Building Strong Geoscience Departments > Workshops > Strengthening Your Geoscience Program > Participants and their Contributions > College of William and Mary

Department of Geology at the College of William and Mary

by Brent Owens


The Department of Geology at the College of William and Mary consists of six faculty members, one full-time laboratory instructor, and one administrative assistant, and is an undergraduate-only department. Our program is designed to provide each major with a strong, broad background in geology that is sufficiently flexible to allow students freedom to follow their own interests. The major may choose one of two options, either general geology or environmental geology. At any given time, we have approximately 40 declared majors, and we graduate about 20 seniors each year.

Ours is a vibrant department committed to the twin missions of teaching and research. All of our faculty members (with the exception of our most recent hire) have won multiple teaching awards at the college level, and three have won the Biggs Award, awarded nationally by the Geoscience Education Division of the Geological Society of America. In addition, all are active in research, receive external funding for research, and routinely publish in a wide array of peer-reviewed earth science journals (as well as geologic maps, field trip guidebooks, etc). Participation in national and regional meetings is consistently high.

A hallmark of our program is the involvement of undergraduates in research. In fact, completion of a senior thesis that includes original research is a requirement for all majors. Many students present the results of their work at regional, and even national GSA or AGU meetings. A subset of these students ultimately become co-authors (in some cases first author) on journal articles or other publications (e.g., geologic maps).

We are a close-knit department, and we value and nurture a sense of community among students and faculty. This community is built in various ways, including class and departmental field trips, annual events (fall and spring picnics, a holiday brunch, a winter chili cook-off), and the intense student-faculty interaction that happens during the senior research experience. We also have a weekly brown-bag series in which students, alumni, and faculty give presentations as well as a visiting speaker series. The Geology Club is active, though the level of activity varies from year to year. We have an outreach program, Geology on Wheels, in which pairs of geology students teach earth science lessons in local elementary schools, scouts, and others, and our website includes webpages on the Geology of Virginia, that earth science teachers across the state tell us is a valuable resource. Geology majors serve as undergraduate teaching assistants in our introductory lab courses. The sense of closeness continues after students graduate, and we maintain strong ties with most of our alumni and publish an annual newsletter. Our alums, in turn, are strong financial supporters of the department.

The department contributes to the Environmental Science and Policy program on campus and faculty within the department serve on Arts and Sciences and university-wide committees. They are also involved in professional geoscience organizations at the state to national level.

The relatively small size of our department, coupled with our undergraduate-only program, does result in some limitations. With only six faculty, we don't have faculty expertise in all the sub-disciplines of geology. We also have little in the way of analytical equipment, although we are making progress in this area. An inherent limitation in this regard is a general lack of physical space, a problem that negatively impacts our teaching and research.

Our department has no formal planning process, but we generally hold at least one retreat (half- or full-day) each year to assess various issues with our program. For example, we recently met for a half-day to discuss a single agenda item – the future of the senior research requirement in our department. In past years, we have discussed skills we want to develop in our students (using the matrix approach pioneered by Carleton College), and have revised our curriculum.

Our most recent external review was held more than a decade ago. Given the significant changes in our department since that review (e.g., three new faculty members), that assessment is now out of date. However, we are scheduled to undergo an external review during the next academic year.

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