State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oneonta, Earth Sciences Department
by James R. Ebert
The Earth Sciences Department at SUNY Oneonta is a multidisciplinary department offering majors in Geology, Water Resources (Hydrogeology), Meteorology, Earth Science (commonly a dual major with Adolescence Education) and Environmental Science (with a concentration in Earth Science). The department comprises 9.25 faculty. Five are geologists; one is a hydrogeologist and three are meteorologists. The quarter line is held by a wetland soil scientist/global carbon cycle biogeochemist and is a shared position with the Biology Department.
Department Strengths and Weaknesses
The Earth Sciences Department at Oneonta has many strengths. We have a strong tradition of mentoring students and engaging them in undergraduate research. We enjoy a campus reputation for excellent teaching and we are recognized as a department with a friendly, supportive environment. Our academic programs in Meteorology, Geology, and Water Resources have regional reputations for graduating well trained and skilled students, ready for careers or graduate study. Our NCATE-accredited Earth Science Education program has a national reputation for preparing excellent teacher candidates.
External reviewers have noted that our faculty and students are enthusiastic, our coursework is rigorous and relationships with alumni are long lasting. An extensive departmental Alumni Newsletter facilitates these relationships. We have a Student Advisory Council that provides guidance to the department chair so that students have a voice in departmental matters. We host an annual Majors' Night, where alumni return and share their experiences with our students and an annual Department Picnic that draws students, faculty, emeritus faculty and alumni. We are able to offer scholarships, student research grants and support students attending conferences through the generosity of our alumni. Undergraduate research is common in the department and has been institutionalized in some coursework. We host the ESPRIT listserv, the largest and most active listserv in the nation for the professional development of high school and middle school teachers of Earth Science.
Our faculty are collegial and we function as a closely knit team. However, we could do a better job of mentoring new faculty members. We view teaching as our primary responsibility. Two of our current faculty are recipients of the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching and one received the SUNY College at Oneonta award for Excellence in Academic Advising. Five emeritus faculty members received the Chancellor's Award and three were recognized as Distinguished Teaching Professors, a rank above full professor and the highest rank in the SUNY system. Because of this team atmosphere and the overall high quality teaching, our students form close attachments which persist after graduation.
Having five distinct majors in the department is a significant advantage for our students in terms of the flexibility that it provides. There is considerable overlap in several combinations of curricula at the introductory level. This overlap facilitates students in changing majors without adversely affecting their time to graduation. At the same time, this allows the department to retain majors who might be lost otherwise to other departments on campus, a key factor in maintaining our overall number of majors.
Offering five majors also presents the department with significant challenges. So that our students progress toward graduation in a timely fashion, it is necessary for us to offer a wide array of advanced classes in each major in each semester. This tends to spread our faculty resources rather thin. As a consequence, we are not able to offer as many sections of introductory courses as our competition, the other science departments, that only offer single majors. We firmly believe that a significant fraction of our majors are recruited from our introductory classes and the inability to offer more sections of introductory classes adversely affects recruitment of majors.
Staffing is a strength and a weakness for our department. Over the past 6 years, we have seen the retirements of 6 veteran faculty in a department of 9.25. Two of these were Distinguished Teaching Professors and one was a recipient of the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching. In addition, three of these retirees were active in research and regularly involved students in their projects. We have been fortunate in that we have been allowed to replace 5 of these faculty and have been given permission to search for a one year replacement for a faculty member that announced in April his intent to retire at the end of the spring, 2009 semester. We are optimistic that we will be able to launch a tenure track search for this vacancy next year.
The new faculty that we have recruited have been, for the most part, excellent additions to the department. All five have been active (in varying degrees) in research and have involved students in these efforts. All three of the new geologists are developing into strong teachers and active researchers. One of the two new meteorologists has been extremely active in research and public outreach and is showing signs of great promise as a teacher. Unfortunately, the other new meteorologist is in the process of being denied tenure and there may be staffing problems that result from this. The infusion of new "blood" into the department has had an invigorating effect on the curriculum and on the involvement of our students in various activities. However, the new faculty have also placed greater demands on departmental resources to support their professional development (e.g. conference attendance, etc.). This was less of an issue with the now retired faculty as some of them were considerably less active.
From May 2006 through August of 2008, our building was closed for major renovation. We are now in the newly renovated space with electronically enhanced classrooms and laboratories. Some of our labs have been reconfigured to foster student interaction and group work. We have also acquired substantial new equipment as part of the renovation and start-up grants to new faculty. This includes an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, Raman spectrometer, ground-penetrating radar unit, an electromagnetic induction profiler, differential gps technology, total station, a rotating fluid tank, and 24 hand-held Kestrel weather meters. Acquisition of this equipment has opened numerous new opportunities for joint undergraduate/faculty research. This represents a major new strength for the department.
Like most geoscience departments around the country, recruitment of majors is a significant problem for us. Currently, we have 124 majors in our five major curricula. Earth Science (mainly dual majors with Adolescence Education) comprises the largest group with 44 majors. Meteorology has 37 majors and Environmental Science with a concentration in Earth Science has 21. The remaining 22 majors are divided between Water Resources and Geology, formerly the largest major in the department. We also serve majors in Childhood and Early Childhood Education who choose concentrations in Earth Science (19 students) which is the second largest science concentration, behind General Science.
Description of the Department's Planning Process
The long term stability of our faculty (at one point, something like 17 years elapsed between faculty hires) led to a culture of collegial decision-making in which the department functioned as a committee of the whole. We are the only department on campus that schedules weekly two-hour meetings. With the recent turnover of faculty, it is time for us to consider new models of planning and management. As it stands now, we do not have an 'official' planning process.
Summary of Latest Departmental Review
Our campus reviews majors rather than departments on a seven year cycle. From 2004 through 2006, all five of our majors underwent self study and external evaluation. Because Environmental Science is an interdisciplinary major with concentrations in Earth Science as well as Biology and Urban Planning, we will exclude that major from discussion here.
Our Geology curriculum was described by reviewers as rigorous and traditional. They recommended the institutionalization of undergraduate research in the form of a senior thesis or capstone, which we had proposed and have since implemented. Curricular revisions that were also proposed in the department's self study were commended by the reviewers and have been implemented. Concerns regarding equipment and instrumentation have been partly addressed. The reviewers recommended seeking external funds for upgrading instrumentation, something that we have yet to do. The reviewers also suggested that we highlight student research and conference participation on our website and use this as a means of recruiting additional majors. We have made minor progress in these regards.
Reviewers found that our Water Resources curriculum is strong, well-respected, and rigorous. They also noted that it offers coursework not typically available at the undergraduate level. Our reviewers suggested improvements to facilities, which were accomplished in renovation of our building and adding faculty with expertise in surface water hydrology. This has been addressed partly through the hiring of our new geomorphologist. Reviewers noted the potential for growth of the program, a recurring theme with several of our majors.
The Earth Science program was recognized for providing a solid and diverse foundation in all areas of the Earth Sciences. The reviewers suggested that our Earth Science major (or the department as a whole? The review was unclear on this point.) could serve as a role model for similar sized institutions where teaching is the main mission. The reviewers recommended hiring a third meteorologist and increasing the diversity of the faculty, both of which have been accomplished since the review. The reviewers also commended the department on institutionalization of research in the context of courses and recommended that a senior thesis or capstone be implemented in all major curricula in the department, which we are considering.
External reviewers found that our Meteorology program is of high quality and boasts an impressive record of placement of graduates. They noted the need for a clear recruiting/enrollment management plan and the need for us to advertise accomplishments of alumni. The reviewers also commended the faculty on fostering a sense of identity among the majors. The need for a third meteorologist and absence of Unidata for class use were cited as major shortcomings. A third meteorologist has been hired and we have acquired the first component of Unidata and are working on the rest. The reviewers also indicated a need for a course in Atmospheric Thermodynamics, which we have implemented, and that there is room to expand the curriculum in light of the fact that similar institutions typically have more requirements than our program. That goal was accomplished last year with the addition of four new courses and a major revamping of the requirements for related coursework.