Building Strong Departments > Workshops > Developing Pathways to Strong Departments for the Future > Participants and Essays > University of St. Thomas Department of Geology

University of St. Thomas Department of Geology

Lisa Lamb, Assistant Professor

Department of Geology
University of St. Thomas


In the fall of 2000, Tom Hickson and I inherited a 2 faculty geology dept with 4 majors, no student or professor research, no field requirement, very little standard lab equipment for upper-division courses and a curriculum based on the offering of the same large (124 students) but popular, intro physical course every semester with a major that consisted of 6 required allied courses and 7 required geology courses with no choices and with few field-based labs. It had been a 2 faculty/1 adjunct department for 30 years where only 1 faculty member had a Ph.D. and neither were expected to do research. The department had a strong tradition of helping students individually and had recently moved into a new building with wonderful classrooms.

Tom and I were hired at the same time and expected to:

  • assess, overhaul and update the curriculum
  • improve and maintain an excellent teaching record
  • introduce and maintain an undergraduate research program
  • grow the number of majors

In the first 4 years and with the help of great adjuncts, we:

  • continued to serve students as individuals, meaning we worked very long hours which allowed us to be available to meet often with students one-on-one
  • added new focused-topic introductory courses designed to address varying student interests and recapture the curiosity of those turned off by science, following the advice of Barb Tewksbury and the Hamilton curriculum.
    • each prof teaches a course that they are most interested in but each one contains the same basic core geology material so that the course can fulfill a lab requirement but also serve as an entree into the major
    • we designed the courses to include many in-class, active learning components to improve the pedagogy
    • we designed all new labs for each course, including a few outdoor labs that take advantage of nearby outcrops
  • overhauled the major curriculum by attending a national PKAL workshop, gathering information on other geoscience departments, adding and developing new courses, giving students choices
    • at the same time, worked with the Dept of Teacher Ed. to redo the Earth and Space Science co-major
  • with the help and support of administration, purchased new lab and research equipment for introductory and upper-division labs
  • added research programs which intimately involve undergraduates, took undergrads to national conferences, published with them
  • implemented field experiences in all courses, ranging from 1 afternoon to several days in length
    • many of these serve as the data collection phase for multi-week and semester-long projects within upper-division courses
  • we emphasize liberal arts skills and preparation for any career first, geology content second.
  • we supported resurrection of the geology club and participated in many weekend service trips to Will Steger's environmental conference center
  • introduced students to different career paths via a speaker series What Do Geologists Do?
  • hired a third person who is energetic, motivated and committed to working with undergraduates and who's field (paleoclimate, paleoceanography) helps us move in a more environmental direction in both course offerings and student research

We now have 18-20 majors and have doubled to quadrupled enrollments in most of our upper-division courses. We got permission to hire a 5-year limited term but full-time person (and our dean fought hard for it to a be a tenure track position).

What we believe has worked and led to our increase in majors:

  • enthusiasm, enthusiasm, enthusiasm
  • caring about students as people, caring about their success whether or not they pursue a traditional geology career
  • field-based labs (better learning, better building of comraderie)
  • flexibility in the major; increasing our environmental focus; changing some traditional courses to focus on better student learning and improved core skills