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ENVS 112 - Introduction to Geology
at Trinity College

Instructor: Christoph Geiss
Enrollment: 23

Challenges to using math in introductory geoscience

Our introductory geoscience course is taken by ~50% (prospective)environmental science majors (no geology at Trinity) 40% first-year and sophomore students who are unsure about their major and whose motives range from "getting their science requirement out of the way" to "I was always interested and wanted to check out geology". The remainder are seniors who are (often desperately) trying to fulfill their science requirement. As a result, I have students with a wide range of backgrounds and wide range of motivation to succeed in quantitative coursework.
However, this is a science course, and the faculty wants it to be quantitative because that's how good science works. Therefore we are always trying to find ways to

  1. how to level the playing field (for example by providing support for students who need it)
  2. make quantitative exercises an integral part of the course without spending too much time on it (which would have to come at the expense of the geology subject matter)

I see TMYN as a way to support my students without sacrificing too much class time and help the students to succeed in their quantitative assignments both in the lab and the lecture.

More about your geoscience course

It's one of the six introductory science courses for the env. sci. major (biol, chem, envs, geol, math, phys) and defines our expectations for our majors. The course has a lab, which is loosely coordinated with the lecture (e.g., I try to do sedimentary environments before they look at fluvial deposits in the lab), but is taught by a separate lab instructor. The lab exercises are often very quantitative, and are supported by shorter (easier?) quantitative assignments in lectures, homeworks, lab pre-quizzes etc. TMYN would add to these assignemnts.
We have TA's but they are mostly used to keep students from killing themselves, drive them into the field etc.

Inclusion of quantitative content pre-TMYN

I have several short quantitative assignments in the lecture. Often I explain the math / quantitative skills in lecture - something I would like to minimize.
We start out with very simple assignments and provide detailed solution sheets that outline the solution, the reasoning and rationale behind it, and describes our expectations on what constitutes a complete solution. The expectations are stated in the assignment as well, but often students only pay attention after they receive a poor (or less than perfect grade).
With or without TMYN, the number of these assignments will increase in the future.

Which Math You Need Modules will/do you use in your course?

Strategies for successfully implementing The Math You Need

I want to see whether it works, so there will be a pre- and post test. Ideally, I would have a control group as well, but I don't have enough students for that... The pre-test will be graded based on participation only, the post test will be graded based on student results. Previous results from Physics have shown that we get participation in the pre-test "for free" but in order to ensure that students take the post test seriously it is necessary to offer a result-based incentive.

I still need to discuss this with my lab instructor, but right now I am planning on implementing four to five modules.

The modules are part of the course, they will include the assessment, and they will be reinforced by short in-class assignments or homeworks. I am not sure (yet) about the timing of the assignments. Ideally, the students will have completed an assignment before it is covered in lecture or the lab. However, this requires the buy-in from the lab instructor. I will try to get him on board and if he refers to TMYN in the labs I will time the deadlines so they correspond to lab assignments. If he does not care (unlikely but possible) I will set the deadlines solely based on my lecture schedule.

In any case, the lab or lecture will refer back to TMYN exercises right after they were done and probably later throughout the semester ("remember, you did something similar on-line a few weeks ago - if you're a bit shaky I encourage you to go back to this module ..."). This tight integration is necessary to make students feel they get something out of TMYN (just the vague notion that their math skills will improve is not sufficient to assure participation).

Reflections and Results

It's hard to say how well it worked. From previous experiments I knew that our students do not take well to computer based instruction. We are using numerous computer-based tools (in Physics, for example, all my home works are graded using Mastering Physics, and students have great disdain for the software even though they do significantly better with the software than with a human grader). So comments throughout the course were sparse and if students commented they complained. However, every single assignment included questions on difficulty and helpfulness of the tutorial etc. Here responses were mostly positive. If at all, students complained that the assignments were too trivial. Since the responses were not anonymous it was interesting to see that the weaker students found the assignments less helpful (too easy), while the stronger students saw them as a useful tool to brush-up on their Math skills. The best students (rightfully so) thought the assignment was an utter waste of time.

So, next time around I have to find a way to engage the weaker students better, but I also have to look at the data more closely.

In general students complained about the lack of relevance between the Math assignments and what we did in class, even though most of the topics were in sync with the lab assignments and lab exercises made direct use of material covered in TMYN. This misconception may arise from the fact that the students had the lab after they completed TMYN, or because I, the lecture instructor, pushed TMYN, while the applications occurred in the lab which was taught by a different instructor. A few additional homeworks might solve that problem.

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