Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education > Panel 6

Panel 6

How Can We Increase Diversity, Recruitment, and Retention of Students in the Earth and Space Sciences?

Ken Ridgeway (Chair),
Mary Dowse,
Edward E. Geary,
Julie Maxson,
Steven Semken,
Denise Stephenson-Hawk,
Julie Winkler

Resolved

The Earth and space sciences community must reflect, serve, and educate a diverse population.

Discussion

If the Earth and space sciences community is truly committed to improving the quality of undergraduate education, it must recognize and address issues related to diversity. It cannot overlook a growing and diverse population of undergraduate students, many attending two-year and four-year colleges.

One of the major goals of undergraduate Earth and space science education reform is to educate and meet the needs of all students. In order to achieve this goal, the entire academic community must work harder to attract minorities, women, and disabled students. Reaching out to all students involves several strategies: teaching Earth and space sciences in a cultural context; providing access to field experiences and technology; and making science relevant to real life.

The Earth and space sciences community must promote and enhance the study and teaching of its various disciplines in the context of diverse cultures and philosophies (for example, systems of knowledge of indigenous peoples). In addition, scientists and educators should recognize research and integration of science and science education with other aspects of human culture as appropriate scholarly activity.

Natural environment is related to culture. However, a significant number of institutions that serve large populations of underrepresented students do not have easy access to oceans, mountains, or other natural environments. Limited funding frequently precludes this access, as well as the introduction of nontraditional or interdisciplinary sciences. It is recommended that funding be provided to develop Earth system science programs within these institutions, and that experiences such as "virtual field trips" be developed to bring remote environments to including urban and other settings.

Providing such experiences requires access to technology. Many two-year colleges and other undergraduate institutions do not have adequate access to, or resource support for, technology. Few teachers are trained to use technology effectively to enhance student learning. In addition, few Earth and space science courses offer students the opportunity to work with and develop workforce skills in the use of new and emerging technologies. More resources need to be made available to increase student and faculty access to information technologies, such as the World Wide Web on the Internet.

In addition to thinking globally, Earth system science must also think locally. Earth system science principles and problem-solving methods should be placed in the context of the local environment in order for students to better comprehend the relevance of science to their lives. Earth system science should not be viewed only as the study of remote, natural environments but as the study of students' backyards.

Reaching out to all students is a worthy goal, but bringing a diverse student population into Earth science classrooms requires educators and administrators to overcome a number of barriers. Breaking down such barriers will require a coordinated effort on the part of the entire academic community.

Most students begin their postsecondary education at two-year colleges. However, four-year institutions often control articulation of courses and restrict two-year colleges to a limited slate of strongly traditional introductory courses in the Earth and space science disciplines. This stifles the creativity of two-year faculty in curriculum improvement and the interest of their students in contemporary Earth system science. Therefore efforts to develop Earth system science programs should be directed toward those institutions.

Many academic support programs help underrepresented students overcome barriers to education. Earth system science should specifically focus on K-12 science programs for underrepresented students; tutoring services and early identification of students who require tutoring; and support groups and services, for example, groups for women in science and mathematics.

Many students from underrepresented groups, and particularly women students, have responsibilities that do not readily accommodate the traditional academic schedule. Providing flexible class schedules throughout the curriculum, distance-learning opportunities, and day-care resources will significantly diminish these barriers.

Disabled students face numerous barriers to education. The Earth and space sciences community should provide meaningful educational opportunities, including field experiences, for all students, regardless of physical disability. Ideas and resources for teaching Earth system science to disabled students should be centralized.

The Earth and space sciences community must also be better educated and sensitized to issues pertaining to the culture of a diverse population. Barriers that hinder the full and successful participation of this population in Earth system science must be understood and remedied. To this end, scientific professionals, administrators, and faculty, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, must be made aware of the impact their behavior may have on underrepresented groups. Targeted sensitivity training for new and existing personnel is recommended as a means of initiating changes in behavior. It is further recommended that academic institutions and professional societies initiate training sessions.

There are few minority, women, or disabled scientists to serve as role models in the Earth and space sciences, and there is only limited exposure to career opportunities in the Earth and space sciences, at either undergraduate or K-12 levels. Many underrepresented students do not think of Earth and space sciences when considering possible careers. Career information is an effective tool for confronting students' mental barriers. Another effective practice is mentoring. Students often need mentors and role models. Faculty are encouraged to become mentors and avail themselves of mentorship training. When role models are unavailable, institutions should take advantage of existing programs that provide "virtual" role models, such as the NSF-sponsored "Minorities and Women in Science" program.

Faculty, administrators, and counselors (grades K-12+) also need to be better informed about the diverse career opportunities available to students. Earth and space sciences career materials, showing a diverse workforce need to be made available to students, faculty, and administrators. Career materials and opportunities to explore Earth and space sciences should also be made available to community-based organizations.

Just as career materials should show a diverse Earth and space sciences workforce, so too should the academic community. The composition of most Earth and space sciences faculties currently does not represent our nation's diverse population. Colleges and universities must continue to diversify their faculty and administrations to reflect the nation's diverse population and strive to promote the development and retention of these faculty.

Time and money can also help overcome barriers. Faculty must be supported through curriculum development grants and release time to develop Earth system science courses. Large numbers of students are in institutions that do not receive National Science Foundation funding (Shaping the Future, NSF, 1996). These two-year and teaching institutions must have increased funding, as well as flexibility in the allocation of funds, to address many basic educational and infrastructure needs not included under normal funding guidelines.

Finally, initiatives that address under representation in areas of the Earth and space sciences should be sensitive to the public connotation of the methods employed to alleviate stated barriers. Overly-regimented programs may imply that underrepresented students cannot be trusted to manage their academic careers.

In a similar vein, programs that label students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds or as first-generation college graduates may discourage underrepresented students from participating because of the implied negative societal connotation. To address this sensitive issue, funding agencies should enlist the expertise of individuals or organizations that can provide insight regarding the potential negative interpretations of programs deemed to be exemplary. All students in the Earth and space sciences should be given every opportunity to be successful.

It is not enough to have just the academic community recruit and retain underrepresented populations. Students must receive support to help in the transition from school to work. One such bridge is exposure to research and work experiences early in their college careers. Because most students begin at two-year colleges and four-year teaching institutions, efforts must be made to build effective linkages among these institutions, research universities, and industry. Linkages must be based on equal partnerships, where all partners share in defining program goals, expectations, needs, student capabilities, and actions.

Recommendations

All of humanity impacts, and is impacted by, the Earth system. Thus it is imperative that Earth system science be accessible to all people and that all people have the opportunity to participate in Earth system science education. In diversity, there are opportunities, not obstacles. We recommend:

To Faculty

  1. Place Earth system science principles and problem-solving methods in the context of the local environment, which helps students connect the relevance of Earth system science to their lives; include issues and problems relevant to the urban environment.
  2. Ensure that all curriculum, video, and films for the Earth and space sciences reflect the diversity of the population.
  3. Form strategic equal partnerships within regional systems of higher education that include faculty from two-year, four-year, and postgraduate institutions to design and articulate lower-division courses in Earth system science.
  4. Become mentors and undertake mentorship training.
  5. Work with educational researchers to develop solutions to recruit and retain underrepresented groups.
  6. Undergo sensitivity training to diversity issues such as barriers to education and impact of behavior.

To Administrators

Program Support
  1. Improve articulation of curricula between two-year and four-year institutions.
  2. Direct efforts to develop Earth system science programs toward two-year and smaller four-year institutions.
  3. Encourage institutional acceptance of innovative and nontraditional Earth system science courses taught at two- and four-year institutions. (Joint recommendation with Panel 3)
  4. Initiate and undergo sensitivity training sessions for faculty, administration, graduate and undergraduate students, and scientific professionals.
Faculty Support
  1. Reward faculty commitment to diversity.
  2. Promote the development and retention of a diverse faculty and administration.
  3. Encourage and reward minority, women, and disabled Earth and space sciences faculty for visiting K-12 classrooms, mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, and assisting with the creation of Earth system science career materials.
Student Support
  1. Identify and implement successful academic K-12, tutoring, and support programs for underrepresented students.
  2. Provide funding to develop Earth system science curricular programs and to develop experiences such as "virtual field trips" to bring remote environments to other settings.
  3. Accommodate diverse lifestyles and needs by providing flexible class schedules throughout the curriculum, distance learning opportunities, and day care resources.

To NSF and Other Funding Sources

  1. Provide Earth and space sciences career materials to students, faculty, administrators, and community-based organizations.
  2. Increase funding and flexibility in the allocation of funds to two-year and teaching institutions, to address many basic educational and infrastructural needs not included under normal funding guidelines.
  3. Enlist the expertise of individuals or organizations that can provide insight regarding the potential negative interpretations of programs deemed to be exemplary.
  4. Develop and implement sensitivity training sessions.

To Government Agencies and Industry

  1. Provide work and research experiences for underrepresented students by building effective linkages among two-year colleges and four-year teaching institutions, research universities, and industry. Linkages must be equal partnerships where all partners share in defining program goals, expectations, needs, student capabilities, and actions.
  2. Initiate and undergo sensitivity training sessions.

To Educational and Scientific Organizations

  1. Offer forums intended to increase awareness of different cultural perspectives and encourage members to take part in this work.
  2. Define and disseminate a list of exemplary support programs for underrepresented students.
  3. Centralize ideas and resources for teaching Earth system science to disabled students (for example; through electronic media).
  4. Support or coordinate, with other agencies, a visiting scientists program to fund women and minority geoscientists from both academic and nonacademic arenas to visit and interact with undergraduate students, particularly at small two- and four-year colleges and universities that do not have Earth system science programs or have only a few faculty in Earth and space sciences.
  5. Initiate and undergo sensitivity training sessions.

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