Queens College School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
by Gillian Stewart and Stephen Pekar
The Department of Geology was created in 1960 and was the second youngest science department at Queens College. Strictly an undergraduate department at first, it added the M.A. in Geology in 1966.The department name switched between Geology and Earth and Environmental Sciences until 1996, during which time the emphasis was in classical geology. The department was also instrumental in forming the CUNY consortial Earth and Environmental Sciences doctoral program in 1983.
In 1996, the department reconstituted itself as the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences in an effort to create a truly interdisciplinary entity that would make the environment a centerpiece of intellectual activity on campus. New majors were created in Environmental Sciences with concentrations in Geology, Biology, or Chemistry, and in Environmental Studies with a combination of social sciences and humanities as well as the basics of environmental sciences. A new M.S. program in Applied Environmental Geosciences was established in the mid 2000s, moved course offerings in new directions.
These varied offerings needed a broader faculty base that could comfortably be included within the classic geology discipline. Thus was born the "School" rather than a department to enable us to make hires of the interdisciplinary faculty necessary to continue our growth. Today, marine biologists, ecologists, and soil scientists share with geologists, geochemists, and geophysicists the excitement of the study of our Earth.
Recently, the Environmental Science programs have been completely revised and updated to reflect our current faculty strengths. Potentially, this rigorous program will represent the leading undergraduate program in the Environmental Sciences in the New York City area. While our core Geology program already has a strong regional and national reputation, a future goal will be to revisit the Geology curriculum once the new Environmental Science program has been implemented. The challenge will be for us to maintain two strong departments within the limitations of our relatively small faculty.
QC School of Earth and Environmental Sciences has provided a solid foundation in geological and environmental sciences in the New York City urban setting for over 40 years. Our strengths include our world-renown faculty, our diverse undergraduate population, and our constantly improving facilities and research infrastructure. For a liberal arts college, we provide cutting edge research experiences for undergraduates and graduate students. Our department has had a consistently strong dedication to teaching excellence, as evidenced by our high student satisfaction, retention, and recruitment (double FTEs and majors since 2000) and college teaching awards, and student evaluations. Despite our relatively high teaching demands, our department has successfully maintained externally funded research in a broad range of topics. Currently, the School represents research in both Geosciences and Environmental Sciences that range from estuarine geochemistry to paleo-seismicity, atmospheric modeling, Antarctic climate change, to pollutant remediation. In all cases, faculty serve as mentors to students but also publish and present their findings in high caliber peer-reviewed journals. Further, we contribute widely to service both within our School and College, and within the broader scientific and lay community. For example, we house the Northeastern Chapter of GLOBE, we regularly contribute to news media and educational outreach, and many faculty serve on review panels and editorial boards.
The School does currently face challenges, but thus far, we have managed to compensate for issues that include infrastructure, faculty attrition, monetary support, insufficient personnel, and balancing teaching a diverse curriculum and maintaining high research productivity. Currently, we have no room for expansion, either in classrooms, offices, or research laboratories, despite the fact that we have hired 5 new faculty in the past 3 years and expect to continue to grow, with at least one new line in the near future. We only employ one full time secretary and one technician for the entire School.
The School currently offers seven unique degrees (3 B.A., 2 B.S., 1 M.A., 1 M.S) with only 15 teaching faculty divided almost equally between Geology and Environmental Sciences. Thus, everyone in the department is expected to teach multiple courses at multiple levels. The current age distribution in our department is skewed, with half of the Geology department older than 65. This represents a significant and near-term loss in terms of expertise in geological research, teaching, as well as institutional memory since many of these faculty have previously served as administrators at Queens College. Replacing these losses will be difficult and represents a challenge in preserving the Geology program at Queens College. Additionally, recruitment of high caliber faculty will be difficult in the future because of lack of resources for conducting faculty searches. On the other hand, the junior faculty at Queens College as a whole are facing challenges as the expectations for research accomplishments and overheard earnings increase without a decrease in the teaching and service demands.
Planning and Review:
The School of Earth and Environmental Sciences is currently in the midst of a college mandated self study (every 10 years). This involves a review of our staff, resources, productivity, students, and curriculum. This document eventually goes to the administration of Queens College and external reviewers who visit the campus and interview faculty and staff. In the past, the self studies have provided five-year plans for the School which have been successfully implemented. Specifics have included the development of the Environmental Sciences program, the creation of a M.S. program in Applied Environmental Geosciences, and priorities in the research interests and teaching skills of future hires.
We look forward to the development of an action plan to strengthen our already strong School. After this workshop, we will organize a retreat with the entire faculty to discuss ideas and strategies to improve our curriculum and department assessment, and maximize our potential.