Department of Geology, Dickinson College
by Ben Edwards and Pete Sak
The Department of Geology at Dickinson College is likely very typical for a geoscience department at a selective liberal arts college. We have four faculty members with diverse Ph.D. specialties (Igneous Petrology, Structural Geology, Marine Geochemistry, Paleontology) that are responsible for teaching upper level classes to a relatively small number of majors (average ~ 6 majors/year over the past 50+ years) and a large number of non-majors (~150/year in introductory classes). We are well equipped, with good microscopy facilities including an SEM-EDS system, sound basic X-ray and geochemistry facilities (Panalytical XRF, Philips XRD, Flame and graphite furnace AA, and C analyzer), and a full-time, MSc. level departmental technician. We have consistently taken students on research/course-related fieldtrips to a variety of interesting locations in the US and abroad (Caribbean, Costa Rica, British Columbia, Iceland, Hawaii, Bahamas, eastern Europe, Scotland/England/Wales, Galapagos) to ensure that our students have broad exposure to different geological environments, and our faculty have been actively involved in several international study programs. We also have a long tradition of encouraging students to study abroad for one semester during their 3rd year, which is definitely a benefit to the students but presents curricular challenges.
We have some opportunities and challenges that are possibly more unique. Our location, in Carlisle, PA, is at the intersection of the Great Valley, the Blue Ridge, the Triassic lowlands, and the Valley and Ridge geological provinces, which means that we can drive less than 20 minutes to show students a diverse suite of rock types, depositional environments, and structures. Dickinson College, founded in 1783 by a scientist, Benjamin Rush, owns a farm on which we have a small well field for hydrogeological studies. We take many short fieldtrips, and even have outcrops of limestone on campus. Additionally, our college has recently made a strong commitment to sustainability, including the formation of a Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education and the hiring of a fulltime GIS staff member for teaching and assistance with research projects. This represents a significant opportunity for geoscience as well as a significant challenge: how do the geosciences fit in to programs for 'Environmental' and 'Sustainability' education? Another of our academic challenges is determining how to interact with a separate Department of Environmental Studies, which also houses a major in environmental science, but which is ecologically-based and places only a very minor emphasis on geoscience.
Two years ago we submitted plans for significant revisions to our department to the college-wide Academic Programming and Standards Committee (APSC), including changing our department name to the Department of Earth Science, and adding an Environmental Geology major. The plan was soundly rejected by APSC, partly because they were in the mood to reduce instead of expand the number of separate majors offered by the college, but also because they thought these changes represented too much overlap with the existing programs in environmental studies and science; however, these programs presently have only a very minor emphasis on geoscience. This summer we have been awarded modest funding to support a week-long departmental retreat to help formulate a new plan for curricular revisions. One of the associate provosts, who sits on the APSC committee, will meet with the department for the week, and we have one student (rising senior doing earth science teacher certification) who will attend and help with developing our curricular plans. Our formal planning processes mainly comprise submitting an application to APSC outlining whatever curricular changes we want to make for their approval, at which time the proposed changes are submitted to vote of the entire faculty.
Our most recent external evaluation was completed in 2000. Since that evaluation two faculty members have been replaced in the department, and we have submitted several applications for a fifth faculty position, which, due to the present economic climate, is unlikely to be funded in the immediate future. The summary recommendations from the 2000 external evaluation included the following: (1) the department needs to consider restructuring the major requirements, partly to facilitate having more time to teach upper level electives; (2) Geology and Environmental Studies should work together to better integrate curricular goals; and (3) involvement in study abroad programs should continue to be developed but the impact needs to be carefully monitored and evaluated. In the nine years since this evaluation, all three of these issues have remained important points of discussion within the department and will form focal points for some of our July 2009 departmental retreat.