Department of Geosciences, Smith College
by Bosiljka Glumac and Amy Rhodes
Smith College is a liberal arts college for women in Northampton, Massachusetts. The Department of Geosciences has a number of specific strengths. Our faculty (currently five full time tenured faculty, one full time tenure-track faculty, and one half-time lecturer) are committed to both teaching and research. Even though all faculty engage in geological research and publish in a wide variety of journals, everyone also has participated in a number of professional activities dedicated to and focused on teaching. We average approximately 36 majors at any one time, or roughly 12 in each class. Our intermediate-level courses normally do not exceed 16 students and often have only 12.
We are fortunate to have good facilities, both in terms of space and equipment. We have an equipment inventory similar to that of many quality undergraduate departments, but we also have a range of specialized equipment that is more typical of graduate departments. A significant strength is that our majors and minors are able to use this equipment in course work and for research projects. We also maintain a computer laboratory with quality computers and peripherals that enhance course work and research projects and that provide valuable skills for the workplace.
The Geosciences at Smith College have always been a leader and willing participant in interdisciplinary initiatives. Because of such participation, we have close ties with, and detailed knowledge about, programs in archeology, public policy, environmental science, marine science, and engineering. These contacts mean we can advise geoscience majors and minors fully about opportunities, both for summer internships and career preparation, in a wide range of other disciplines that interconnect well with a geological background.
Additionally, geoscience faculty are active in Five College (Smith, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke and Hampshire Colleges and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst) cooperation. We give lectures at other local colleges, maintain close contacts with local geology colleagues, organize and participate in Five College Geology field trips, and sponsor and participate in special symposia organized by local geoscience departments. These contacts and activities offer our majors and minors greatly increased and more diverse educational opportunities.
Our educational philosophy emphasizes inquiry-based learning, and geological inquiry is best accomplished in the field. We strongly believe that fieldwork is critical to understanding geologic processes, and we therefore include extensive fieldwork in most of our courses. In addition we provide, on a regular basis, extended field trips to the Bahamas, Death Valley, and Hawaii. We also recognize that geology is increasingly a science that relies on sophisticated instrumentation for sample analysis, and we are committed to training our students in instrumental analysis using advanced techniques (such as energy dispersive X-Ray microanalysis, the SEM-EDS facility shared with the Biology department, and an ICP, AA-GF, and IC-MS shared with the Chemistry department). These two aspects can best be merged in a culminating research experience, and we encourage our majors to do independent research projects. Our department is also a member of the Keck Geology Consortium - a group of eighteen liberal arts colleges throughout the United States – which provides opportunities for our students and faculty to participate in field-based research.
During our most recent review process, the department developed a new curriculum for 2009/10 with 3 concentrations within the geoscience major. Besides the traditional geoscience concentration, the program includes new concentrations in environmental geoscience and educational geoscience. The environmental geoscience concentration is an outgrowth of the emergence of the study of environmental issues as an important field within geosciences. The visiting committee report from our last decennial review in March of 2000 identified environmental consulting firms as one of the major employers of geoscientists today. This concentration requires interested students to take additional courses in ecology, environmental policy, and chemistry while having fewer requirements and more flexibility in course selections at the intermediate level in geosciences. Students are also required to do independent research as part of either a special studies project or honors thesis project.
The educational geoscience concentration is an outgrowth of the emergence of earth science as a field explicitly identified as a required area of study for K-12 students in both national and state frameworks. This was also an area identified by the visiting committee as being of increasing importance to geosciences majors. This, coupled with the critical need to train high quality K-12 teachers, has led us to develop a concentration where a geoscience major can take education courses that will help her evaluate this career option and will provide a basis for her certification as a teacher. A student choosing this option is required to take 3 education courses in lieu of 3 advanced and intermediate geosciences courses.
Even though as part of the department's decennial review in 2000, the visiting committee reported that "One could argue that the Smith College Department of Geology constitutes a national model for undergraduate geological education" and that "The defining characteristic of the department is its dedication to student learning and personal student development," we currently face several major challenges:
Smith College does not have core requirements. Thus, students are not required to take a science lab course. For this reason the enrollments in our introductory lab courses are relatively low. As part of the ongoing personnel cuts due to the current financial struggles, the College has eliminated our 2/3 time lab instructor position, which we had since 2003. We had to make major adjustments to our course offerings for 2009/10 in response to this loss. It is still too early to evaluate the full impact of this and other possible future cuts upon our program, but we must continue to attract students to geosciences - a field that they come to Smith knowing almost nothing about. Similarly, we struggle to attract a diverse student population that would include students from traditionally underrepresented groups in geosciences. Healthy enrollments in our courses at all levels are absolutely critical for maintaining a strong geoscience program at the time when additional reductions in the number of faculty and staff are being announced college-wide. Effective communication with the College administration about the strengths and values of our program becomes highly critical under these conditions so Smith can maintain its strong geosciences program.