The Math You Need, When You Need It

published Feb 23, 2010 4:32pm

by Eric Baer (Highline Community College)

Often geoscience teachers are faced with a conundrum when teaching quantitatively in introductory college classes. Do we teach quantitative skills (such as unit conversions and basic graphing techniques) even though many of the students have these skills, or do we skip these topics and ignore the less prepared students since it is content that should have been learned previously? Judging from many introductory geoscience textbooks, there is a third option – get rid of the quantitative content. We offer a different solution: modular, on-line modules that students can use to bolster their quantitative skills just before they are needed in class.

"The Math You Need, When You Need It" (TMYN) modules are openly available at Each module covers quantitative topics that are important in introductory geoscience courses. These include trigonometry, unit conversions, graphing, rearranging equation, slopes, and density. Each topic includes a page for the instructor, a tutorial for students, a set of practice problems and an on-line quiz that is automatically graded and submitted to the instructor.

By design, TMYN uses multiple geoscience contexts for each quantitative skill so that instructors can readily and repeatedly make connections between mathematical skills and geoscience topics they are used in. Furthermore, the context provided by TMYN allows students to recognize the relevance of mathematics to geoscience. Since Spring 2008, TYMN has been used in conjunction with 11 sections of introductory geoscience at Highline Community College and University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. In these pilot studies, seven instructors were given the flexibility to decide how to utilize TMYN in their courses. Despite a variety of implementations, TMYN successfully improved the math skills of >90% of students who participated.

Besides the use in classes by more than seven hundred students, over 94,000 visitors came to the website in the past 12 months. Of these, over 15,000 stayed on the site for more than one minute indicating that they engaged with the modules to at least some extent. 90% of the visitors found the resources through a search engine using very general search terms, indicating that they were not part of a class or assigned to complete the modules as an assignment. This indicates that TMYN modules are meeting a broader need.

TMYN recently received funding from the National Science Foundation to expand the use of these modules to other institutions. The project will broaden the impact of the project and, at the same time, examine the role of institution type, student demographics and other factors that may impact the effectiveness of TMYN modules in supporting students. Instructors who are interested in seeing how TMYN modules might be incorporated in their courses are encouraged to contact Eric Baer or Jen Wenner.