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GEOL 1020 Introduction to Earth History

About the Course

Welcome to the second semester of introductory geology, GEOL 1020.

The first semester of introductory geology (GEOL 1010) is devoted to processes; it’s about how the earth works like a grand machine. The machinery of our planet includes plate tectonics and minerals and rock cycles and volcanoes and earthquakes and deserts and glaciers and rivers and streams and oceans.

In contrast, however, this second semester of introductory geology, GEOL 1020, treats the four and one-half billion year history of Earth as a kind of story. In order to read this fascinating narrative, written in rocks and fossils, we will use many of the topics covered in first semester geology (GEOL 1010). To that end, the authors of the textbook have devoted the first several chapters (chapters 1-7) to a review of first semester geology topics.

This course meets MAPS and Arts and Sciences core curriculum requirements for natural science.


Either GEOL 1010, or a full year of some other college science (biology, chemistry, physics), or a very strong geology background from high school is strongly suggested as a prerequisite. —Experience has shown that students who lack one of these prerequisites will NOT do well in GEOL 1020; so, best to take GEOL 1010 first!


Geology, particularly at the introductory level is generally more conceptual than quantitative. You’ll certainly do a few calculations, but the emphasis will be on “how the earth works.” Be prepared to get exposed to a lot of new concepts and terms.

In order to “read” this fascinating narrative of earth’s history, written in rocks and fossils, we will use many of the topics covered in first semester geology (GEOL 1010). To that end, the authors of the textbook have devoted the first several chapters (chapters 1-7) to a review of first semester geology topics.

Beginning with chapter eight, the fascinating tale of change on a planetary scale is unveiled – volcanic episodes come and go, glaciers wax and wane, oceans form and disappear as continents drift, and mountain ranges rise only to be worn down by the forces of erosion.

In the midst of all these physical changes is the compelling story of the emergence and evolution of life. We will come to recognize that all life is interconnected and has a common origin; in fact, this makes the entire scope of evolution a tale that we are very much a part of – it is our story. We will also come to recognize that life is both a product and a producer of its environment. The first atmospheric polluters, for example, were single-celled photosynthetic algae that churned out oxygen and, unknowingly, prepared the world for bigger things. Ultimately, I hope that you will discover a new and broader perspective on human beings, relative newcomers to a very ancient world.

Finally, by seeing something of the methodology by which scientists have pieced together the physical and biological evolution of our planet we learn about the nature of science; if nothing else, we learn the important lesson that scientific ideas change with time and that there is never complete knowledge in the realm of science. We will take a look at some of the individual scientists who helped decipher earth history, and in doing so we join them on one of the great human adventures, our backward reach through the abyss of geologic time.

Luckily, modern online courses have a lot of tools to help you. Obviously, it all starts with a careful reading of the textbook. Focus points are guided through the use of your assignments, self-tests, media files (animations, videos, lectures, and even a “virtual field trip” to Flagstaff Mountain, near Boulder, Colorado) and the online Study Guide. It is imperative that you work through all the different

Grade Breakdown

  • There are effectively three sections to the course. Section one covers chapters 1-7; section two covers chapters 8-13; and section three covers chapters 14-19.
  • Each section has TWO assignments and an exam. So, there are a total of 6 assignments.
  • The exams should only be taken when the assignments for that particular section have been completed and graded.
  • The exams focus on material specific to each section, but there is a certain amount of general knowledge that builds from section to section.
  • Each assignment is worth 10 points, for a total of 60 points.
  • Each exam is worth 14 points for a total of 42 points.
  • Yes, the total points possible are 102! And, that is good news, because I will grade on a standard schedule of 90 and above = A; 80-89.5 = B; 70-79.5= C, etc.
    (In other words, everyone is given 2 free points.)

Required Text

Historical Geology, Evolution of Earth and Life Through Time, 6th Edition, by Wicander and Monroe

Instructor Contact

Phone:(303) 492-5148

Email: Alan.Lester@Colorado.EDU

(Once the course has begun, students should send assignments and questions using the D2L GEOL 1020 web page.)

Alan Lester is a Senior Instructor and Research Associate in the Department of Geological Sciences, CU-Boulder. A native of Oregon, Alan moved to Colorado in 1985 (BS from the University of Oregon and PhD from the University of Colorado, 1993).

Alan has done research in a variety of geological sub-disciplines including mineral structures, paleomagnetism, isotope geochemistry, and igneous petrology; all of which have been directed at understanding the origin and subsequent evolution of the Rocky Mountains.

A recipient of multiple university-wide teaching awards, Alan focuses on teaching at the undergraduate level. In addition to this internet course, Alan’s most recent teaching duties have included courses in Natural Disasters, Historical Geology, Honors Lab Geology, and both introductory and advanced Field Geology.

Both Alan and his wife Melissa are rock- and mountain-climbers. They combine their interest in geology with visits to climbing areas all over the western United States; sometimes adding to the adventure by flying small airplanes to their destination. Alan is also a flight instructor and a commercial airline pilot – if you’re ever on a United Express regional jet, listen for the pilot names!

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Monday – Friday
7:30am to 4:30pm


We are located at the corner of University Avenue and 15th Street in a white brick building.


1505 University Avenue
University of Colorado Boulder
178 UCB
Boulder, Colorado