GEL 120: Physical Geology
at Wake Technical Community College

Implementor(s): Gretchen Miller
Enrollment: 105 (1 online section of 25 and 4 seated lecture/lab sections of 20 in Fall 2011)
Anticipated Start Date: August 17, 2011 (Semester)

Challenges to using math in introductory geoscience

Quantitative skills are required for all of Wake Tech's introductory geoscience courses. There is a required math pre-requisite for the courses – MAT 070: Introductory Algebra. However, we find that most of our students are not prepared for, and even have a fear of, the math required in our courses. Wake Tech has an enrollment of more than 65,000 students. The college has a highly diverse student body with about 33% of students in the College Transfer Program coming from underrepresented groups. Students span the age spectrum and come from many different education backgrounds and experience levels. Wake Tech is committed to increasing quantitative literacy among our students across the college, and our introductory geoscience courses already include many quantitative skills. I view TMYN as a tool to help students increase their comfort level with quantitative skills, so they can focus on applying these skills to the geological issues we are teaching in these courses.

More about your geoscience course

Wake Tech has a large geology program, teaching over 55 sections and 1200 students per year. The geology program at Wake Tech is part of the Natural Sciences, Health, and PE Department; the Department offers courses in biology, chemistry, geology, health, and physical education primarily for the College Transfer Program. The geology courses transfer as general education science courses for students pursuing an Associate in Arts degree, and who also plan to transfer to a four-year school to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. A smaller number of students pursuing an Associate in Science degree also take our geology courses, and a few of these students plan to major in geology upon transfer to a four-year college or university.

I personally teach two introductory geoscience courses for which I plan to use TMYN, GEL 120: Physical Geology (definitely plan to use TMYN) and GEL 230: Environmental Geology (will likely use TMYN after implementing in GEL 120). I teach both courses in traditional, seated environments as well as online. The Department also offers a third introductory geoscience course, GEL 113: Historical Geology. All of our geology faculty (currently six full-time and two part-time instructors) teach sections of GEL 120: Physical Geology every semester, it is by far the most popular geology course at the college. All three introductory geoscience courses (including the online sections) require both lecture and laboratory sessions each week and are 4 credit hour courses. Lectures generally contain 40 students, which are then broken into two sections of 20 students each for laboratory. Lectures and labs are tied closely together in our courses, and are usually taught by the same instructor, so TMYN will likely be an important component of both. We do not utilize TAs or other helpers for our geoscience courses.

Inclusion of quantitative content pre-TMYN

Typical quantitative skills required for GEL 120: Physical Geology include calculating rate, isotopic ages, discharge, gradient, recurrence interval and exceedance probability, graphing on linear and logarithmic paper, drawing contour lines and profiles, and converting units. In GEL 230: Environmental Geology, the above skills are required as well as calculating resource development and insurance costs, interpreting graphs, determining groundwater movement and drawing contaminant plumes, and evaluating risks. In using TMYN, I do not plan to add much new quantitative content to my courses. Instead, what I truly hope to accomplish is to dispel the fear of numbers that so many students have. Often, when a student in my class sees a number in a question, they just assume they cannot answer the question and immediately ask for help. They usually say something like "I can't do math." Rather than back away from teaching these quantitative skills, I want to show my students how to embrace these skills and use them to think critically through geological problems. I currently spend a lot of time in both lecture and lab going over quantitative skills. Often, I go over one problem and then give the students more examples to work on in groups. I then move around the room and help each group when they have questions. I also give the students extra outside of class practice assignments for some topics. I hope that TMYN will be another tool to bring the students with the lowest quantitative skills up to the level of the rest of the class, and that all of the students in the class will feel more comfortable with their quantitative skills after taking these courses.

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

These are the modules that I plan to use, as well as the labs for which I plan to use each module:

  • Rates - Plate Tectonics
  • Unit Conversions - Plate Tectonics, Minerals & Igneous Rocks, Topographic Maps
  • Calculating Density - Minerals & Igneous Rocks
  • Reading a Point From a Curve - Geologic Time
  • Slopes - Topographic Maps
  • Plotting Points & Constructing a Best Fit Line - Flood Frequency

Strategies for successfully implementing The Math You Need

I plan to use the above modules for the lab portion of this course. By implementing these modules, the students should have the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to more effectively complete their lab exercises. I will give a pre-test on the first day of lab, and a post-test during the last scheduled lab (the week before the Lab Final Exam). Both tests will contain the same questions, and students will be allowed one attempt for each test. The modules will be assigned as homework for seated sections, and will be due in the morning of the day we will cover the lab topic noted above. For online sections, the modules will be due at the same time as the associated lab. I plan to break some of the modules into sections that are most relevant to each lab. For example, Unit Conversions will be covered during three separate lab exercises: Rate Problems will be covered with Plate Tectonics, Density Conversions will be covered with Minerals & Igneous Rocks, and Scaling Problems will be covered with Topographic Maps. I will assign a short quiz (~5 questions) for each module, and the quiz grades will be counted as a portion of the overall lecture grade. Students will be allowed unlimited attempts for the quizzes, as a way to encourage mastery of the modules.

In the Fall 2011 semester, for two of my seated lecture sections a different instructor will be teaching the associated lab sections (20 students each). We will work together closely to make sure the modules match up with the correct lab topics. The pre- and post-tests for these sections will be conducted as homework assignments, rather than within the lab period.

At our pre-semester Geology meeting, I presented a synopsis of what I learned at the workshop. The five other full-time geology instructors were present and are all very interested in learning more about the modules and how to implement them in their classes. I will keep them informed on my own progress this semester and assist them in learning how to set up and use the modules. I will also present this information to other math and science faculty at the college during professional development opportunities.

Reflections and Results (after implementing)

For Fall 2011, I used 6 of the TMYN modules throughout the semester, as well as a Pre-Test administered the first week and a Post-Test during the last week of the semester. The modules were structured into 5 homework assignments, each with a 5 question quiz that counted in the students' grades. The homework assignments were scheduled with due dates the same day as the lab in which the students would be required to use the quantitative skills learned in the associated modules. The Pre- and Post-Tests contained the same 10 questions. I taught one section completely online (lecture and lab), 2 seated sections for which I taught the lecture and lab, and 2 seated sections for which I taught the lecture and a different instructor taught the lab.

In Spring 2012, I used 5 of the TMYN modules throughout the semester, structured into 4 homework assignments. I found that one of the modules (Calculating Density) used in Fall 2011 was not as relevant to the material covered in lab so I removed it for future semesters. I also administered Pre- and Post-Tests as in the Fall 2011 semester. I taught one section completely online (lecture and lab) and 1 seated section for which I taught the lecture and lab.

I allowed students unlimited attempts for all post-module tests to help them master the material. I felt that allowing them the chance to learn from their mistakes was helpful, and I got positive feedback from the students about this approach. However, they were only allowed a single attempt for the Pre- and Post-Tests.

In both Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 there was more than a 10% increase in average Pre- to Post-Test scores, with over 70% of students increasing their individual scores, and therefore quantitative literacy, both semesters. The increases in my classes were observed in both low and high performing students. Therefore, I consider implementation of TMYN in my classes a success and I plan to continue using it during future semesters.

I made several changes between Fall 2011 and Spring 2012. As mentioned above, I removed one module that was not very relevant to the topics covered in lab. I also made more of a point of connecting the homework assignment to the upcoming lab activity, so the students would understand that completing the modules would make their in-class work easier, in essence giving them a reason to "buy in" to learning the math skills on their own. Finally, when we did use a math skill in lab, I would set up the relevant TMYN module on a computer in the lab so the students could easily refer back to it if needed.


The following file is the syllabus for an online section of GEL 120: Physical Geology in Fall 2011. I teach both the lectures and labs for this section and it is taught completely online.

Syllabus for online GEL 120: Physical Geology (Acrobat (PDF) 226kB Aug22 11)

The following files are the lecture and associated lab syllabi for a seated section of GEL 120: Physical Geology in Fall 2011. I teach both the lectures and labs for this section.

Lecture Syllabus for GEL 120: Physical Geology (Acrobat (PDF) 213kB Aug22 11)

Lab Syllabus for GEL 120: Physical Geology (Acrobat (PDF) 74kB Aug22 11)

The following files are the lecture syllabus and TMYN schedule for a seated section of GEL 120: Physical Geology in Fall 2011. I teach the lectures for this section, but a different instructor teaches the labs. I have scheduled TMYN modules to correspond with the other instructor's lab schedule.

Lecture Syllabus for GEL 120: Physical Geology (Acrobat (PDF) 212kB Aug22 11)

TMYN Schedule for GEL 120: Physical Geology (Acrobat (PDF) 62kB Aug22 11)