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The Math You Need, When You Need It

Resources For Students in Introductory Geoscience

Eric Baer, Highline Community College, and Jennifer M. Wenner, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Funding provided by NSF Grant Numbers DUE-633755 and DUE-633402 (Dec 2006-Dec 2009)
Sponsored by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers

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The Math You Need When You Need It


The Math You Need, When You Need It modules cover quantitative topics that are important in introductory geoscience courses (e.g., graphs, unit conversions, density). The project is designed to give introductory geoscience students the quantitative knowledge that they need just before they need to use it in their concurrent geoscience course. Relevant quantitative topics are organized into stand alone modules with three student pages and an instructor page. Each topic includes an explanation of the quantitative concept, a limited number of sample problems for the student to work through, a culminating on-line quiz. We also include a page for the instructor to learn what they can expect from these pages and encourage instructors to utilize pre- and post-testing to assess the effectiveness of the self-paced modules on student learning. Although the pages are designed to provide contextual problems specific to the geosciences, many of the topics could be adapted to other science courses.

Project Goals

  • Production and use of appropriate "the math you need, when you need it" modules
  • Improving introductory geoscience students' mastery of, and comfort with quantitative skills.
  • Increased retention and student success in introductory geoscience courses
  • Facilitating the addition of more quantitative materials in introductory geoscience courses.
  • Increase quantitative literacy of geoscience students by facilitating use and transfer of mathematical concepts to multiple geologic contexts.

Project Design/Elements

This project includes stand-alone modules covering quantitative concepts that can be used in conjunction with a concurrent introductory geoscience course. The modular nature of this project makes it readily adaptable to any introductory geoscience course that involves quantitative concepts - instructors can choose which modules work with their syllabus and which subjects are covered on the final quiz. These modules are designed to be completed by the students who need them most, just before quantitative concepts are covered in class.

To date there are 8 modules (each of the links below takes you to the explanation page, a navigation bar on the left (or links within the page)will direct you to the rest of the module):

Each module consists of an explanation of the quantitative concept (e.g., unit conversions, rearranging equations), a number of sample problems for the student to work through (e.g., unit examples, equation examples), and a culminating exam testing whether the student understands the concepts. The explanation and problems are written from the perspective of geoscientists who teach these concepts regularly. Each module uses best practices in teaching college level mathematics and are all in the context of the geosciences.

Instructors can readily adapt these modules for use in any geoscience course (or, in many cases, courses in other STEM disciplines). The modules are designed so that they could be used in any order and have an instructor page explaining what is important on the page (e.g., calculating density, trigonometry). Questions on the pre-test and the post-module quizzes can be adopted from a bank of questions that address a given quantitative concept in multiple geoscience contexts. The multiple contexts speak to the issue of transfer of mathematical concepts to new and distinct topics. We also encourage instructors to author their own questions for the quizzes/tests.

Evaluation and Assessment Strategies

Project evaluation focuses on three outcomes:
  1. the production and use of the modules in geoscience courses
  2. student attitude and performance in modules and in geoscience courses
  3. faculty comfort with the addition of quantitative content of introductory geoscience courses.
Formative assessment of the project relies on quantitative and qualitative measures of these outcomes in the form of pre-and post-module data collection, walk-throughs, surveys and interviews. Feedback from these assessment are used to modify our product during the development phase of the project and as summative feedback for final project evaluation.

Products, Key Findings, Publications

The Math You Need, When You Need It was piloted to over 550 students at Highline Community College and University of Wisconsin Oshkosh during 2008 and 2009. The modules were implemented in Physical Geology (over four quarters at Highline and 2 semesters at Oshkosh) and Environmental Geology (at Oshkosh in Fall 2008). Assessments of these modules included the results of pre- and post-tests, and student attitude surveys and faculty interviews.

Pre- and post-test results
For all courses that piloted the modules, the majority of students improved from pre- to post-tests. At Highline, all students who completed a majority of the modules showed improved skills between the pre-course evaluation and the post-module quiz. At Oshkosh, students in both piloting courses show improvement with the use of the modules. In Physical Geology, 92% (138) of the 150 students who completed 3 or more modules improved their scores over the pre-test (Wenner et al., 2008). Environmental Geology students also improved but we found that scores increased for only 77% (92 of 120) of students who completed 2 or more modules (Wenner et al., 2008).

EnviroUWO Learn
PhysUWO Learn

Student attitude surveys
At the end of each post-module quiz, students were asked to rank their perception of the difficulty and helpfulness of each of the modules. At both Oshkosh and Highline, students thought that the modules that they took were helpful. This was true for all modules completed, whether or not they found them difficult. Approximately 80% of student respondents (777 out of 962 total responses) were neutral, agreed somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement, "I found this module helpful" (Wenner et al., 2008). At the same time, only 30% (231 of 762) of respondents agreed that the modules were difficult (ranging from 8-60% depending on the module; Wenner et al., 2008). This suggests that even students who feel they already understand a mathematical concept believe that the modules are helpful.

EnviroUWO Attitudes difficult
PhysicalUWO Attitudes difficult

EnviroUWO Attitudes help
PhysicalUWO Attitudes helpful

Highline attitudes

Faculty attitudes

Responses from faculty at Oshkosh suggest that the experience of using TMYN with introductory geosciences courses is overall positive. Instructors indicated that the time spent explaining mathematical concepts (particularly remedial concepts such as graphing and algebra) went down significantly. One instructor reduced the amount of time at the beginning of lab significantly because she could assume that students had encountered the material when they completed the TMYN module. The instructor of the Environmental Geology course (traditionally without much quantitative content) indicated that she felt more confident in modifying the in-house lab manual to increase the amount of quantitative material (and to reduce the "hand-holding" for the math). These responses and the positive attitude suggest that TMYN helps faculty to feel empowered to represent geoscience as the data-rich, quantitative sciences it truly is.

Use of web resources outside HCC and UWO
The MYN website has had over 30,000 visitors and 48,000 page views in the 6 months from November 2008 to May 2009. About 25% of the visitors remained on the site for more than a few seconds, averaging almost 6 min per visit and more than 3 pages per visit. Approximately 81% of vistors are from the US.

Publications that report results from this project:

Assessing Quantitative Learning with The Math You Need When You Need It, AGU Annual Meeting 2008

The Math You Need When You Need It: Web-Based Modules to Help Students Succeed in Introductory Geoscience Courses, GSA Annual Meeting 2008, download poster (Acrobat (PDF) 41.8MB Nov14 08)

The Math You Need, When You Need It: Student-Centered Web Resources Designed to Decrease Math Review and Increase Quantitative Geology in the Classroom, AGU Annual Meeting 2007

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