Developing Quantitative Skills Activities for Geoscience Students

Hancock, G., C. Manduca (2005), Developing Quantitative Skills Activities for Geoscience Students, Eos Trans. AGU, 86(39), 355, 10.1029/2005EO390003.

An edited version of this paper was published by AGU. Copyright (2008) American Geophysical Union. Published format article on the EOS website. (Requires membership login)

(Unedited Preprint)

Developing Quantitative Skills Activities for Geoscience Students

Teaching quantitative skills is one of the most challenging and important aspects of teaching geoscience. Quantitative skills are essential for Earth science students and citizens alike, and these skills have been deemed a critical goal for U.S. undergraduate education [National Science Foundation, 1996].

Public policy decisions increasingly are made and explained to the public based on data presentation, numerical models, statistics, and numbers. Introductory Earth sciences are among the primary courses chosen by nonscience students to fulfill science requirements and thus provide an important vehicle for teaching these essential skills. Courses in the geoscience major are equally important in introducing students to the quantitative analysis that is increasingly central to the discipline. It is therefore essential that adequate training be provided to Earth science majors and nonmajors in quantitative techniques ranging from simple graph and data interpretation to more sophisticated techniques such as numerical modeling. 

There are several challenges to developing exercises for teaching quantitative skills relevant to the Earth sciences at the undergraduate level.Although many Earth science students may have taken mathematics courses up to calculus at the high school or college level, they frequently have diffi culty transferring these skills to geoscience problems and other applications. In many cases, particularly in introductory courses, students are uncomfortable with their quantitative background; and in some cases, they may not have mastered techniques completely. Hence, there is a need to refresh Earth science students in basic mathematics skills ranging from geometry to calculus and simple graphing and data interpretation, in addition to introducing them to more sophisticated uses of quantitative Earth science tools such as numerical modeling or differential equations.

Developing Quantitative Activities

As part of a broad effort to enhance teaching of quantitative skills across the undergraduate Earth science curriculum, a recent workshop at Carleton College, Northfi eld,Minnesota, called Developing Activities for Upper Level Geoscience Students, focused on developing quantitative activities for upper level classes in surface processes and climate change. 

The workshop, made possible by a grant from the Geoscience Directorate of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), had several goals: (1) to refine existing quantitative activities and supporting materials submitted by workshop participants in preparation for posting on the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE) Web site: http://www.dlese. org; (2) to develop criteria to assist in the assessment of the strength of quantitative activities; (3) to consider the key elements for activities designed to strengthen quantitative skills; and (4) to construct a list of the essential quantitative skills students should develop in surface processes or climate change courses.

Four professors who teach surface processes, including one of the authors (Greg Hancock), and four who teach climate change submitted activities and attended the workshop.The authors of this meeting report facilitated the workshop. During the workshop, they worked with two mathematicians and a geoscience educator to review and revise all of the submitted activities. 

These activities and supporting materials for their implementation (answer keys, lecture notes, practical tips, strategies for adapting to different geographic and classroom settings) are now available for download as part of a searchable collection of activities for teaching quantitative skills in the geosciences (http:// The new activities resulting from the workshop include the following: 

  • Discharge and sediment transport in the field (Jeff Clark, Lawrence University); 
  • LONGPRO stream modeling exercise (Bill Locke, Montana State University); 
  • Assessment of hillslope stability using the factor of safety (Laura Moore, Oberlin College); 
  • Analog and numerical models of hillslope diffusion (Greg Hancock, College of William and Mary); 
  • Carbon dioxide production and expenses: Should you buy a Porsche 911 or a Toyota Echo? (Kevin Harrison, Northeastern University); 
  • Air-sea interactions: Activities in oceanography (David Smith, U.S. Naval Academy); 
  • The changing geographic distribution of malaria with global climate warming (Mary Savina, Carleton College); and 
  • Time series analysis of Lehigh Valley instrumental records (Zicheng Yu, Lehigh University). 

Developing Review Criteria for Quantitative Activities

Workshop participants also developed review criteria for designing and evaluating quantitative exercises for use in geoscience courses.The criteria comprise a list of questions that one can ask about an existing or developing activity to assess its effectiveness in promoting quantitative skills literacy within a geoscience context.This is a work in progress, and contributions to this discussion of what constitutes a good quantitative activity would be welcome.The list of questions includes the following: 

1. Are the quantitative and geoscience goals central and important? This question addresses whether the skill and/or geoscience concept being taught in an activity is important for the student to master for a particular discipline. Strong activities promote practice in key quantitative skills in the context of important geoscience concepts. 
2. Does the activity lead to better problem solving? This question gets to the heart of whether the activity is likely to lead to an improvement in a student's ability to solve quantitative problems. 

Key features of activities that promote problem solving are that they (1) help students identify the knowledge they bring to a problem that is likely to be useful; (2) promote mastery of skills or strategies central to solving geoscience problems typical of those in the discipline being studied; (3) assist students in recognizing when the skill or strategy is likely to be applicable to a problem; (4) draw attention to the types of strategies being used to check for progress toward the solution both in the specific (answer verification) and in the abstract (evaluation of need to switch to a different approach to the problem); and (5) instill in students the confidence needed to approach and solve a quantitative problem. 

3. Are the quantitative skills integrated with geoscience concepts in a way that is appropriate for the learning environment and student level, and supports learning quantitative skills as well as geoscience? This question seeks to determine whether the integration of geoscience and quantitative skills is accomplished in a way that benefits both areas. Strategies could range from tight integration by teaching a quantitative skill in the context of a particular geoscience problem, to a sequenced approach in which geoscience data are first used to teach the quantitative skills followed by application of the quantitative skills to a new problem. 
4. Does the methodology promote learning? This question looks at whether the activity incorporates effective strategies based on learning theory and research. For example, does the activity motivate and engage students? Does it build on what they know and address any initial misconceptions about the topic? Does it use multiple representations of quantitative and mathematical concepts and data? Does it include opportunities for refl ection, discussion, and synthesis? Does it provide opportunities for students and faculty to assess learning and confirm that they are on the right track? Are there opportunities for students to iterate and improve their understanding incrementally? 
5. Are the provided materials complete and helpful? This question addresses nuts-and-bolts issues about whether the materials provided to students, either written, oral, or otherwise, are successful in providing the context, motivations, and goals of the activity, and whether or not instructions and questions are clear. 

The activities and review criteria can be found on the Teaching Quantitative Skills in the Geosciences Web site. In addition to the activity collection, this site contains a variety of resources to assist faculty with the methods they use to teach quantitative skills at both the introductory and advanced levels; information about broader efforts in quantitative literacy involving other science disciplines; and resources for students struggling with their quantitative skills. 

The site is part of the DLESE, and it has been developed by geoscience faculty in collaboration with mathematicians and mathematics educators with funding from NSF (grants NSF-GEO 0085600, NSF-DUE CCLI 0235007, and 0083251). Readers are encouraged to visit the Web site and to submit activities they would like to have reviewed and posted for public access. In addition, feedback is welcome concerning the review criteria, the skills that are central to undergraduate education in the geosciences, and the Web site as a whole. 

The workshop, Developing Activities for Upper Level Geoscience Students, was held at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, on 27–29 June 2005.


National Science Foundation (1996), Shaping the future: New expectations for undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, Rep. NSF 96-139, Comm. for the Rev. of Undergrad. Educ., Arlington,Va.