Building Strong Geoscience Departments > Workshops > Strengthening Your Geoscience Program > Participants and their Contributions > Vassar College

Program in Earth Science, Department of Earth Science and Geography, Vassar College

by Jeff Walker


Program Strengths

The Program in Earth Sciences is one half of the Department of Earth Science and Geography. There are four full-time faculty positions, and in the past decade we have graduated anywhere between 3 and 10 majors per year. The small size allows us to give individual attention to our students, and the students tell us that this is one of the really nice things about the program.

We have a wide range of interests represented by our faculty, including mineralogy and petrology, soils and agriculture, nature writing, paleoclimatology, geomorphology, geophysics, earthquakes and tsunami, human responses to natural disasters, fluvial sedimentology, feminism and environment, and environmental justice. The fact that we are a combined department with a social science strengthens our ability to address the human aspects of the earth sciences; we routinely team-teach classes with our geography colleagues, and have a combined major called "Earth Science and Society."

Vassar College is located in a glaciated terrane with exposures of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. A relatively complete stratigraphic column from the PreCambrian up through the Devonian can be found within an hour's drive of campus, while Triassic basins can be studied within two hours. The landscape is an excellent laboratory for traditional, deep-time geology, but offers some challenges for teaching active tectonics, volcanism, and hazards. The Hudson River valley has a long history of cultural interaction with the landscape, and a long environmental history as the Storm King Mountain case is considered by some to be the birth of the environmental movement. Vassar College owns a 500 acre farm adjacent to campus with a meandering stream and glacial features ranging from a drumlin to lake bed clays. We have a well-endowed field trip budget that allows our faculty to make use of our surroundings, so almost every class involves multiple field experiences.

We have access to instrumentation appropriate to a small liberal arts geoscience program, including thin section equipment, automated X-ray diffractometer, shallow geophysical equipment, a microscopy lab, an ICPAES shared with Chemistry, and a shared-resource GIS lab. The college has active multidisciplinary programs in Environmental Studies and Women's Studies with when we regularly participate, and the opportunities for interdisciplinary teaching and research have led to faculty development.

Program weaknesses

Vassar College does not have a laboratory science requirement, and many Vassar students state that this why they chose the college. Almost all of our recruiting is through half-credit, general interest classes such as "Geohazards" or "The Earth Around Us." Our introductory physical and historical geology courses are laboratory based, and are usually well subscribed but not always filled. The small number of faculty means that while our interests are wide ranging, our expertise is limited. We have an older building, and our facilities can be cramped. There are other programs in the building so we have little room for expansion should the opportunity present itself.

We maintain an unusually high commitment to multidisciplinary programs (highest per capita among departments at Vassar). This situation, coupled with a high number of administrative leaves in recent years, means that our focus has not always been on the geosciences or the earth science program. Finally, two of our faculty are not actively involved in geological research, so the other two faculty bear a larger portion of the burden teaching laboratory-based classes and advising research projects and senior theses.

Planning Process

Because of the size of our program, our planning process has not been formalized. We often gather at the end of the academic year for half- to full-day retreats to discuss issues, especially the curriculum, and attracting and retaining majors. We have regular monthly faculty meetings of all department faculty, and less frequent program faculty meetings usually to discuss staffing and budget issues. We have not had an internal or external departmental or program review for over 20 years.

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