Geologic Hazards and Hostile Environments
at Metropolitan College of Boston University
Challenges to using math in introductory geoscience
Boston University is a large urban university comprising 17 schools and colleges, with >30,000 undergraduate and graduate students. My course is taught under the auspices of Metropolitan College, which is the evening division of Boston University. A number of students are therefore B.U. employees, working (sometimes slowly) toward their first degree; others are full-time students who find an evening course convenient.
Student abilities and histories range very widely, from the nontraditional student taking his first class in twenty years to the traditional student who is on the verge of graduating with a B.S. and moving on to graduate school. A number of students have the attitude of "I can't do math," which means that a fair amount of class time is taken up with teaching mathematical functions and their relevant applications to those students. The challenges here are:
- some students require far more time to develop comfort in math skills than is practical in a once-a-week, three-hour course;
- other students who are more skilled at applying mathematical concepts become disengaged during these "remedial" math lessons;
- students who do not excel at quantitative work become frustrated and stressed when they realize that their lack of ease with the work will result in a lower course grade, as exercises are graded.
Using TMYN modules may be a miracle to me; switching class time on math skills to an off-site, homework-style effort should provide many benefits. I hope that by allowing students to work through general mathematical concepts and calculations at their own pace, in a private, non-threatening environment will (a) engage the students who need more help more in a better learning environment; (b) keep the more advanced students engaged in class; (c) allow students to be more content with their grades and their abilities in general.
More about your geoscience course
This course is one of two environmental geology courses offered through BU's evening division (Metropolitan College); either or both, in any order, may be taken to fulfill the two science course requirement for graduation. The fall semester course focuses on natural hazards and hostile environments; the spring semester course, Environmental Geology II, has a greater focus on land use, environmental impacts of and on humans, and global change.(Many other scientific disciplines may also be taken; some of the students selecting environmental geology have a true interest in the field; some have the belief that geology is not a "hard" science.)
The course is taught without TA's and without a separate, isolated lab component; all lab exercises are completed as part of the once-weekly three-hour session.
The student population, as described in the previous section, varies widely. The goal of these science courses is to provide an opportunity to experience some scientific education, to develop an appreciation for science and its impacts and relevance (in this case, environmental geology), and to develop some applied critical thinking skills that may not have been stressed in other parts of the university's curriculum.
Inclusion of quantitative content pre-TMYN
I have all but eliminated quantitative content in this course. I do still try to have students perform some math utilizing topographic maps, but have decreased that to a bare minimum of calculating elevations, distances (using ratio scales) and relief. Even these small computations are quite challenging for some students. I am eager to bring this material back, and to imbue it with more geological relevance, as opposed to spending so much class time on "teaching math." I would also like to add slopes and gradients, flood recurrence intervals, stream discharge/velocity and groundwater flow calculations.
Which Math You Need Modules will/do you use in your course?
- Best Fit Line
- Rearranging Equations
- Unit Conversions
Strategies for successfully implementing The Math You Need
I plan to utilize TMYN modules as part of a course grade, as part of the homework grading. 15% of the course grade is based on homework; I anticipate that ~half of that 15% will be based on TMYN modules, including a final post-test. A pre-test will also be given, but will count only as an in-class assignment (full grade for completing the pre-test, no matter whether responses are accurate or not). The first three of the modules will be assigned as homeworks due on weeks 2-4; the fourth module will be due on week 6, and the last module will be due on week 8 of the course. The modules will be assigned as follows, and will be used in lab exercises as follows:
- Rearranging equations: all quantitative work, as included below (due week 2)
- Unit conversion: map distance and elevation calculations; also possibly incorporated into relief and gradient computations (due week 3)
- Rates in geology: stream and groundwater flow; rates of coastal erosion (due week 4)
- Slopes: assessing mass movement hazard; stream gradient (due week 6)
- Constructing a best-fit line: flood recurrence interval, also for average frequency of global hazard occurrences (due week 8)
Earlier units will also be revisited (as "reminders to review") throughout the semester as continued lab preparation work.
In addition to the module assessments, weekly quizzes and/or exams may incorporate questions based on the quantitative content of modules that have been recently completed.
Reflections and Results (interim)
In my Environmental Geology course this semester (Fall 2010), I have assigned a semester-long project in which students investigate the historical and potential hazard risks in any U.S. region, focused on a specific address of their choosing. The hazard assessment is qualitative and based on those topics we have or will have covered in class. Resources and tools include the use of downloaded topographic maps, Google Earth, and other (mostly web-based) sources. Two drafts (the first encompassing tectonic-origin hazards; the second assessing inland flooding and mass movements), are presented and graded prior to the final project submission, which also includes coastal and meteorological hazards.
I am thrilled to say that I have recently been grading drafts for the second draft and so far, at least half of my students have actually calculated the gradient of slopes near their sites - and of these, three calculated slope angles (which may be somewhat more meaningful to them)!!! This absolutely is a result of the Slopes module in TMYN tutorials! I certainly did not teach them any trigonometry in class; I did, however, in my written intro to the module, focus on how to calculate slope angles and listed some useful web tutorials (one of the questions in my WAMAP assessment included slope angle calculation). I am thrilled - I never would have thought to take on trig in class, and would not have "wasted the time" to try to do so. But in this format, little of my time was taken up, and the material was actually presented to all students and learned - and more importantly used -by some. True, others did not do as well on the WAMAP question, but still - I consider this a great success for my first implementation. (Sometimes it's the small things!)
More after the post-course assessment!
ES107 Syllabus Fall\'10 (Microsoft Word 278kB Dec4 10)