Earth & Environmental Science Department, Wesleyan University
by Peter Patton and Martha Gilmore
The Earth & Environmental Science Department consists of eight tenure-track positions (7.5 FTE), two research professors, two emeriti faculty who remain active in research, one technician and one administrative assistant. The department also offers a masters of arts degree with about four M.A. candidates at any one time.
The geology department at Wesleyan redefined itself in 1973 when it became the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences. In addition to a traditional earth science major it created an interdisciplinary program in geology, biology and chemistry. Over time the distinction between the two separate curricular tracks blurred and in 1993 the department reshaped the curriculum into a single major with a great deal of flexibility for the undergraduate majors. This curricular flexibility places a premium on advising and each year a faculty member is assigned to be the advisor for a class.
More recently the department contributed to the development of the Environmental Studies Certificate Program (essentially a minor course of study) that includes curricular offerings beyond the sciences. With the addition of a senior faculty member with a joint appointment in the Biology Department and E&ES, this program has been strengthened and next year Environmental Studies will be a "linked major" such that students can elect it as a second major building on any other major at Wesleyan. Currently the E&ES Department has nearly 50 majors split evenly between the junior and senior class. This represents a near doubling in size over the previous two graduating classes. The new Environmental Studies major has about 12 students enrolled for next year.
Our graduate program is small. The university provides us with stipends to support four students at a time and we work hard to make sure that they can complete their work in two years, although this can be a challenge depending on their background. Wesleyan also has a program where seniors can stay for a fifth year, tuition free, and complete a research project to earn an M.A. degree. The graduate students play a valuable role in the life of the department, they help to sustain the research program, help as teaching assistants and serve as role models and mentors for the undergraduate majors. In some years it has been difficult to identify and recruit students who can benefit from our small program.
The department was last reviewed in 2002. At that time the roster of the department was in flux, with two faculty on leave for administrative purposes, turnover at the junior faculty level and the impending retirement of two senior faculty. We also experienced an all-time low in the number of majors. Since then the department has successfully hired four new faculty and the department is at full strength with the return of faculty who were on leave. One of the strengths of our current faculty is the interdisciplinary nature of their research which helps to provide a broad curriculum for our students and links to other departments such as astronomy through planetary science and remote sensing. One of the constant pressures is each year balancing the number of general education classes that feed the major with sufficient number of our required core courses and upper level electives for our majors.
The department continually evaluates its curriculum. Most students who eventually major in E&ES do not come to Wesleyan with that goal in mind. Most decide to major after taking one of our many general education classes perhaps as late as their sophomore year. This has created a tension about a single required gateway class for the major and what body of knowledge should the students have to enter the major. At the other end of the spectrum the transcript of two graduating seniors might look very different from one another. As an experiment, we decided four years ago to attempt to address this issue at the other end of the major experience by requiring all seniors to participate in a senior seminar. This capstone experience has a January field trip where all seniors participate in an intensive field experience. Over the past three years the destination has been either Death Valley or Puerto Rico. During the spring semester they focus on research projects that they develop during the field trip and present their results at the department colloquium at the end of the year. The course has been very successful, but we now face the challenge of supervising nearly twice the number of students. Currently two faculty are assigned to the seminar and we are concerned that this is too few for the field component. The other potential issue is the strain on the overall teaching resources in any single year. The department also spends about $1000 per student for this course and the larger classes are going to stretch our budget to the point where we may have to modify the seminar.
The expectation at Wesleyan for tenure is to be a productive scholar-teacher. In our department we still stress field work but our analytical capacity has grown dramatically over the part two decades. While this is a positive outcome for the productivity of our faculty and for opportunities for our students it has placed a strain on our teaching space that has been slowly consumed by permanent laboratories and for the time demands on our department technician. During the current financial crisis, the university has decided to not go ahead with an ambitious plan for new science facilities and it is also clear that we will not be able to add additional personnel to help with our equipment, so we will need to be creative as we manage these resources.