Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum: The Geologic Hazards Collection

Tom Juster, Department of Geology, University of South Florida, Tampa

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The Geologic Hazards Collection was developed to support Hazards of the Earth's Surface, a 3-credit service course at the University of South Florida targeted to non-science majors seeking to satisfy breadth requirements. Since 2010, students have been required to completed five modules from a menu of eleven. The intent is to inject a level of quantitative reasoning into the content of the course.

The Geologic Hazards Collection

Access to the modules

The modules in the Geologic Hazards Collection were created by Tom Juster, who teaches an online version of Hazards of the Earth's Surface he developed at the University of South Florida. There are eight modules in all. Six are completely new, and touch on topics that may also be of interest to instructors of other geology courses. Two contain sections from existing SSAC modules that have been repackaged into a new module with a geologic hazards context.

The Geologic Hazards Collection includes:

Risk assessment for Benton County, Oregon, Part 1: Using Excel for the first time
. This module has repackaged some slides from the SSAC-GNP module "Spreadsheet Warm Up for SSAC Geology of National Parks Modules" by Dorien McGee, Meghan Lindsey, and Len Vacher into the context of performing a rudimentary risk assessment. This is a very basic module, the intent of which is mostly to introduce students to the use of Excel.

Risk assessment for Benton County, Oregon, Part 2: Risk of a catastrophic earthquake. This module also repackages slides from McGee et al.'s SSAC-GNP module, and is the second-part of the set of introductory modules designed to acquaint students with Excel.

Oceanic lithosphere: sink or swim? This module is used when teaching the theory of plate tectonics, an important context for understanding geologic hazards. Although not specifically about hazards, it continues the introduction to Excel and introduces the concept of the weighted mean.

Waiting for the Tsunami. This module teaches about tsunami hazards in the context of assessing travel times from a hypothetical Atlantic Ocean tsunami generated by an earthquake off the coast of Portugal.

How often do earthquakes occur? This module considers the distribution of earthquakes worldwide, and introduces students to the skills needed to create and interpret charts in Excel.

Assessing earthquake risk: How often does the "Big One" occur?
This module explains how the Gutenberg-Richter relationship is used to predict the recurrence interval of large earthquakes from an analysis of smaller ones.

A Tale of Two Cities (and two hurricanes): Part 1, Miami.This module considers the property risk posed by a hypothetical Andrew-like hurricane that strikes the center of Miami, not to the south.

A Tale of Two Cities (and two hurricanes): Part 2, New Orleans.
This module considers the sources and amount of subsidence in New Orleans caused by natural and anthropogenic factors.

Implementation at USF

Hazards of the Earth's Surface is one of several alternatives offered as service courses at USF for students to satisfy general university science requirements. Many students choose it because geology has the (undeserved) reputation for being 'easy' (at least easier than physics and chemistry!), and because they have a natural curiosity about natural events that can cause death and destruction. The course typically draws between 40 and 60 students a semester.

Modules from this collection have been a required component of Hazards of the Earth's Surface for the past two years, making up about 15% of a student's grade. All students are required to complete the first two introductory modules (Risk Assessment for Benton County, Parts 1 and 2), which introduces them to Excel and provides an introduction to the use of formulas, relative and absolute cell addresses, and functions. They then must complete three more from a menu of nine additional modules. Six are the remaining modules from the Hazards of the Earth's Surface Collection, and three consist of existing modules from the Geology of National Parks Collection that have been modified and re-purposed for Hazards: (a) "Yellowstone! A National Park on a Hotspot" by Judy McIlrath; (b) "A percentage stroll through Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park" by Tom Juster; and (c) Flood days and good canoeing days at Congaree National Park" by Mark Rains, David Shelly, and Len Vacher. Students can also receive extra credit for completing more than the required five modules, which many students do.

In the past two semesters, students have been able to choose between two versions of each module: a traditional version (described here), and an "auto-feedback and graded (AFG)" version that (a) provides automatic and immediate feedback to incorrect answers, including formulas; (b) requires students to complete tasks sequentially by not allowing them to advance until they've completed a task perfectly; and (c) automatically computes a grade and encrypts it into a code the students then submit to verify successful completion. The AFG modules (including the modules adapted from existing SSAC-GNP modules) are described and available here.

Like the modules in the Geology of National Parks Collection, each module uses an Excel template into which the students enter their answers. The templates allow the students to focus on the quantitative literacy aspects of the module without worrying about formatting an Excel spreadsheet, and greatly eases the burden of grading for instructors by putting students' answers in predictable places.

Note that many of the modules assume a certain level of experience with Excel, and for this reason it is recommended that the first two modules (Risk Assessment for Benton County, Parts 1 and 2) always be assigned prior to others. These modules are very basic, and could be used as Excel training in other courses as well. We have found that although students may balk initially about working with Excel, and in working with quantitative concepts in general, by the time they've completed four or five modules they are actually fairly competent and require less and less assistance. Achieving this level of comfort with both the tool and with quantitatve literacy is of course the goal of modules.