In the Trenches - April 2012

Volume 2, Number 2

In This Issue - By the Numbers: Improving Quantitative Literacy

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The Math You Need, When You Need It

Jennifer M. Wenner, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and Helen E. Burn and Eric M. Baer, Highline Community College, Des Moines, Washington

"What if you could include more quantitative content in your introductory geoscience courses without spending valuable class time teaching your students math? If you could improve the mathematical skills of the majority of your students, including those who are already skilled in mathematics?
Recent uses of The Math You Need, When You Need It (TMYN) — student-centered, online quantitative modules focused on introductory geoscience — suggest that you can. Since spring of 2010, TMYN has been used in conjunction with geoscience courses at 13 four-year and 10 two-year institutions impacting the mathematical skills of more than 1,500 students (See Table 1 on Page 2). Data from these implementations of TMYN suggest that completing the modules improves students' mathematical skills and that they are useful at a wide variety of institutions."

Quantitative Writing: Using Short Writing Assignments to Teach Data-Based Argumentation

John C. Bean, David Carrithers, Dean Peterson, and Trileigh Tucker, Seattle University, Seattle, Washington

"On our campus we call it by various names—rhetorical mathematics, rhetorical numeracy, or quantitative literacy across the curriculum. Whatever the name, we mean the same thing: Teaching students to be critical readers and writers of arguments that use quantitative data for evidence ('Quantitative Writing'). In selected core (i.e., general education) courses, students write papers in which they must interpret numbers, use them judiciously for evidence to support their own claims, and display them effectively in graphs or tables. In professional or scientific disciplines, teachers design short, vertically integrated assignments that teach new majors how disciplinary experts argue with data using various professional formats and styles. The goals of our program are similar to those pioneered in the QM4PP (Quantitative Methods for Public Policy) program at Macalester College (St. Paul, Minnesota) or the QuIRK (Quantitative Inquiry, Reasoning, and Knowledge) program at Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota). Specifically, we want students to understand that numbers tell stories, to analyze how numbers are used in arguments, and to use numbers both ethically and persuasively in making their own arguments."

Connecting Quantitative Literacy and Geology

H.L. Vacher, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida

"Students develop specific skills and habits of the mind as they learn to analyze quantitative information in a literate, reasoned, and problem-solving way. Such skills are essential if people are to be able to meet the mathematical demands of their lives and to deal with quantitative and mathematical concepts during their years in school. Many education organizations, recognizing the importance of these skills and habits of mind, have developed curricula, programs, and metrics focusing on what the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U, 2007) calls "quantitative literacy" (Vacher, 2011). In its Liberal Education & America's Promise vision statement, AACU lists quantitative literacy as one of its Essential Learning Outcomes. Earlier reports, including the influential "Crowther Report" (Ministry of Education, 1959) also pointed out the importance of quantitative literacy and referred to it as 'numeracy.'"

Learning to Think Spatially

Carol Ormand, the Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota

"Spatial thinking is fundamental to the geosciences, for tasks as diverse as understanding atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns; visualizing groundwater flow, the Earth's magnetic field, crystallography, and structural crosssections; and interpreting seismic reflection profiles. Furthermore, spatial thinking is not a single skill. The tasks listed above require a variety of spatial skills, including visualization of 3D objects, patterns and motions; penetrative thinking (imagining the interior of an object); and disembedding (seeing relevant data in a noisy pattern). Unfortunately, there is no formal teaching of spatial thinking skills in the K-12 curriculum. As a result, students arrive in undergraduate geoscience classrooms with a wide range of abilities in this area (e.g., Murphy et al., 2011). A number of studies, in geoscience education and in cognitivescience, have shown that spatial skills do improvewith practice (e.g. Titus and Horsman, 2009). However, average gains over a single semester tend to be quite modest. It is therefore cogent to consider how we can facilitate the development of spatial thinking skills in our geoscience courses."
  • Titus, S.J., and Horsman, E., 2009, Characterizing and improving spatial visualization skills (Special volume on research on thinking and learning in the geosciences): Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 57, n. 4, p. 242-254.

Math and Science "Placed" in Context

Steven Semken, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, and Chris Schaufele and Nancy Zumoff, Kennesaw State University, Marietta, Georgia

Have you longed for new approaches to interest your students when learning the core math concepts needed for success in your geoscience course? Perhaps approaching the subject from a place-based, culturally connected perspective would help. That is what we did in the Kéyah Math Project, funded by the National Science Foundation under the Opportunities for Increasing Diversity in the Geosciences program. Our team of university and K-12 educators and cultural experts developed 13 free, place-based, mathematically infused online modules for use in a range of geoscience and environmental science courses (Schaufele et al., 2006). Although we developed KM with a specific population in mind (Native American students in the Southwest U.S.), the modules and the design concepts are much more broadly applicable.

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Web Features

NAGT, its members, and its sponsored projects have produced a number of resources related to quantitative reasoning and teaching with data. Some collections of these resources are highlighted below.


Quantitative Literacy and Reasoning

  • Teaching Quantitative Skills in the Geosciences
    This website provides information on the issues involved in teaching quantitative skills and methods and activities for doing so as well as additional resources and a community of other faculty who are all attempting this challenging task.
  • Teaching with Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum
    Teaching with Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum uses modules with short PowerPoint presentations to guide students to build spreadsheets to solve one or more mathematical problems in the context of their courses. The students determine the cell equations that produce the calculated numbers shown on the spreadsheets. Examples are provided.
  • Mathematics and Statistical Models
    This module provides basic information about mathematical and statistical models, how they can be used in the classroom, and provides activity examples that utilize both.
  • National Numeracy Network
    This organization offers its members a network of individuals, institutions, and corporations united by the common goal of quantitative literacy for all citizens. Through national meetings, faculty workshops, research initiatives, and information sharing, the National Numeracy Network aims to strengthen the capacity of our country in the quantitative areas of business, industry, education, and research across all disciplines. This site includes access to the NNN journal, teaching resources, and other information about NNN.

See more on the Teach the Earth SiteGuide: Quantitative Skills, Thinking, and Reasoning.

Spatial Thinking

  • On the Cutting Edge Spatial Thinking Journal Club
    This journal club provided an opportunity to dive into the literature on spatial thinking, particularly in the context of the geosciences, and to discuss it in depth with interested colleagues. The group met between January and May 2012 to discuss readings from the geoscience and cognitive science literature, with an emphasis on exploring the cognitive aspects of spatial thinking and their implications for geoscience education.
  • Learning to Think Spatially
    This report explains the nature and functions of spatial thinking and shows how spatial thinking can be supported across the K-12 curriculum through the development of appropriate support systems. The report calls for a national initiative to integrate spatial thinking into existing standards-based instruction across the school curriculum such as in mathematics, history, and science classes; it does not require the development of a new, separate course focusing solely on spatial thinking. The goal of this initiative is to create a generation of students who learn to think spatially in an informed way.
  • Newcombe, N. (2010). Picture This: Increasing math and Science Learning by Improving Spatial Thinking, American Educator, v. 34, n. 2, p. 29-43.

Teaching with Research and Data

  • Teaching with Data from Pedagogy in Action
    The module offers background information for teaching with data in entry level geoscience classrooms (what is it, why use it, and how does one use it) as well as a collection of activity examples one can use in their classroom.
  • Teaching with Data Simulations from Pedagogy in Action
    Teaching with data simulations means giving students opportunities to simulate data in order to answer a particular research question or solve a statistical problem. This module explains how to use this technique along with with example activities and classroom tips.
  • Teaching with Data, Simulations, and Models from On the Cutting Edge
    Today's geoscience education reaches beyond the traditional teaching tools such as rock samples and topographic maps. With the addition of computers in many geoscience classrooms and laboratories, faculty have unprecedented opportunity to create innovative learning experiences by bringing real-world data sets and models and simulations of geoscience processes into the classroom. This site provides resources to help faculty use data resources effectively and easily, and contains access to teaching materials and tips from the classroom and literature about the supporting pedagogy.
  • Integrating Research and Education
    This website contains educational modules for use by teachers, students and researchers. These collections offer numerous ways in which digital library technologies can be used to translate exciting new scientific discoveries into effective instructional practice. Examples include Teaching with the EarthChem database, Exploring the Yellowstone Geoecosystem, and Teaching Mineralogy with Crystal Structure Databases.
  • Using Data in the Classroom
    This interdisciplinary portal provides information and discussion for educators and resource developers interested in effective teaching methods and pedagogical approaches for using data in the classroom.
  • Using MARGINS Data in the Classroom
    This is the first page in a series developed from a 2009 MARGINS workshop. The MARGINS project focuses on plate boundaries and has designed and evaluated teacher-ready mini-lessons for the undergraduate classroom. The decade-long NSF MARGINS program has generated a wealth of data for use in the undergraduate classroom.
  • Earth Exploration Toolbook
    The Earth Exploration Toolbook is a collection of computer-based Earth science activities. Each activity, or chapter, introduces one or more data sets and an analysis tool that enables users to explore some aspect of the Earth system. There are 25 different chapters, including Investigating Earthquakes with ArcVoyager GIS, Exploring Characteristics of Wetlands, and Is Greenland Melting?

See more on the Teach the Earth SiteGuide: Teaching with Current Research and Data

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