Earth Systems Science FLC logo
at Fort Lewis College

Course: Kim Hannula
Enrollment: 40-50

Challenges to using math in introductory geoscience

Fort Lewis College is a 4-year public liberal arts college in Durango, Colorado. The student population includes both traditional and non-traditional students, and is ~20% Native American. Our students enter college with varied math backgrounds; some need two years of remediation before college algebra, whereas others have already taken calculus. Experience with computers and the internet also varies - some students have grown up with Facebook and texting, but others come from rural communities that have no high-speed internet access. The math requirements in science majors can be a barrier to graduation for some students.

More about your geoscience course

Earth Systems Science is an introductory geoscience course with a lab. It primarily serves general education students (who are all required to take two science courses in order to graduate). It is also one of three introductory courses that can lead into a major in Geology or Environmental Geology, and recruits students who did not initially intend to major in geology (or in a science). It is a required course for future secondary school science majors (biology, chemistry, and physical science as well as earth science), and is one of several geoscience options for students majoring in Environmental Studies and Adventure Education.

The Math You Need is integrated into the required lab portion of the class. Labs and lectures are taught by the same instructor. There are no teaching assistants.

Inclusion of quantitative content pre-TMYN

Because many students take Earth Systems Science before taking any college-level math, I have avoided using much math in class. However, students did participate in a group research project, which involves collecting, graphing, and interpreting data.

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

  • Graphing (winter 2010)
  • Plotting Points (future plans)
  • Best Fit Line (future plans)
  • Topographic Profile (future plans)
  • Rates (future plans)
  • Rearranging Equations (winter 2010)
  • Slopes (winter 2010)
  • Unit Conversions (winter 2010)

Strategies for successfully implementing The Math You Need

I required participation in The Math You Need as part of a pre-lab grade (5% of the total course grade). Students took an ungraded pre-test, completed modules (and post-module online quizzes) before several of the labs, and took a graded post-test (identical to the pre-test). Students were able to try each question as many times as necessary, but were only able to take each quiz once. Most week's assignments included material from whichever modules fit the content of the lab.

Week 1: Introduction/Measurements, accuracy, & precision exercise (pre-test)
Week 2: Topographic Maps (unit conversions, slopes)
Week 6: Plate Tectonics (unit conversions, slopes, rearranging equations)
Week 10: Sampling for Florida River project (unit conversions)
Week 12: Weather (unit conversions)
Week 14: No Lab (final assessment)
The Math You Need is integrated into a semester-long group research project (the Florida River Project, also archived on SERC).

Reflections and Results

Anecdotally, it appeared that the students' ability to use math during fieldwork improved over previous years. During the week 10 lab ("Sampling for Florida River Project"), students measure discharge and collect water samples in a local stream. Our current meter measures flow in m/s, but many students are familiar with discharge measurements in cubic feet per second (because they raft or kayak). Therefore, students need to do a unit conversion in order to compare their measurements with values that they understand. In the past, I have had to redo discharge calculations for many groups. After using The Math You Need modules, there were at least some students who were comfortable with unit conversions in each group, and I overheard students arguing amongst themselves about how to do the calculations.

The most frequent problems in using The Math You Need involved students forgetting their username or password for the WAMAP assessment site. I plan to assign usernames that are identical to the students' college e-mail addresses in the future, to make it easier for students to remember how to get into the site. (2011 note: using college e-mail addresses solved many of the problems, although some students didn't use their college e-mail accounts.)

I am not certain whether the scaffolding approach (assigning the same module for several labs, and repeating the same math skills in several contexts) was successful or not. Students still had trouble with more complicated unit conversions (such as converting cm/year to km/million years, or converting cubic meters to cubic feet), and may not have looked through the modules for examples that fit the kind of problem they were doing. (2011 note: the scaffolding approach seemed to work better the second time, perhaps because I mentioned the kinds of problems the class would be solving when reminding the class of upcoming assignments.)


Earth Systems Science 2010 syllabus (Microsoft Word 98kB Jul14 10)
Earth Systems Science 2011 syllabus (Microsoft Word 92kB Jul28 11)
Topographic Maps lab (2010) (Microsoft Word 79kB Jul15 10)
Discharge/Water Sampling Lab (Microsoft Word 33kB Jul15 10)