HONR 259C "Fearfully Great Lizards": Topics in Dinosaur Research

Fall Semester 2019
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' 1854 reconstructions of the first recognized dinosaurs (Iguanodon (left and center front), Hylaeosaurus (center rear), and Megalosaurus (right)), on display at Crystal Palace Park, Bromley, London

Edward St. John Learning and Teaching Center (ESJ 226) 1309 12:30-1:45 pm TTh

Instructor: Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Room: Geology Building (237 GEO) 4106
Office Hours: Thurs 8:30-11 am, or by appointment
Phone: (301) 405-4084, Email:

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: Since their discovery in the early 19th Century, dinosaurs have fascinated both the scientific community and the general public. Alternatively the exemplars of power and adaptation or obsolesce and failure, the members of Dinosauria have been the best known of Life's ancient past to the world at large. But how do we know about them? How can we reconstruct their anatomy, their behavior, their evolution, and their extinction? And how can knowledge of these ancient animals help us understand the contemporary world? This Honors Seminar will focus on the nature of that understanding. Students in the program will examine the science behind dinosaur paleontology: how data derived from fossils are used to reveal the life and habits of these animals.

Students in this course will engage with the primary technical literature from scientific journals, as well as general audience sources in a variety of media. Through this they will see how paleontologists attempt to understand the biology of these organisms through a various means of analysis and inference, and will see how (and to what degree) alternatively hypotheses of the same evidence are evaluated. They will see how this information is transmitted from scientists to the general public. As a capstone of the course, each student will create their own example of a popular audience presentation of a scientific discovery about dinosaurs in a medium of their own choice.

Please note: one thing this course is NOT is a comprehensive survey of the diversity of dinosaurs, their biology, and their times (that course is GEOL 104 Dinosaurs: A Natural History). Instead, this course will examine a smaller subset of topics in depth and explore the relevant research around that subject.

Also please note: This Honors Seminar involves considerably more reading and writing than typical science courses. Nearly every week you will be reading at one or more article or video relevant to the topic. It is your responsibility to have read/screened these in advance and be read to be conversant on the contents.

Course Organization: 2 meetings per week (Tuesday, Thursday). Tuesdays are typically devoted to lectures; Thursdays to discussions and other group activities.

Lectures lost due to University late openings or cancellations or instructor absence will be made up as Panopto video recordings on the ELMS page. Group discussions and other activities lost due to the same will be made up in a manner to be announced over ELMS.

Field Trip: Two field trips are planned for this course. A report on one of these is a graded item for the course. The other trip is available for an extra credit. The field trips are:

Texts: No required textbook for purchase. However, please keep current with the online lecture notes.

There are a substantial number of short readings and screenings required for this course: these include technical papers from the scientific literature; essays for the general public; news reports from the press; YouTube explanatory videos; shorter documentaries; and others. These will be provided as links on the ELMS page. In some cases, every student will read that paper/screen that video; in others, subsets of the class are assigned different viewing/screenings and are responsible for sharing the information from these to the class as a whole.

Item Percentage
Discussion Participation 10%
Quizzes 10%
Individual Papers 30%
Group Discussion Reports 15%
Field Trip Report 5%
Capstone Project 30%

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.

Discussion Participation (10%): As this is an Honors Seminar, all students are expected to attend every course meeting and be an active participant when appropriate. In some classes, there may be interactive activities or discussions. A default grade of 5 will be given for every class a student attends. They may be awarded up to 2 more points as extra credit for particularly helpful or effective participation in the. Students who are present for all discussion sections but are non-participants or are disruptive may be docked up to 2 and 4 points (respectively) at the instructor's discretion.

While the expectation is that students attend EVERY class, it is recognized that occasionally conditions (accident, illness, etc.) arise that prevent such. To recognize that, every student is allowed two (2) absences in class without penalty, so long as they inform Dr. Holtz by email (beforehand if at all possible), or certainly by the end of that same day that they will be/were absent and the reason for that absence.Should these conditions not be met, the students will receive a 0 for the grade for the discussion/participation for that day. Additionally, if there are more than two absences the student will receive a 0 for the grade each additional class time missed. (If there is a medical condition or other extraordinary circumstance that does require missing more than 2 class meetings--or missing the date of an In-class Small Group Project--the student must provide written documentation from the appropriate sort of official (health professional; court official; etc.) explaining the absence.)

Quizzes (10%): In order to assess the mastery of knowledge within the course, there will be a series of 6 quizzes. These will typically involve true/false, multiple choice, and/or identification questions. The lowest quiz grade is automatically dropped.

Individual Papers (30%): Nearly every week there will be some writing assignments. Most of these will be very brief (1-2 pages) and are based on analysis of one or more reading/screening. These papers are to be submitted on ELMS in advance of the Discussion meeting in which they are due: your responses to the paper prompts will be part of the subject of the discussions and in-class projects of that day.

The grades for these papers (rubrics will be available on ELMS) incorporate both the mechanics of writing (grammar [both English and technical]; spelling; factual accuracy) as well as depth of insight in response to the prompts. Typically, the papers will examine both the results of the research you read as well as questions about the argumentation in those papers. In some cases, you will be asked to write the paper in a particular style or to a particular audience. At least some of the papers are subject to peer grading as well as grading by the instructor.

Group Discussion/Critical Review Reports (15%): On several days there will small group discussions in class rather than lectures. These discussions will focus on readings/screenings and your individual papers. The deliverable graded aspect of these discussions will be short reports turned in at the end of class. This will be a series of questions that you answer based on your collaboration; some of the questions are derived from advanced readings and writing; others from new related material presented in the report packet. All group members present that day receive the same grade on the report.

Field Trip Report (5%): A short report from one of the two field trips is required of all student, based on a series of prompts. Students may use a field trip report from the second field trip as an extra credit assignment worth +2% of the course grade. (Students with a documented University excuses for missing both field trips must consult with Dr. Holtz in determining a make up for this assignment.)

Capstone Project (30% total): The primary project for the later part of the course is a creative project concerning dinosaurs and dinosaur research which you develop. The possible type of project is very broad: indeed, part of the assignment is coming up with not only the topic but the presentation format you will use. Just to give you a sense of possible project formats, here are some possibilities:

The grade for this project is broken down into a series of individual parts, culminating in the presentation of your projects in lieu of a final exam. More specific details will be provided later, but the components are as follows:


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

Course Themes: This course examines how scientists study the age, environments, evolution, origin, biology, behavior, and extinction of dinosaurs and the other inhabitants of their world. Over this time we will explore several big themes:


Expectations & Attendance: Attendance is required. The Honors Seminars require you to do more than simply master the information; you must be able to intelligently communicate and discuss the ideas and concepts of the course with your instructor and fellow students.

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). If you want to achieve a good grade in the course, the time to start working towards that is from the very beginning! Keep up with the material as it is presented rather than "cramming" to study it right before exams.

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.

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.

Memorization: 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.

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 will be some group activities in which we will use individual laptops/tablets/smartphones in class. The group discussions in particular are opportunities where you will want electronic access (for instance, to read your own papers and the source articles). However, in those situations you may only use these devices for the task at hand.

Copyright © 2019 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.

  • Lecture Notes

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

    Last modified: 16 July 2019

    Detail from Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' "Jurassic Life of Europe" (1877), currently in Guyot Hall, Department of Geosciences, Princeton University