Geologic context:

forecasting, hazard assessment, error analysis, recurrence interval, radioactive decay

Understanding odds and probability in the geosciences
by Dr. Eric M. Baer, Geology Program, Highline Community College

Jump down to: Teaching strategies | Materials & Exercises | Student Resources

Probability is the study of the chance that a particular event or series of events will occur. Typically, the chance of an event or series of events will occur is expressed on a scale from 0 (impossible) to 1 (certainty) or as an equivalent percentage from 0 to 100%.

The probability (Pf) of a favorable outcome is
rolling dice
Rolling dice, an excellent model of probability. Details

Pf = f/n


The analysis of many events governed by probability is statistics, covered elsewhere.

Teaching Strategies: Ideas from Math Education

Put quantitative concepts in context

There are a number of geologic contexts in which to introduce and explore probability

Molten lava flowing into the ocean. Details

Use multiple representations

Because everyone has different ways of learning, mathematicians have defined a number of ways that quantitative concepts can be represented to individuals. Here are some ways that probabilities can be represented.

Probabilities are often given verbally as a percentage, such as a "50% chance." Other times probabilities are even represented by qualitative terms such as "sure," "unlikely," or "almost certain." For example,
One common source of confusion is that probabilities are represented in many differing ways all of which mean the same thing. Probabilities can be represented as a ratio, percentage, fraction or as a decimal; I often point this out to students, so they are alert to the multiple ways we represent odds. This often brings up difficulties and fears with basic mathematics including fractions, percentages and ratios.
Tables are often used to show probabilities across a sample space, called a probability distribution.

There are several graphical ways to portray both probabilities and probability distributions.

Graphical ways of showing probabilities

Pie chart
Number line


Graphical ways of showing probability distributions



Bar chart
Distribution probability
Cumulative percent

There are many models one can use as an introduction to probability, including dice rolls, coin tosses, causes of death, and chances of floods.
The probability (Pf) of a favorable outcome is 

Pf = f/n

where n is the total number of possible outcomes and f is the number of possible outcomes that match the favorable outcome criteria.

Use technology appropriately

Students have any number of technological tools that they can use to better understand quantitative concepts -- from the calculators in their backpacks to the computers in their dorm rooms. Probability and recurrence intervals can make use of these tools to help the students understand this often difficult concept.

Work in groups to do multiple day, in-depth problems

Mathematicians also indicate that students learn quantitative concepts better when they work in groups and revisit a concept on more than one day. Therefore, when discussing quantitative concepts in entry-level geoscience courses, have students discuss or practice the concepts together. Also, make sure that you either include problems that may be extended over more than one class period or revisit the concept on numerous occasions.

Probability is a concept that comes up over and over in introductory geoscience: Volcanic eruptions, mass extinctions, earthquakes, floods, confidence intervals, etc. When each new topic is introduced, make sure to point out that they have seen this type of mathematics before and should recognize it.

Teaching Materials and Exercises

In this exercise students gather real web-based data on earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, calculate recurrence intervals on these events and make estimations of recurrence intervals on future events. Includes analysis of error and societal implication discussions. Designed as a combination in-class and web-based homework assignment. This could easily be altered to look at earthquake possibilities for any geographic area.

The volcanic processes that created the Yellowstone Geoecosystem are still active. One way that geoscientists determine the likelihood of a certain type of eruption occurring is by documenting how often they have occurred in the past (i.e. the recurrence interval). We will explore the types of eruptions that Yellowstone is likely to produce and the probability of their occurrence. In this self-guided exercise, we will explore only one of a number of possible pathways to answer the question. 

This site contains materials to help teach a Chance course. Chance is a quantitative literacy course. It includes "The Chance News" a newsletter that includes lesson plans and articles with discussion questions from the Chance magazine. A source for supplementary material for teaching or introducing basic probability.

has several activities in probability and statistics which use TI calculators. Click on "Activity Exchange" and then select "Math" on the left sidebar under "Browse by subject." Then select "Probability & statistics" and "Probability" for a large selection of activities. Many are listed as being for grades 9-12, but they would be relevant for an introductory level geoscience course.

has extensive links to classroom resources. Look in Exploring Data for finding and displaying data sets. Also included are an Internet Mathematics Library, Course Materials & Lesson Plans, Collections of Course Materials & Lesson Plans, Problems and Puzzles, Probability and statistics software, internet projects, and Reference Materials. 

Student resources

« Previous Page      Next Page »