GEOG 1106 Laboratory for Physical Geography
at University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP)

Implementor(s): Richard S. Jarvis
Enrollment: 90-150 (3 to 5 sections of 30 students per section)
Anticipated Start Date: Fall 2012 or Spring 2013 (Semester)

Challenges to using math in introductory geoscience

The University of Texas at El Paso is an emerging national research university of about 25,000 students. The Department of Geological Sciences offers bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in geology, bachelors and masters degrees in environmental science, and contributes to the minor in geography. Most (~85%) of the students taking this course are using it towards the natural science block requirement for their core curriculum. They are typically not science or engineering majors and many have put off this course until quite late in their program. Several students are prospective or interested teachers. In addition, the lecture course to which this lab is related is offered predominantly in the evening and so attracts an unusually high proportion of adult/returning and/or working students with challenging schedules. As a result many of the students are under-prepared or extremely "rusty", and frequently and explicitly math-averse. The university has a national reputation for its access mission and its student body mirrors that of El Paso and West Texas (about 80% Latino/a). There is a wide range in math/science preparation and in some cases the students' math-science abilities and experience are somewhat obscured by second-language issues. The extraordinary opportunity is to influence a large part of the science experience that many of these substantial populations of students will take at this University. Among the future challenges is the need to develop online or hybrid versions of this course to keep up with the number of students who wish to take it.

More about your geoscience course

GEOG 1106 Laboratory for Physical Geography is a 1-credit course that accompanies (but does not have to be taken concurrently with) the 3-credit lecture course in Physical Geography (GEOG 1306). Together, the lab and lecture courses in physical geography may be combined with one of several another lecture-lab combinations in geology and environmental science to meet the natural science block requirement for the core curriculum. It is designed to serve non-science or engineering majors. The lecture course and 1-2 lab sections are offered in the evening to serve adult/returning and working student populations.

The course may be offered or supported by TA's in the future but I presently teach 3 face-to-face-sections of the 1106 Lab in order to monitor more closely the student experience as the course develops.

I want to use software (primarily Excel and some website applications) to give the students practice in data exploration and elementary statistics. However, I am not teaching in a computer lab, so I need to combine giving the students a "start" working exercises and assignments by hand in the lab and then completing the tasks by homework on their own machines or in a university open lab. The TMYN modules will be critically helpful in underpinning their transition to the homework assignments. This is particularly important in cases where other websites offer "cookbook" instructions rather than teaching why the software is helpful.

Inclusion of quantitative content pre-TMYN

How am I currently addressing quantitative content? Resisting the temptation to respond "laboriously and not well," I'm teaching it via lab handouts and documents posted on the course website in Blackboard. That's not too damaging for the better or more recently math-prepared students; but weak for those who need more. Over 80% of the course is devoted to working directly with quantitative data skills, graphing, and working with maps.

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

  • Graphing
  • Plotting Points
  • Best Fit Line
  • Topographic Profile
  • Reading Points from a Line
  • Slopes
  • Unit Conversions

Strategies for successfully implementing The Math You Need

This initial implementation of TMYN will introduce the following pre-lab modules (combining pairs as indicated):

  1. Unit Conversions
  2. Graphing & Plotting Points
  3. Best-Fit Line (Trendline) & Reading Points from Line
  4. Topographic Profile & Slopes

Each of these modules will be assigned the week before it appears in the lab & students will be strongly encouraged to complete (demonstrate mastery of) a post-module assessment (quiz) of 5 questions before they come to the lab. The post-module assessment will be taken online through The students may take multiple attempts with no penalty. The incentives for the students are:

  • to earn 5 points (20 points is equal to 1 lab, and the course requires 12 labs) -- therefore, completing 4 modules would enable the students to earn the score equivalent to 1 lab (1/12th of their grade); and
  • to help them complete the lab in a shorter time because they understand the math that underpins the lab exercise.
If students have not completed the module before the lab, I will not prohibit their taking the lab, but I will encourage them to study the module in order to finish the lab more quickly.

Two lab sessions will be devoted to TMYN and Excel set-up and exit assessment. The first lab will introduce TMYN and the use of Excel worksheets (creation & printing); the last lab will allow students to complete any post-module assessments that they had not completed before submitting their lab.

Reflections and Results (after implementing)


I used 4 TMYN modules in GEOG 1106 in fall 2012:

· Unit Conversions

· Graphing: Plotting Points & Reading

· Best-Fit Line

· Profiles & Slopes

The Pre-Test was given in Lab 1 and the Post-Test in Lab 10. These were the only 2 labs we were able to schedule in a lab room with individual computer work-stations (at the Collaborative Learning Center in the University Library). The rest of the course took place in a lab room with large work-tables. Students did all their other computer work as homework, on their own machines or in open University labs.

The course ran 3 sections: one in the late morning, one in the early afternoon, and one in the late afternoon. Here are the results by section.

Section A

Initial enrollment: 30. Completed course: 30 (with 1 F grade).

Pre-Test: low score = 20.7%; high score = 83.8%; median score = 55.1%

Post-Test: low score = 65.5%; high score = 98.2%; median score = 87.3%

Gain in scores: low value = 11.9 points; high value = 66.9 points; median value = 30.8 points

Section B

Initial enrollment: 29. Completed course: 24 (with 1 Incomplete).

Pre-Test: low score = 20.5%; high score = 81.0%; median score = 50.1%

Post-Test: low score = 54.6%; high score = 97.8%; median score = 73.3%

Gain in scores: low value = 1.7 points; high value = 69.2 points; median value = 21.3 points

Section C

Initial enrollment: 27. Completed course: 25 (with 1 Incomplete).

Pre-Test: low score = 35.6%; high score = 81.2%; median score = 50.0%

Post-Test: low score = 50.1%; high score = 96.8%; median score = 78.5%

Gain in scores: low value = 1.4 points; high value = 77.9 points; median value = 29.1 points


Overall, the TMYN was a great success from my point-of-view:

· 78 out of 79 students improved their scores between the Pre-test and Post-Test;

· the average increase in test score was 20-30 points;

· the experience was rated positively by students throughout the course; students engaged positively with the goal of demonstrating improved math skills and took pride in achieving it; and

· among the strongest student endorsements were the adult students, who had indicated considerable concern at the outset (worrying about the length of time since their last math education).

Each of the 4 modules was successful. Students were much more comfortable with math content than in previous non-TMYN iterations of this course. The following points were positive:

· I gave bonus points (2) for completing the module and passing the assessment prior to the first time the topic of the module appeared in a lab. About half the students took advantage of this incentive. For the rest, they were individually too busy or didn't find the incentive compelling.

· I did not impose any penalties for taking the module later in the term (I seldom if ever use penalties as motivation – they never worked for me), because I wanted the students to take and pass each module. In most cases, the content of the module appeared more than once during the later labs, and so it was still useful for students to take the early modules later in the course.

The following points need some attention next term:

· Unit Conversions was the topic the students had most difficulty with and it was the first module. I need to teach a bit more on unit conversions to complement the module.

· I made a few beginners' mistakes in setting up the scoring for the module assessments. I wanted to allow for multiple attempts without point-penalty throughout the module assessments and didn't always set that up correctly. I engaged the students in TMYN as a multi-institutional grant project and made my experience part of the bonding with the class.

· The Graphing and Best-Fit Line modules were effective and well-received. The only complaints concerned the sensitivity of point-deductions when lines were plotted by hand on the screen.

· The gain score data is vulnerable to how the performance on the Post-test is rewarded. I indicated I would give full points for beating the Pre-Test score (I didn't reveal this at the time of the Pre-test) and add in some bonus points for the extent by which the student beat her/his Pre-test score. Some students were satisfied to hit the points for beating their Pre-test and stopped working in the Post-test as soon as that happened.


GEOG 1106 Working Syllabus TMYN f12 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 27kB Jul28 12)

Geography 1106 revised syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 37kB Aug27 12) This is a syllabus which was revised after the workshop which spells out the modules and pre- and post-tests much more clearly. They now account for 1/3rd of the course grade, with incentives for completing the Module Test within a week. Essentially, the course is now 9 physical geography problem labs + four modules and their associated tests.

I will be offering the pre-test in the first meeting (Lab 1) for which I have been able to secure a teaching lab with 30 work-stations. I'll plan on the same for the post-test — an in-class test at individual work-stations.