A Non-Traditional Geoscience Degree for Non-Traditional Students: Applied Environmental Geosciences at Weber State UniversityRichard L. Ford, Weber State University
For several decades, the majority of geoscience majors at Weber State have been non-traditional students – they are generally older than 24 years of age; many are married, with children; most are working at least 20 hours per week off campus; many are military veterans; many are first-generation college students; and virtually none of them came to university planning to major in the geosciences. Female students have comprised approximately 35-50% of the total geoscience majors during this time.
During the early 1990s the Geosciences faculty came to two important realizations about our students and our curriculum. First, we were losing majors to other departments, despite the student's interest in the geosciences, because our traditional BS degree in geology presented several insurmountable roadblocks to these non-traditional students – most notably the summer field camp requirement. Our non-traditional students, many of them spouses, parents, and breadwinners, simply could not work a 4- to 5-week summer course, away from their home and family, into their program of study. Second, the vast majority of our graduates did NOT aspire to attend graduate school shortly after graduation – instead they wanted to find an entry-level, applied-geoscience job along the Wasatch Front in northern Utah. They were not training themselves to become "geologists" in the strict sense. In response, we designed the BS in Applied Environmental Geoscience (AEG) to meet the needs of these students and this degree has been offered since 1996.
The important features of the AEG degree include:
- The program of study emphasizes the applied aspects of the geosciences and our current faculty expertise and course offerings allow AEG majors to specialize in water resources/hydrogeology or GIS/remote sensing.
- The degree does NOT require a summer field camp, and is therefore friendly/welcoming to non-traditional students.
- The degree does NOT require calculus, and is therefore friendly/welcoming to students at an open-enrollment institution. The AEG program does require college algebra, trigonometry, and statistics.
- Our department values and emphasizes geoscience "in the field", during both afternoon "labs" and multi-day field trips. With a campus located along the Wasatch front, straddling the Wasatch fault and the shoreline bench of Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, WSU is surrounded by an amazing outdoor geosciences laboratory.
- The AEG degree includes a capstone course (Geoscience Field Methods) that requires students to work as a team for a simulated geotechnical company to prepare a geologic site assessment for a location near campus. The Field Methods class is taught during the fall semester and includes a 5-hour field session each week. This course is designed to develop many of the same skills taught as part of a tradition summer field camp.
At the end of Spring Semester 2013 the Department of Geosciences had 102 majors, distributed as follows:
- Geology: 46 (45%)
- Applied Environmental Geoscience: 40 (39%)
- Earth Science Teaching: 16 (16%)
Although there is still a need to produce well-trained geologists for today's geoscience workforce, it is also clear that the geoscience workforce today is much broader than positions labeled geologist or geophysicist. Geoscience Departments can take advantage of that fact by offering students multiple avenues to entering the geoscience workforce. The Applied Environmental Geoscience program at Weber State University is an example of how an applied program, focused on preparing non-traditional students for entry-level STEM jobs, can co-exist alongside a traditional geology program.