ESC104 Physical Geology
SUNY Ulster County Community College

Implementor(s): Steven Schimmrich
Enrollment: 18
Anticipated Start Date: August 27, 2012 (Semester)

Challenges to using math in introductory geoscience

SUNY Ulster is a public, comprehensive two-year institution which is a unit of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. Ulster is a rural, commuter college with open admission and an enrollment of approximately 3,600 students. The primary challenge is that many students taking the course are underprepared in math (even recent high school graduates). They are often unable to do simple unit conversions, properly use rulers and protractors, work with map scales, or do simple algebraic rearrangements of equations. Teaching them these skills takes away from laboratory time that could be better used for the geological topics we need to cover. I would like to develop ways for students to learn some of these basic math skills on their own time without taking time away from my weekly lab.

More about your geoscience course

This is a standard 4 credit laboratory course in physical geology for freshman (although many sophmores also take this course if they enter Ulster at a low math level). Corequisites include ENG101 College English I and MAT105 College Algebra or higher. This is a two-year college so students are generally pursing an Associates degree in Math/Science and planning to transfer to a 4-year institution. Most of the students passing this class will go on to take ESC105 Earth History (a four-credit historical geology lab course) in the spring semester. Students include those wishing to go on in geology/Earth science, science education majors, and occassionally a student simply interested in the topic. I teach both lecture (two 1.5 hour weekly sessions) and lab (one three hour weekly session) during a 15-week semester. I am the only faculty member teaching this course and have no TA's or other assistance in teaching and/or grading. There are no online sections and the course is only taught in the fall semester.

Inclusion of quantitative content pre-TMYN

I currently address quantitative content in my course by giving students a take home "lab" the first day the course meets. It covers a wide range of topics from metric units to unit conversions to ruler and protractor use to graph reading and allows me to assess their incoming math skills and potentional problem areas. I also spend a lot of time in lab helping students when they are having difficulty with the quantitative portions of selected labs (e.g. working with map scales and unit conversions on the topographic map lab).

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

  • Density
  • Graphing
  • Plotting Points
  • Best Fit Line
  • Topographic Profile
  • Reading Points from a Line
  • Rates
  • Rearranging Equations
  • Slopes
  • Unit Conversions

Strategies for successfully implementing The Math You Need

Students will be given a Pre-Test during the first week of class to assess their entering level of math skills and provide a benchmark. This test will be mandatory, graded pass/fail (taken/not taken), and worth 1% of their course grade when completed.

SERC modules and selected questions will be assigned to students prior to three of the required laboratory assignments. The selected questions will be a small part of their laboratory grade for that week.

Prior to Lab 01 - Measurements & Conversions, students will be assigned the SERC math modules on Unit Conversions, Graphing, and Calculating Density.

Prior to Lab 02 - Plate Tectonics & Geologic Time, students will be assigned the SERC math modules on Rates and Rearranging Equations.

Prior to Lab 07 - Topographic Maps, Remote Sensing, & GPS, students will be assigned the SERC math module on Slope & Topographic Maps.

A Post-Test, identical to the Pre-Test, will be given two weeks after Lab 07 and worth 1% of their final course grade.

In addition, I plan on sharing the SERC The Math You Need, When You Need It information with my full-time and two part-time Earth Science colleagues at SUNY Ulster.

Reflections and Results (after implementing)

I implemented TMYN into my fall 2012 Physical Geology course for the first time. This was a relatively small course that began with 17 students and ended with 16. As outlined above, students were given an online pre-test the first week of class (which they intentionally did not receive feedback on), were required to access one or more SERC math modules and take an assessment in conjunction with laboratory exercises 1, 2, and 7, and were given a post-test after completing and receiving feedback on lab 7.

The pre- and post-tests were each worth 1% of the student's final grade (it was all or nothing, it didn't matter what students earned on the tests) and the module assessments were generally worth about 10% (it varied) of the student's lab grade for that week (and each lab was worth 2.5% of the student's overal course grade).

The most problematic issue I encountered was in getting the students to do all of the assessments (even though they were worth a percentage of the student's course grade). When questioned about this, two of the most common responses were (paraphrasing) "I didn't have enough time to work through the modules" and "I avoided it because I hate math."

Of the 16 students, 4 (25%) did all five of the assessments (pre-test, Lab 1 modules, Lab 2 modules, Lab 7 modules, and post-test) and four (25%) of the students took the pre- and post-test and only missed one of the module assessments). One student only missed the post-test. One student did nothing (this student also ended up with an F in the course). The other 6 students (37.5%) missed two or more assessments.

Of the 4 students who did all of the assessments, they all improved between the pre-test and post-test by scores ranging from 8.3 to 30.1 percentage points. While a small data set, the results look as if these students were helped by the modules. These are also, no coincidentally in my opinion, students who also received A and B final grades in the course. For the other students, results were mixed - some improved between pre-test and post-test while others had a lower post-test grade. This may be do to them not trying since they received the point for simply doing the test, not the grade.

This course will next be offered in the fall 2013 semester. I plan on implementing TMYN modules but perhaps structuring it a bit differently (I have some time to think about it as I'm writing this in January). I will likely grade them on the pre-test and post-test rather than simply giving them credit for doing it and perhaps make the post-test worth a bit more points. I will also likely make the module assessment a required pre-lab activity to force more of the students to take the assessments. Overall, I think TMYN is a great idea but getting students to participate - especially in a community college setting - is problematic.


Course Syllabus: ESC104 Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 219kB Jul27 12)