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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Geosciences : Earth Science

Undergraduate Course: Evolution of the Living Earth (EASC08023)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Geosciences CollegeCollege of Science and Engineering
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 8 (Year 1 Undergraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThis course is intended as a foundation course for all Earth Science students with emphasis on processes that operate at the global scale. The interactions between geology, chemistry, physics and biology affecting the origin and evolotion of life, Earth surface processes, and the climate history of the planet are studied. These together form the characteristics of the environment in which we live.

This course should also be of general interest to Biology students by providing a thorough basis for understanding the geological aspects of global environmental change, and in particular, the evolution of life in this context. Chemists will benefit from an application of basic chemical principles to complex natural systems, while the course also provides an important background for those interested in temporal phenomena e.g. archaeologists.
Course description The course will consist of four main components:
The first part (13 lectures by Dr Stephen Brusatte) will present the evolution of the Earth in general and of life in particular. The roles of the atmosphere and geosphere on changes in the biosphere are discussed, emphasising the driving mechanisms (internal and external forcing) for change. Significant events in earth history are considered, including the origin of life, geochemical evolution of the atmosphere, and mass extinctions. The use of isotopic and other geochemical proxies will be introduced and used to illustrate key events. After covering this module, students will be able to recall the main features of the evolution of the planet and life on earth.

The second section (5 lectures by Dr. Alex Thomas) introduces the concept of global climate change across a spectrum of time-scales from many millions of years to inter-annual variations. The emphasis is on identifying the main processes that control climate variability and change on these different time-scales, and on using examples from Earth history to illustrate how these processes may interact. This leads to the concept of the ¿climate system¿; a complex coupled system where components may interact to either enhance or reduce any initial change in climate. Natural processes including those related to tectonic activity, weathering of rocks, changes in solar output, changes in the Earth¿s orbit around the sun, and natural ¿auto-oscillations¿ in the climate system (such as El Niño Southern Oscillation) are considered, as well as Anthropogenic processes of climate change related to changing greenhouse gas and aerosol concentrations in the atmosphere. From this module students will be able to recall the main timescales on which climate change occurs, and will be able to account for these scales of change with reference to current understanding on the topic. They will be able to assess the degree to which recent climate change is exceptional compared to previous times, and will understand the significance and reliability of future predictions based on climate model results.

The third part (6 lectures by Dr. Bryne Ngwenya) is a basic introduction to the foundations of chemistry that underpins our fundamental understanding of natural chemical reactions. The course assumes very little chemistry and starts from first principles (fundamental building blocks of matter) to chemical reactions and what drives them. The lectures will run in parallel with assessed laboratory practical sessions designed to consolidate the application of the chemical concepts to natural substances/processes. On completion of this module, students will acquire a solid grasp of chemical principles upon which to build their chemistry skills relevant to Earth Materials and Chemical Geology in later years.

The final part (6 lectures by Dr. Alex Thomas) looks at earth processes from an integrated point of view through a systematic study of biogeochemical cycles. The major biogeochemical cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus are discussed and compared and detailed interactive practical sessions are used to illustrate measurement, analysis and synthesis of biogeochemical data. Links between the physical climate system and biogeochemical cycles are introduced to show how human activity is impacting on the environment. On completion of this module, students will be able to use the terminology and appreciate the merits of the cyclical approach to biogeochemistry. They will be able to recall the principal components of each biogeochemical element and the processes operating within each reservoir. They will appreciate the differences between the biogeochemical elements and also the human impact on each cycle.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2018/19, Available to all students (SV1) Quota:  90
Course Start Semester 1
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 200 ( Lecture Hours 30, Seminar/Tutorial Hours 30, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 136 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 50 %, Coursework 50 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) The exam will comprise 4 sections (A Origin and Evolution of Life; B Global Climatic and Environmental Change; C Environmental Chemistry; and D Global Biogeochemical Cycles). Each section will have 2 questions (8 in total). Students must answer 6 questions. Students must answer at least 1 question from each section.

Students MUST pass both the Continuous Assessment and Examinations components of the course (with a pass mark of 40% each).

The course will be delivered through a series of lectures and laboratory practical classes. In the practical course, the students will use physical and geochemical measurements to examine various aspects of global environmental processes.

Assessment will be based on a mixture of continuous work elements and a degree exam in December. Continuous assessment will contribute 50% and the degree exam 50%.

Continuous assessment will be based on the following work elements and allocations:
(i) 10% from précis of 6 academic papers. Students are required to read and summarise a set of four scientific papers. A reading list of at least 6 papers, selected from a range of palaeontological and palaeoclimatic topics, will be provided. Summaries should be less than 200 words, typed, in a written or bullet point format. They should concentrate on the main issues addressed by the paper and the main conclusions reached. Credit will be given for scientific clarity, where accuracy and precision are retained despite the short word length. Two of the five submitted summaries will be marked in a peer marking session.
(ii) 20% from the Biogeochemistry and fluid flow practical exercises.
(iii) 20% from the History of Life practical exercises.

Appropriate clothing for practicals
Practicals in weeks 6-11 involve working with chemicals. For your own safety, and that of others, you must wear suitable clothing. Footwear must be closed toe (no sandals or flipflops). Clothing should cover exposed skin: shorts, skirts and kilts are not suitable. Long hair should be tied back. Scarfs and long neck ties must not be worn in the laboratory. If you insist on dressing up for class then a bow tie is acceptable. You are also expected to bring a lab notebook to the environmental chemistry practicals.

Assessment deadlines
Origin and Evolution of life practical work must be submitted at the end of the practical class in week 5.
The academic summary (precis) must be submitted by 12pm on Friday of week 6.
The lab reports, and lab notebooks, must be submitted, by 12pm on Tuesday week 11.
Feedback The first Origin and Evolution of Life practical in week 1 will be marked and returned for feedback. The following 3 practicals will be reviewed in the subsequent practical session.
Reports from the Environmental Chemistry practicals in the first two weeks will be used to provide feedback on report writing.
There will be a Peer marking session for the coursework.

Examples of feedback can be found here:
Exam Information
Exam Diet Paper Name Hours & Minutes
Main Exam Diet S1 (December)2:00
Resit Exam Diet (August)2:00
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. Understand and eveluate the processes that have led to the habitable planet that we inhabit.
  2. Assess the degree to which recent climate change is exceptional compared to previous times, the drivers of climate change over a range of timescales, and will understand the significance and reliability of future predictions based on climate model results.
  3. Acquire a basic understanding of geochemistry and its application to the Earth system.
  4. Extract and synthesise data from important publications in these fields.
Reading List
Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, A.H.Knoll, Princeton University Press.
Earth's Climate Past and Future. William F. Ruddiman Freeman and Co. New York
Global Biogeochemical Cycles, Butcher et al., Academic Press.
Biogeochemistry: An Analysis of Global Change, W.H. Schlesinger, Academic Press.
Invertebrate Palaeontology , Clarkson, E.N.K., Blackwell
Dinosaurs, Brusatte, S. Benton, M., Quercus
In addition to journal articles and web based content linked on Learn.
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Laboratory skills; Critical thinking;
Additional Class Delivery Information 3 lectures and 1 practical per week. There will also be a tutorial in weeks 7, 8 and 9 and computer workshops in weeks 6-10.
KeywordsNot entered
Course organiserDr Alex Thomas
Tel: (0131 6)50 8749
Course secretaryMrs Nicola Clark
Tel: (0131 6)50 4842
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