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Dealing with Disciplines: Blended Departments, Collaborations with Allied Departments and Programs, and More

Dallas Rhodes and Mary Savina

At the 2009 workshop on Strengthening Your Geoscience Program, working groups of participants met to address topics of concern. This page is a summary of one working group's discussion.

What are some examples of departmental efforts in this area?

Represented at this session were the following departments:
  • geology and geography
  • geology and geophysics to EES
  • geology to EES
  • earth sciences (geolog, meteorology, hydrology, EES, earth science/education)
  • geology possibly moving
  • astronomy and geosciences
  • geography and geology
  • geography, geology, GIS
  • geology Env Studies
  • physics, biology, physical education (Sciences)
  • atmospheric oceanic and earth sciences
  • environmental studies merging with chemistry
  • geosciences
  • geology (w meteorology)
  • EES - geoscience major, env studies, env. science
  • Env Studies and geography
  • geology and ecology and environmental science
  • geological sciences
5 shotgun marriages
7 willingly joined together

What are benefits and positive outcomes?

  • Teach a greater diversity of courses within department
  • Small department can now appeal to a broad range and number of students
  • Students can see more holistically how to approach problems
  • Getting geoscientists and social science students into each others' courses
  • Separate geology, geography, environmental studies - overcoming sense of competition for a single pool of students
  • faculty can articulate their programs and goals more readily because they have to
  • NSF funding interdisciplinary work, therefore ID cultivated already
  • This is how the field works in practice and what the big questions are
  • Only traditional geology faculty are the older guys, the others straddle several ancillary disciplines, all of which are interdisciplinary
  • Important for environmental scientists to know what quartz and feldspar are
  • As long as physical and historical geology are required, students will get more than in, say, the biology department
  • Chapman conference - shift toward shallowest part of earth's crust, the most recent part of it's history: Look at how many GSA presidents have discovered the Holocene (see their speeches)
  • Be sure there was a strong science and strong geoscience voice in ES

What are challenges and barriers?

  • What does it mean to be an environmental scientist?
  • Demographics: the older faculty are straight-up geologists and the younger ones are not
  • (advertising for positions; environmental scientist, physical geographer, good chance the structural geologist hired today will have some part of GIS, visuality, neotectonics, remote sensing, etc,)
  • Hire people that can speak to both the "traditional" and the "emerging" - not all traditional geologists are entirely traditional
  • Will newly hired environmental scientists be able to teach mapping, quartz and feldspar?
  • Concerns about losing identity - what does it mean to be a geologist?
  • ES majors going up, geoscience stagnant or declining: competition for resources
  • Fear and insecurity on the geologist side that ES is "winning"
  • Thriving water resources major, went down to one when EScience went up
  • Have to offer the students what they want - need to figure out a new strategy, especially for students who are in geology but really wanted ES
  • Reduction in the quantitative components of the discipline - breadth and depth because of student demand
  • Geology majors feel disenfranchised in the environmental push on campus, perceived
  • What does "studying the environment" mean to students - working for Greenpeace, or looking at the bedrock and relating it to the water chemistry and pollution downstream?
  • Overcompensation in ES? hardest major on ancillary science requirements
  • When ES and Geology are in competition with each other: Greenpeace and mining
  • Earth science and society - now turf battles about what's environmental and what's earth, though the ES program emerged from geology
  • Geology - and Environmental Science and Policy - but students in that program MUST have another major
  • Counter: the EStudies majors didn't associate with the geoscientists - now better advising to give the students a curricular focus
  • Two degrees: environmental studies (science with humanities and policy - state and fed agencies) and environmental science (very quantitative) with geology and ecology tracks
  • Competition with ecology - about 4 programs have ecologists IN THEIR DEPARTMENTS; biology majors that are branches of NIH
  • Some programs were merged becuase of the disaffected ecologists
  • Requirements in biology and ecology
  • persecution complex of geologists who are in a minority in a physics, astronomy and earth sciences department and are always outvoted
  • We love the discipline of geology and don't want to see it go away, nor do we want to be isolated, and when we retire, we want to keep the position in the department.
  • Concerned about slow death of geology - but this has been going on for awhile. There was a time when geochemists were not considered geologists.

What are some ideas for making this work better?

  • Department of natural science? (the 150-year ago model)
  • Environmental science can either complete with biology or geology - need to attract the biologists who are not pre-NIH, and the chemists who also don't have a home
  • Core classes (hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, atmosphere) and their interactions
  • A department whose primary lab area is the field
  • Environmental science and studies programs collaboratively run, with global program: geoscience now hosts all these programs and collaborative ties have strengthened
  • Offer students what they want and teach them what they need
  • Working collaboratively toward an Env. Science and Policy major - how the different disciplines come together (core integration and communication); capstone project with different disciplines coming together on a community-based project (the process of working out the major has helped faculty share vocabulary and recognize important ideas)
  • Have to integrate courses and create new courses for a "melding" to succeed - by combining traditional courses, gives students time in jr and sr year to do more interdisciplinary work; some sacrifice of depth, but retain the quantitation, thinking like a geologist, communication, etc.
  • Have to retain quantitative aspect and communication skills and these should be integrated throughout
  • Need to keep core geology classes at a level where students can go on to graduate school, so not sure that these courses can be reduced.
  • Geoscience departments OWN sustainability, climate change, life and evolution, ecological relationships and cycles (communicating this on campus)
  • Best of times; worst of times - evolution due to shift in the students, growing pains and needing to ask "where is the geology?" - using geology as the umbrella term? what happens if geology gets subsumed within the "daughter" environmental science/studies?

Geology and ES - Science first or environmental first?

  • Don't want the proto-lobbyists, do want the physicists, mathematicians, etc. with the quant, skills and tools
  • EScience students have no problems getting into grad schools because they have so much science - design curriculum to show students what they're getting into early
  • Curriculum and what students need: NGO (Nature Conservancy), Applied Science agencies (EPA, county water offices, etc.), research, private industry, education, environmental lawyers
  • Six person Env Studies department with 5 geographers and one geologist - what to do? - assumptions about what the "geo" is, it's diferent between the two
  • Spend time talking with geographer counterpart to create major, team-teach courses; tensions due to misinterpretation, but because they know each other, can work around it.
  • Why social sciences and humanities? Decisions are not based entirely on rational, scientific grounds; scientists need to understand that the social science stuff is important.
  • GIS - one meeting ground between natural and social sciences; shared space to look at data
  • What is geography and what isn't geography? Not all social scientists, but still differences between physical geographers and geologists

What resources regarding this topic would you want to see on the website?

What are the nuts and bolts of environmental science?

  • See curriculum maps for, e.g. Queens: biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere (not only courses, but faculty lines); courses aren't called that but they are grouped into these four groups and students take courses in all of them; Oceans and Atmospheres? - Physics gets left out of environmental science,
  • Problem: levels of science - we apply chem and physics to understand the earth - environmental science is applying geology and biology to human/environmental problems - cannot think of a separate environmental science paradigm
  • Human element is the unique piece of environmental science
  • ES - interactions between humans and the environment, how environment affects humans and how humans affects the environment (Queens definition) - but this is also how geographers identify themselves - overlapping student learning outcomes between env. studies and geography
  • Needs to have a biotic and an abiotic component (so does geology)
  • Needs to have a field component

Other web resources:

  • Curriculum maps will continue to be helpful
  • Definitions and case studies of environmental science
  • Definitions of earth sciences vs. geology
  • Research - interactions between departments, on research and teaching; examples of interactions on research or curriculum
  • Structural maps of associated departments and programs; how are geology, geography, environmental studies, environmental sciences parsed among the programs at a single institutions; what are the numbers of majors, faculty, resources
  • Making it clearer, expecially in interdisciplinary fields, that the vocabulary is going to change
  • History of how those structures developed: case studies

What is your plan for the future?

  • Geologists need to do something from a PR point of view on their campuses
  • Dallas' study - top quartile of 4-year colleges at USNWR ratings 75% had geoscience and then it went down from there
  • Created a B.S. degree in earth science with 5 concentrations: geology, environmental science (geology and ecology), oceanography, earth surface processes, earth science education. Choice AND depth in each one of these tracks
  • Define terms and get agreement on what the terms mean; come to a common vocabulary among institutions; example just reported might be a good model
  • Caution: a name change should reflect a change in vision; students can see through an insubstantial name change; administrators will also have expectations
  • Narratives that schools are creating WRT sustainability, global change. Make it clear to campuses that geosciences have been involved in these things forever. Make sure that the department, program and curriculum are clearly tied to these campus initiatives.
  • Look at it from the POV of students and administration (c.f. Dallas and Geoff repartee)
  • Educate students and administrators about the ties to sustainability and climate change
  • Use the department advisory board and create a high-profile event around one of these topics.
  • Invite Dean to senior research conference, other events that show these ties.
  • Get geoscience faculty and students on the campus sustainability, etc. committees.
  • Start making alliances with other faculty and programs and incorporate that in the plan before going to the administration. Arguments from strength, efficiency
  • Explain the uniqueness of data and reasoning in geology compared to other sciences (isolation of variables, reproducibility, etc.) does NOT mean a weaker discipline, just a different one. But environmental scientists may not think like geologists. But there are commonalities: data collection and analysis, developing questions, designing research. Moreover we share a goal of making the department as strong and good as possible.
  • Out the people who want failure (either explicitly or subtle).
  • Be flexible and able to respond to change and administrative ideas quickly