Supporting Minority Students in Geoscience at EPCC
Information for this profile comes from the EPCC Geological Science Department website and an interview with Joshua Villalobos on August 14, 2013. You can get additional information about SOLARIS on the program website.
The SOLARIS (Student Opportunity for Learning Advanced Research In geoScience) program is aimed to increase participation, particularly for minority students, in the geosciences at El Paso Community College (EPCC). Funded by NSF's Opportunities in Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences (OEDG) program, SOLARIS has two primary facets. First, workshops for local high school instructors and EPCC faculty provide educators with strategies to engage students with active learning techniques, information about geoscience careers, and possible degree plans through EPCC and the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP). Secondly, as a bridge between the A.S. and B.S. degrees, the program allows up to 10 EPCC geological science majors per year to conduct geological research using equipment and facilities at both EPCC and UTEP and receive mentoring by both instructors at both institutions.
El Paso Community College is a five-campus institution serving around 35,000 students. Designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), approximately 95% of the student population is Hispanic. The geological sciences department at EPCC consists of 5 full-time faculty plus a number of adjunct faculty and offers an Associate of Science degree in Geological Science. At any given time there are about 60 students who have declared Geoscience as a major with an average of 3-4 graduates per year.
Keys to Success
- Attracting new students to the program through engagement with academic counselors and using introductory courses to hook students interest.
- Supporting majors through research, mentoring and advising from faculty at EPCC and UTEP, and peer mentoring from students already at the four-year institution.
- Preparing students for careers by giving them research experience and geologic skills that will help them be successful in their further studies.
Attracting New Students
Working with the counselors who help new EPCC students plot out their path is critical to increasing the number of students in the program. Currently, 3000 and 4000 students are pursuing the general Associate's degree at EPCC but recently there has been a push to get students into specific disciplinary programs instead. SOLARIS program faculty work with the counselors to help them understand and communicate the benefits of getting the disciplinary Geological Science A.S.
The other main avenue for attracting new majors is via the introductory level courses (Principles of Earth Science or Physical Geology). Research posters from SOLARIS program participants are hung in the classroom so that other students can see what kinds of topics their peers have worked on. In addition, the field trips associated with the classes are a major selling point. Field trips are often difficult, logistically, since there are up to 200 students taking in the introductory courses at the same time throughout the whole college. But EPCC has started using volunteer geologists from the community to help lead smaller, more frequent field trips in order to reduce the workload on already strained faculty.
One thing to note is that the cultural understanding of geoscience in Hispanic families may not be positive or even accurate. For example "field work" is a phrase that often means "working on a farm" in this community. So faculty need to be sensitive to these kinds of issues and emphasize the full range of careers that the geosciences have to offer. What is a geologist and what do they really do? This information can help the families of these students understand that there are high-status, well-paying jobs available to those who have geoscience degrees.
Supporting Our Majors
Students selected for the SOLARIS program receive a stipend for the research they do with UTEP faculty while they are at EPCC. Most times, the UTEP faculty which whom the student have been working are able to pick up some level of support for the students after they have transferred to UTEP for further study.
Mentoring is also an important part of the program. Each student receives mentoring from the UTEP faculty member that they are working with on their research. They develop an understanding of what the department is like and how it functions. In addition, Villalobos provides mentoring and advising from the EPCC side, helping students understand the differences in expectations and responsibilities between two-year and four-year programs. This combined approach puts the students in a much better position to make the transition more smoothly.
The third kind of support that SOLARIS participants receive is in the form of peer group mentoring. The UTEP faculty who work with EPCC students usually have other undergraduates working for them. The students are encouraged to meet at either campus and work together on projects so that the SOLARIS student can develop a network. UTEP students who previously attended EPCC are particularly valuable in this regard as they know more about areas where SOLARIS students will need particular help.
Preparing Students for Careers
The goal of the SOLARIS program is to increase the number of successful transfer students to the Bachelor's level and beyond through UTEP. Many of the students coming into the program are people looking to start over in a second career. The majority of them have families and children in El Paso and many are not able or willing to relocate to find work. An A.S. degree is marketable elsewhere in the oilfields or with environmental consulting firms, but if the student wants to stay local then the best option is to transfer to UTEP and complete a B.S. To this end, the work of the program is to make sure that the students are as prepared as possible to make a successful transfer to UTEP rather than to explicitly prepare them for a career. That said, the research experience and the skills preparation that SOLARIS participants receive will be valuable assets in their future study and career prospects.