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Geological Sciences at SUNY Geneseo and the Challenge of Balancing Breadth, Depth and Growing Enrollment

Ben Laabs, SUNY College at Geneseo

"The primary mission of the Department of Geological Sciences at SUNY Geneseo is to prepare undergraduate students for a successful life after graduation by providing a high quality, rigorous learning experience in geology and related sciences, with the faculty serving as role models. We do this by requiring a breadth of courses that represents the basic core of geologic subject matter and by offering a range of electives that are more specialized in their approach (e.g., Remote Sensing, Applied Geophysics, Groundwater Hydrology, and Paleoclimatology)."

- Statement prepared for an external review of my department in 2011

Through academic advising and geology seminars, students in my program (undergraduate only) are advised to eventually pursue M.S. degree in geoscience. The long-standing notion that a Master's in geoscience is generally required for most potential career paths in geoscience is reflected in the curricular design of my program. For example, the writing requirement for all required intermediate and upper-level geology courses trains students in researching, analyzing and criticizing primary literature. Additionally, the capstone seminar trains students in doing original research. Although these skills are pertinent to many types of careers in geoscience and are transferable to other careers, my colleagues and I often emphasize their importance to students by saying "this will help you prepare for graduate school." The related requirements for the geology degree (calculus, chemistry, biology, and physics) are often justified by the notion that "if students do not take these classes now, they'll have to take them in graduate school." From 2006-2010, approximately 80% of graduates from my program entered an M.S. or Ph.D. program in geoscience within 2 years of graduation. My colleagues and I viewed this rate of entry into graduate school as evidence of successful preparation of our students. However, this percentage has declined to about 50% over the past three years while the number of Geology, Geochemistry and Geophysics majors has grown from a total of 50 to more than 100 students. The total number of graduates of my program who have pursued a M.S. or Ph.D. in geosciences over the past three years has increased slightly, along with the total number of graduates seeking professional employment upon graduation.

In response to this new trend, colleagues and I have begun evaluating the professional preparation of our program from other perspectives, especially that of students who do not plan to begin a M.S. or Ph.D. in science upon graduation. In general, we agree that the breadth and rigor of our geology program is appropriate for students who plan to become a professional geoscientist. We believe that geology is the ultimate interdisciplinary science, and that the training our students receive in all of the natural sciences adds great value to the Geology B.A. degree from Geneseo. The learning outcomes of the program (see description of the Geological Sciences Program) align with our mission statement (above) and are assessed regularly. The Capstone Seminar, wherein students practice researching the primary geological literature, oral presentation of the scientific information, and research methods in geology, is our best means of internal assessment of these outcomes. Over the past three years, more than 80% of geology research completed in the capstone seminar is considered to meet expectations.

Additionally, the research and writing requirements of our program benefit all students, providing a set of transferable skills that can benefit students in any career path in geoscience. The research requirement includes field and analytical components that help students to synthesize concepts and details they have learned in their core classes. Learning how to study geology in the field (although we do not have a field camp requirement) and realizing the importance of doing careful fieldwork helps students develop skills in three-dimensional observations and spatial thinking that can benefit professional geoscientists at any level. Reporting on geology in written and oral format is also a seminal virtue of any professional geoscientist.

In addition to the curricular design, more than half of geology majors at Geneseo have the opportunity to develop their teaching skills by working as laboratory teaching assistants. My department is required to teach high-enrollment (up to 350 seats per semester) introductory-level courses with labs for non-science majors to service a general education requirement for all academic programs. Geology majors are given an hourly salary or directed study credit for assisting with the teaching of introductory labs. Any geoscience teacher knows that mastering the material is required in order to teach it effectively, and our students are given the opportunity to do this for fundamental concepts covered in our introductory labs. This benefits students pursuing an education degree as well as students who are preparing to become professional scientists.

For the period 2006-10, about 80% of our graduates began M.S. or Ph.D. programs to become professional scientists. Of these, about 60% are now employed in the private sector (e.g., energy companies, environmental consulting firms), 20% are still in graduate school and 10% are teaching geoscience. Of the 20% of our graduates who did not pursue a M.S. or Ph.D. in geoscience, 10% are now teaching geoscience (which requires a M.Ed. in New York State) and 10% are out of the field or unaccounted for. Approximately 10% of more recent graduates (classes of 2011-12) who have not gone on to graduate school are working in entry-level positions for energy companies or environmental consulting firms, chiefly in nearby regions where high volume hydraulic fracturing is being done for the extraction of natural gas.

Downloadable version of this essay

Laabs Essay for Workforce Workshop (Microsoft Word 37kB May6 13)