As a term project for the later part of the semester, you will construct a poster (using PowerPoint) in the form of a museum exhibit, explaining some particular concept in paleontology. Your team will consist of 4 people from your section, and your posters will be presented in the last day of class and will be mounted on the website for the course. More details about the logistics of the project, choosing your topic, grading rubric, etc., will be made available later this semester. Your grade is mostly based on the poster itself, but also from within-teem peer evaluations. The exhibits are displayed on the Museum of the Fossil Record page.

Lecture Summary (7% total): In order to keep current with the course, to help prepare for quizzes and exams, and to help focus your thinking, every student will turn in a brief summary of the previous week's lectures by the time of the discussion section. You will turn them in via ELMS. These summaries should be short: only a brief paragraph of a few sentences per lecture. They should restate the key concepts of the lectures. One approach might be to state the key question for the lecture, then (in your own words) the answer to that question.

NOTE: in each Discussion section meeting a student will be called upon to give their summary 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.

Museum Tour Report (10%): To take advantage of our proximity to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History and its excellent display of fossil materials, there is a small assignment requiring you to go to that museum and answer a series of questions based on your observations. There is no single formal field trip; you may go on your own or in small groups. The project is due online on (NEWER DATE!) April 27. The galleries involved are the new Hall of Fossils--Deep Time, the paleontology portion of the Ocean Hall, and the Hall of Human Origins. In the world AD, the Smithsonian Tour Report is cancelled.

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 lecture is expected. The PowerPoints will not be provided to students, although there are detailed lecture notes online. If you cannot make a certain lecture, try and find another student who might lend you their notes. (In fact, establishing a study group early in the course has proven useful for many students in the past). Attendance in discussion sections is required: see the grade items for "Discussion Participation & Homework" 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.

Communication in this course will primarily be by means of the ELMS Inbox email system. In cases of 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 class date.

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:
Recent studies have shown that:

Towards this end, I very strongly encourage you to take notes via pencil/pen and paper. It is in your academic benefit to do this.

If you choose to take notes using a computer, you are agreeing to the following conditions:

When not in use, smartphones, tablets, laptops, and all other modes of electronic communication must be turned off and stowed away during class and discussion time. (NOTE: using your smartphone between your legs underneath the desk is NOT "stowed away", and you aren't and have never fooled a teacher or instructor when you try that...) If you are using the device for recording lectures, please activate them then leave them untouched for the remainder of the lecture.

That said, there may be some group activities in which we will use individual laptops/tablets/smartphones in class. Dr. Holtz will make every effort to inform you about this in advance. However, in those situations you may only use these devices for the task at hand.

As noted above, smartphones must be stowed away during Discussion sections.

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.

Students who complete evaluations for all of their courses in the previous semester (excluding summer), can access the posted results via Testudo's CourseEvalUM Reporting link for any course on campus that has at least a 70% response rate. You can find more information, including periodic updates, at the IRPA course evaluation website. The expectation is that all students will complete these. This is YOUR chance to anonymously evaluate this class: please use this opportunity!

Copyright © 2020 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: 25 March 2020

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