For many undergraduate scholars of Environmental Studies, mathematics is an obstacle, rather than a tool, for understanding environmental topics. This study uses the lens of an experimental "Quantitative Thinking" curriculum to investigate the underlying reasons for students' perception of math as a barrier, and alternatives to overcome this negative orientation.
The Quantitative Thinking curriculum combined pertinent mathematical skills and topics from Environmental Studies with promising teaching approaches from the mathematics education research literature. The result was a course that taught quantitative thinking skills in the context of environmentally oriented topics, and which used classroom interaction and computer technology to promote active learning.
Surveys were used to characterize demographic and background information, as well as students' perceptions of the curriculum, mathematics performance, self-confidence, and anxiety at the beginning and end of the experimental course. These test instruments allowed differential outcomes within the study population to be investigated.
Students' ability to apply fundamental mathematical concepts to environmental problem-solving contexts improved dramatically. Initially, even those students with relevant coursework were largely unable to apply their skills to contextualized problems. By the end of the course, students with and without prior coursework performed nearly equally as well on the environmentally oriented math problems, with both groups reaching high levels of achievement. In addition to performance improvements, students' mathematics self-confidence increased, while their anxiety toward mathematics lessened.
Lack of perceived utility of mathematics, performance goal orientations, and passive learning environments were three barriers identified by this study as likely impediments to quantitative thinking. A variety of alternative teaching approaches, including contextualized problem solving, use of applicable computer technology, and an interactive classroom environment were found to help students develop their quantitative thinking skills. Negative mathematical orientations appeared to be a reaction to the way mathematics is taught, rather than subject itself. These findings suggesting that institutions responsible for training students in Environmental Studies can facilitate positive mathematics learning outcomes by adopting teaching practices that reflect problem-solving environments students are likely to encounter in their future careers.