Non-science majors and teaching (with) data

Mathieu Richaud, Earth & Environmental Sciences, California State University-Fresno

Non-science majors and teaching (with) data

Mathieu Richaud

At California State University, Fresno, an inland campus nested in the heart of California's Central Valley, the oceanography class fulfills an upper general education requirement for science. Without any prerequisites and not required for any other course, the vast majority of enrolled students are not science majors.

Teaching marine science to non-science majors in upper-division classes is rewarding, yet challenging; the former because (re)introducing scientific concepts to juniors and seniors augments scientific literacy but the latter is a sticking point because I want to leave students with more than an appreciation and better understanding of oceanography. Marine science is also about data and not just cute videos of marine mammals in Monterey Bay, impressive pictures of giant waves near Half-Moon Bay, or bulleted slides about the effects of coastal erosion along Southern California. Hence, I want them to manipulate data to answer scientific questions.

Educating mostly non-science majors hampers an approach to teaching quantitative reasoning and/or using data in the classroom. I see several inhibiting factors: (a) a lack of "basic mathematics and statistics skills to interpret data, draw conclusions, and solve problems within a disciplinary or interdisciplinary context" (Elrod, 2014), (b) a lack of interest for the topic in general owing to joining the class to only fulfill a requirement, and (c) a lack of competency with spreadsheet programs, computer programs that render a 3D representation of Earth based primarily on satellite imagery, and other technical tools.

This semester, as part of the seawater salinity chapter I decided to give students the opportunity to calculate the weight of gold if one were to filter the precious metal from 1 cubic mile of seawater. This required basic algebra in Excel. The investigation was successful (most students found the answer) but only because I took the approach of carefully listing the steps leading to the right numbers. This, in my opinion, negates the Critical Thinking part needed in Quantitative Reasoning (Figure 1, Elrod, 2014). Students were not asked the sort of information needed to deliver on the original question.

To strengthen the connection between gold mining from seawater and currents, I would like to reuse the investigation to add another layer: if one were to use porous membranes to capture gold, how long would it take for a given length of said membrane to trap a certain amount of gold. But how close students are to the overall goal of QR rests, again, with the dosage of scaffolding.