Initial Publication Date: July 28, 2012

This page is designed to provide a guide to a planned implementation of The Math You Need, When You Need It. It will change as the implementation proceeds at this institution. Please check back regularly for updates and more information.

Geol120: Geological Disasters; Agents of Chaos
at Lafayette College

Implementor(s): Lawrence Malinconico
Enrollment: 50
Anticipated Start Date: Late August, 2012 (Semester)

Challenges to using math in introductory geoscience

Lafayette College is a comprehensive four-year private liberal-arts institution with an enrollment of 2400 students. Approximately 80% of the students enrolled in the course use it to satisfy the lab-science requirement in the College's common course of study. While the vast majority of Lafayette students have demonstrated competency in basic mathematical skills, they may have forgotten them, have a fear of math or simply don't understand how math can be applied to solve geologic problems.

Math is embedded in most of the processes that are discussed in an introductory geology course focusing on geological disasters. In class settings quantitative concepts are often presented as graphs (Earthquake Frequency, Seismic Wave Travel-time Curves, Volcanic Eruption size, etc. While we (instructors) understand these relationships, students often struggle as we display these various data in class.

In several of our laboratory exercises, we ask students to actually manipulate data and interpret curves. For example, they need to determine the best-fit equation for a several different sets of data. We then use the equation to predict the results of a subsequent test. For example, we make impact craters with different mass objects and then use the equation to predict the size of a crater for two other size objects. The students have difficulty understanding how to generate the equation, the difference between dependent and independent variables and then how to apply the equation.

More about your geoscience course

Geological Disasters is one of five different 100-level on-campus courses offered by the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences. Each of the five full-time faculty have responsibility for one of the courses.Geological Disasters has three one hour lectures and a three hour lab section (17 students in each lab) per week.

All of these courses have a required lab component. As an undergraduate institution, the labs are taught by faculty (or our full-time professional laboratory coordinator) and they are frequently assisted by undergraduate TAs.

The course satisfies two objectives:
1. It can be used by students to satisfy the lab-science requirement in the common course of study. This is the primary audience for the math challenges.
2. It can be used as one of two intro-level courses for the geology major - we have a requirement for at least one each "physical" and earth-history course. These students are generally comfortable applying the math that they know.

Inclusion of quantitative content pre-TMYN

Prior to TNYN implementation we did not reduce the amount of math, but just assumed that students understood it or would seek out help. For the lecture portion of the class, much of the math is hidden in geological terms (what is density?) or embedded in presentation methods like scatter plots. Very little attention was paid to determining if students understood the embedded math and they were often not confident enough to bring this to the attention of the instructor. In the lab setting, we often use EXCEL to generate a plot and equation, but it is clear that many students don't understand what they have generated and then how to use it. It is a "black-box" to them.

The post-TMYN goal is not really to increase the quantitative content of this course, but rather to provide a means for the students to have a better understanding of the application of the mathematics to geological problems without it being "black-box". This is not really going to save much time, but will hopefully lead to a deeper understanding of the material by the students.

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

While this may be too ambitious, I would like to have the students review the mathematical concepts associated with:

  • Density: lithospheric structure
  • Graphing, Plotting Points, Best Fit Lines, Reading Points from a Line (combined): seismic prediction, impact modeling
  • Rates: tectonics, disaster event frequency, prediction
  • Rearranging Equations: distance, time, rate relationships
  • Unit Conversions: difference between English versus metric; including order of magnitude understanding

Strategies for successfully implementing The Math You Need

1. The modules are going to be used as pre-class/lab on-line modules.

2. The modules are located within the syllabus so they they must be completed by the time the mathematical material is presented in class or during a laboratory session.

3. Completion of the modules will be included as a grade item for the course (anticipated to be 5%). The students will be able to do the assessment portion multiple times if they want to achieve a 100% (up until the due date/time).

4. While I am uncomfortable with the real meaning of the pre- and post-course testing, I will try to implement them the first year of the course and see if it provides any meaningful information.

My real question revolves around what the pitfalls to adding these modules will be...will these generally well-prepared students find them to be annoying both because they are time consuming as well as presume a level of incompetence. I think that I will need to emphasize that these modules are designed to show them how the mathematical concepts that they already know can be applied to geological problems.

Reflections and Results (after implementing)


Extraterrestrial Impact Lab (Acrobat (PDF) 116kB Jul24 12)

Earthquake Parameters & Prediction Lab (Acrobat (PDF) 27.4MB Jul24 12)

Modified Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 137kB Jul27 12)

Modified Course Schedule (Acrobat (PDF) 92kB Jul27 12)