Earth and Environmental Science Department (EES) at Virginia Wesleyan College
by Elizabeth Malcolm
History & Background
The Earth and Environmental Science Department (EES) at Virginia Wesleyan College is a relatively young department (~8 yrs old) at a small private liberal arts college. In the last few years we have graduated 3-8 majors per year. We have two full time faculty: a geologist and an atmospheric scientist. A Biology professor and a Physics professor are also affiliated with our department. In addition to our upper-level courses we teach introductory-level courses that fulfill the "Laboratory" general education requirement.
Historically the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics has been the smallest division at the college, with few majors in any of the programs. Research was discouraged, and some believed that the division's main mission was providing general education requirements for non-science majors. In the last 7 years however, we have seen a major increase in new faculty in the science and mathematics departments. This has created a dynamic and exciting atmosphere, with faculty from the division working together to take a fresh look at our programs and to initiate needed change. Some of the changes that have occurred include: creation of BS degrees, a laboratory requirement as part of general education, research start-up funds for new faculty, independent research opportunities for students, and creation of a shared undergraduate research laboratory. Our college president recently initiated a capital campaign that includes a green science building and a research vessel. The research vessel should be available for use in fall courses. We have not had success in raising money for a new science building, and may instead settle for a small addition and renovation on the current building.
Our department has also undergone many recent changes. In 2007 we created a B.S. track as an addition to our B.A. In April 2009, we created a new minor in Marine Science, which is jointly offered with the Biology Department. Our hope is that it will increase enrollment in some of our courses (Oceanography, Climatology, GIS), and help recruit new students to the college.
There is a true sense of community in our department that is created by our small class size, small faculty size and primary focus on teaching. Each professor in our department is strongly committed to the intellectual and personal growth of our students. Our major has a good breadth of courses, which includes requirements in physics, chemistry, and biology. Despite our small faculty size and heavy teaching load, two professors are very active in research, and about half of our students complete independent research projects. Our graduates have been very successful in finding employment and acceptance to graduate school. Our recent alums in grad school report that we prepared them well. We have kept close ties with our alumni.
Our small faculty size means that we do not have upper-level courses in all sub-disciplines. We would like to hire another geologist, but cannot justify the position until we increase the number of EES majors. We desperately need new and upgraded teaching laboratories. Our new academic dean is sympathetic to our needs, but he does not have many resources in the current economic climate.
As a small department, much of our planning takes place in informal and unscheduled meetings and conversations. We have never had an external review, and we are required to complete a minimal internal review annually. We have been strategic and creative in the last few years to do as much as we can with our limited resources, but with the current climate at the college (budget cuts, hiring and salary freezes, dropping enrollment, etc.) we are not optimistic that we can make significant gains in the next few years.