Supporting Minority Students in Geoscience at UTEP
Information for this page comes from an interview on June 8th, 2012, with Diane Doser, Professor of Geology at the University of Texas El Paso.
The student population mirrors the community. About 80% of the population is Hispanic. About 90% of the student body, at the undergraduate level especially, comes from El Paso County. About 60% are the first in their family to go to college.
Enrollment has increased greatly (approximately doubled) in the past 3 to 4 years, and this attributed in a large part to outreach and marketing. They have approximately 70 majors in geology and geophysics, plus another 70 students who are either environmental science majors in the geology department or concentrators in geology from the environmental science department.
Keys to Success
- Attracting new students by outreach to students at a the local two-year college and marketing of the major as something more than "dirty work outdoors".
- Supporting majors with opportunities for undergraduate research and a focus on local issues.
- Preparing students for careers through a focus on career skills and training for graduates whether they remain in El Paso or leave the area.
Attracting New Students
Outreach. Many of UTEP's majors find the geosciences through their outreach programs with the local high school and community college. Every summer, they bring in a group of 9th and 10th grade students and two or three science teachers to UTEP for a two-week geology field experience. Some years there has been enough funding to run two camps. They get some support from Shell Oil for the summer camps. Shell Oil has been a major player in the geology programs for a long time.
One misperception that UTEP has to overcome to attract students into their programs is that geologists do a lot of dirty work outdoors. For students whose parents have worked in the fields or whose fathers work in the construction business, that is what they are trying to escape from. A career in the geosciences does not seem to be a step upward. When Diane gives outreach presentations, she shows lots of pictures of people in labs, in air conditioning, working at computers, so that it looks attractive.
Marketing the Major. The department also attracts many students from El Paso Community College who want to major in Geology because they have an articulation agreement. Students often first learn about this possibility by taking geology as their science core course at the community college. Through the articulation agreement, UTEP transfers credits for the math, chemistry, and introductory geology courses students have taken at EPCC. When students arrive at UTEP, they can start taking the sophomore/junior level courses in geology. This smooth transition into the geology major is very appealing to students, and the department works hard to ensure that students know about this agreement.
Peer Mentoring. Recently, they have been pairing up current community college students with UTEP students who are former community college students to conduct research together, working with UTEP faculty members. Similarly, they have also had shared field trips where UTEP and EPCC students work together for a day. This peer mentoring and collaboration builds confidence in the community college students. They see that they are as capable as the students at UTEP, which makes it less intimidating for them to go there. This familiarity and confidence boost encourages them to go to UTEP and finish their degree.
Supporting Our Majors
Advising and research cohorts. As soon as students identify themselves as interested in geosciences, they are assigned a faculty member for advising. The College of Science helps send them to the department of geology. Research cohorts and groups are also helpful for academic support.
Undergraduate Research and Focus on Local Issues. UTEP has a long history of doing undergraduate research. This helps the students see how they would use their degree and how it will benefit the community. The geology department does many research projects that are focused on local issues, which the students find to be rewarding. The students are strongly tied to their local community for family and cultural reasons, and so seeing how their degree in the geosciences could help their community is a powerful motivator. On the other hand, the college's focus on locally-relevant research, in combination with acceptance of students who need substantial assistance academically, is both a strength of the program and a challenge to the faculty to implement.
Challenges. There is a lot of pressure on students from their families to not only find a job after graduating, but also to find a job in El Paso. This creates a place-bound problem for students because not all who want to stay can find a job. They're not always able to find support from their family or their friends (for their college choices), because for many, they are the first to go down this path. Some families are more accepting than others of jobs within a day's drive away, such as can be found in the oil industry, which are highly attractive jobs. Students are encouraged to look beyond UTEP if they are interested in graduate school, if at all possible.
Preparing Students for Careers
Oil industry prospects. The students who are willing to leave El Paso often find jobs in the oil industry. These are certainly the most attractive jobs in the area. The petroleum industry is a very large employer in Texas and they aggressively recruit at UTEP because they know that they can find high quality minority students who are likely to be bilingual, which is important to their international operations.
Local employment opportunities. Many of the students who remain in El Paso are employed in government agencies or consulting companies. Students can find work with the military doing GIS remote sensing work, or for agencies like the International Boundary and Water Commission, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and environmental engineering consulting firms. Others get certified for secondary education and teach in the high schools. A few of them teach at community colleges, which has helped bridge outreach to the community college. There are a fair number of jobs for students if they want to stay in El Paso.
Curricular focus on job-related skills and knowledge. The department strives to give students the educational opportunities they need to be successful in the jobs that will be available to them. They have made hires that concentrated on GIS because they knew students needed that kind of training. They also have courses that focus on environmental geology, and made recent hires in hydrology, and in soils and agriculture. Their bread and butter for a long time has been petroleum geology. Someone retired about five years ago and they finally managed to replace them with a senior person in petroleum geology. A number of alumni in oil companies pushed very hard on the department and administration to help move along this hire. And, this fall, they had an alumnus who has been on the College of Science advisory board and very involved with the department who taught a short course for students on the geology of petroleum reservoirs.