UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In a weekend, imagine walking the earth before the time of dinosaurs, then during the period in which they roamed, and finishing your walk long after their demise.
For students in a geobiology (Geosc 204) course that culminates with a field trip to the Denver Basin, that’s the story that’s told in the exposed rocks of Dinosaur Ridge, Green Mountain, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and backstage visits to a nearby museum.
Geosciences professor Mark Patzkowsky, who in April led the class on the four-day trip, said it’s a chance for students to observe how geological clues tell the story of life and to experience field work.
Patzkowsky, who shares the course with geosciences professor Peter Wilf, began the trip by taking students to Dinosaur Ridge, a protected area west of Denver that’s one of the world’s most famous dinosaur fossil spots. Geological formations and a dry climate expose fossilized bones and tracks along the ridge.
“It’s a really nice place to set the stage about the geology of the area because we can see so much of it there, Patzkowsky said. “Students immediately start making their own observations, taking notes and making sketches. The aspect of drawing forces you to really look at something in more detail.”
Patzkowsky developed the course in 2003 to better help students in earth sciences understand the interaction between Earth and life over long spans of time.
“Earth history unfolds over millions and millions of years with global-scale processes,” Patzkowsky said. “Only so much can be learned in the classroom. It’s important to take students in the field so that they can experience these large spatial and temporal scales. They need to see the data behind the classroom discussions. It is a significant time effort, but it is all worth it for the ‘oh wow’ moments that the students have on the trip.”
For Jennifer Taylor, who graduated in May with a degree in geosciences, Dinosaur Ridge was the highlight of the trip.
“You get so used to seeing the perfect fossils and reconstructed skeletons in museums and books that it’s mind-blowing to see these things still in the ground,” Taylor said. “It gives you a glimpse of what paleontologists are looking for and actually seeing in the field.”
From there, students tour Green Mountain, a mesa on the eastern flank of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, studying formations that span the time before, during and after the fall of dinosaurs.
“We can walk vertically through these sediments that were eroded from that mountain area and see the composition of the sediments as we go up,” Patzkowsky said. “Because we’re so close to the mountain range, the sediments are these big cobbles, and they’re easily identified.”
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, another stop, features preserved plants and insects, including massive petrified Redwoods. Observing these two periods — the Denver dinosaurs of between 70-140 million years ago, and the fossil beds, from 35 million years ago — helps students grasp how these ecosystems evolved, Patzkowsky said.
At the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, students tour public exhibits and research labs, getting looks at massive dinosaur fossils, large sea creatures and mastodons usually reserved only for researchers.
“We discuss this material in class,” Patzkowsky said. “It’s the vehicle for giving them a broad overview of the history of life, and then we go see these exhibits and they see exactly the same thing that was in their textbooks and it’s right in front of them.”
Taylor said the trip expounded on classroom lessons.
“Being able to piece together the geological and biological evidence into a cohesive story of how the Denver area changed through geologic time was a major part of this trip,” Taylor said. “This kind of thinking is an important skill in geology, and being able to see and interpret geologic evidence in the field is a valuable experience you just can’t get in the classroom.”
Carly Gazze, a senior majoring in geosciences who is interested in paleontology, said the trip offered prehistoric lessons that still resonate today.
“This class show us how the events of the past paved the way for the world as we know it today,” Gazze said. “Had it not been for the dinosaurs’ extinction, the planet would look a lot different than it does, and we might not even be here. The class was full of interesting examples of consequentiality like this one, and I think that this understanding of the link between the past and the present is important for everyone. Right now, we’re facing issues that will affect the Earth’s future just like events of the past did.”