Earth System Science
at Rochester Community Technical College
Challenges to using math in introductory geoscience
Introductory geoscience classes typically contain students with a wide distribution of geoscience background and math abilities and self perceptions of math ability ranging from accurate and realistic to overconfident to terminal math phobia. This range of abilities combined with large class sizes creates significant problems for managing a course, classroom and lab in a fashion that meets the needs of the greatest number of students. A second challenge in such classes comes from the belief by many students that they will not need the math or science skills/content they are learning in their future major or career...this is just a general ed class they are forced to take. The instructor must find obtain student buy in by making the course relevant and enjoyable while also retaining the integrity that quantitative components that geosciences require of students even at this level of material. A third challenge in this regard can come from other faculty and administrators who want to keep the general student population happy and quiet by not rocking the boat or making their educational experience "challenging" by raising the bar in a course that they may see as "non-essential" compared to other academic priorities they have for the student population.
More about your geoscience course
Earth System Science is an integrated study of the Earth sciences focusing on geology, geomorphology, weather and climate for the general education student not pursuing a geoscience major. The lecture/lab combination course includes about half of the content that a major's physical geology course would include because of the need to make room for the weather and climate components and inclusion of remedial activities such as an introductory lab on units and the metric system. Lecture sections range between 24 and 72 students while labs are capped at 24 students maximum. Lecture and lab instructors work as a team but are not uniform across sections.
Inclusion of quantitative content pre-TMYN
In the past, Earth System Science has had a low level of quantitative content with most focused on units and metric system, in support of issues of scale, radioactive decay supporting the geologic times scale and river flow rates. Most quantitative content was introduced in lab by the instructor or TAs, often requiring a significant fraction of lab time and resulting in students receiving different levels of exposure to the underlying math and dependent geologic concepts. One goal for using TMYN is to reduce that time requirement and standardize the student experience in at least some aspects of the fundamentals. The new climate change double lab will add a new set of quantitative data collected by the students as part of their activities.
Which Math You Need Modules will/do you use in your course?
Density: This module will be used in conjunction with the hypsometric curve module for the study of minerals and the Earth's bimodal elevation structure.
Graphing: This module will be used in conjunction with the rates module during the hydrology section of the course in plotting and assessing river flow rates.
Plotting Points: This module will be used in the end of semester climate change laboratory along with the best fit line module.
Best Fit Line: This module will be used in the study of climate change as students seek the relationship between temperature and greenhouse gas concentrations.
Topographic Profile: This module will be used in conjunction with the slopes and trigonometry modules to support study of topographic maps using local geographic features.
Hypsometric Curve: This module will be used in our study of plate tectonics and Earth's bimodal elevation structure.
Rates: This module will be used to support study of river flow rates.
Slopes: This module will be used to support the study of topographic maps.
Trigonometry: This module will be used in the study of topographic maps.
Unit Conversions: This module will be used at the beginning of the semester to reinforce student work on the metric system and units in general.
Strategies for successfully implementing The Math You Need
Experience suggests that the likelihood of successful implementation of content support modules like TMYN can be increased by following a few key strategies. The content modules need to be build into the course and syllabus so that they appear to be integrated components of the course no different than text book readings, weekly writing assignments or labs. The instructor needs to reference the modules from the beginning of the semester and use them at appropriate times as the course unfolds. Modules need to be properly integrated into lecture/lab such that their inherent content is applicable to tasks the students face at that point in the semester. Students needs scaffolding to help them work through the modules until they are comfortable with the logistics of using them and recognize their importance to the course. Student interest in the modules can be enhanced by inclusion of questions in the module assessments specifically related to the geology of the area in which the students live. Unit conversion problems involving local distances between familiar places, flow measurements along a local river, topographic mapping of familiar geologic features can all help students take ownership of the material in a module that was not specifically developed for them. Assessment of student engagement with the modules can be an important motivator for many students and should occur on some level indicating that the faculty member is interested and monitoring their performance. This need not involve intensive grading but should be seen to be occurring by students. Many of the modules have multiple application points during the semester. In such instances it is entirely appropriate and relevant to point out to students when study of upcoming material might benefit from revisiting principles from a particular module. As with any learning aid, use of the modules needs to be governed by feedback from the students. Students who have achieved mastery of a particular skill set/concept should not be buried in busy work intended to benefit other segments of the class and should be afforded the opportunity to focus on more appropriate challenges. Use of minute papers during the semester to get feedback on the efficacy of the modules can help guide the instructor in this matter.