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CTL Faculty E-Newsletter

Reflections on Student Quantitative Skills and CTL’s New Q Fellows Program

Darrin Magee, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies

In the James Bond movies, Q is the guy with the gadgets and gimmicks, always ready with just the thing 007 needs to outwit the next evil genius.

While Sean Connery is unlikely to show up at CTL anytime soon (though Sean Conrey from Writing and Rhetoric just may), we do have our very own Q this semester – two, in fact: Q Fellows Jeff Rizza and Ali Ware. Q here stands for quantitative, as in Quantitative Reasoning (Goal 4). I am no James Bond, but I have benefited from Jeff’s behind-the-scenes work to help students in my ENV 110: Energy class improve their quantitative reasoning skills.

The energy class has proven to be one of the most challenging introductory Environmental Studies courses for students because it demands a healthy dose of number-crunching, specifically basic algebra and unit math. Why? My Environmental Studies colleagues and I feel strongly that graduates of our program should have a solid enough grounding in the math and science of environment to do “back of the napkin” calculations to test their own assumptions about topics ranging from climate change to renewable energy potential in the United States, and perhaps more importantly, to evaluate the claims of the countless “experts” on all manner of environmental issues whose opinions, frequently based on a tentative understanding of the science at best, flood our airwaves and inboxes.

I am currently teaching the course for the fourth time, and as I watched students struggle in the first few weeks with quantitative reasoning tasks over which I expected them to have much greater mastery, I approached CTL to enquire about a tutor for the class. I specifically recommended Jeff Rizza, who had excelled in the course the prior year when I co-taught it with Professor Steve Penn in the Physics Department, and who had expressed a willingness to play such a role this year. Ruth Shields then suggested the Q Fellows idea: hiring excellent students to work across courses and departments to help strengthen their peers’ quantitative reasoning skills, whether in Environmental Studies or Economics, Physics, Psychology or Political Science. I jumped at the idea, and since week three of the semester, Jeff has been holding evening hours three times a week to help my students on problem sets and other work in the class. He and his colleague Ali, who is an Economics major, did double-duty to help students prepare for the midterm exam. The feedback from ENV 110 students who have sought help from Jeff and Ali has been uniformly positive, and Jeff and Ali now hold drop-in hours several times a week to help students in all disciplines.

The reality at HWS is that the Q Fellows have their work cut out for them. While this means job security for Jeff and Ali and others who may follow, I worry that too many students are arriving at HWS lacking critical quantitative skills and general comfort with numbers. Colleagues I’ve queried share this concern. As an example, I now give a pretest in my ENV 215 course, Environment and Development in East Asia, in order to survey the class’s background knowledge of East Asia and environmental issues. Enrollment for the class is approximately 30 students per semester, similar to my energy class. For the past three semesters, I have included one quantitative question on the pretest: If per capita income in a city goes from $3000 to $6000, what percent increase does this represent. To my surprise and consternation, in a class of 30 people, I usually get more than 15 responses to this question. Clearly, something is amiss in our educational system if high school graduates are incapable of understanding percent change in a simple, non-compounding sense such as this one. How else can one make sense of discounts at a weekend sale, growth projections for GDP or wind power, doubling a recipe for pancakes, or any number of other fundamental life questions?

Clearly, there’s more work to do, and I’m thrilled to have committed and talented students like Jeff and Ali playing such an important peer-teaching role. As 007 would say, “You only live twice…but there’s no reason to have to take the energy class twice.”

Q Fellows hold drop-in hours at the following times and places:

Sunday: 7 to 9 pm at 451 Pulteney Street
Tuesday: 6 to 9 pm at CTL
Wednesday: Noon to 2 pm at CTL
Friday: 2 to 4 pm at CTL

For more information about the program, please contact Ruth Shields at shields@hws.edu