Initial Publication Date: January 16, 2007

Miriam Fuhrman

Senior Research Analyst, American Institutes for Research

Miriam Fuhrman

What are the key issues related to the role of the affective domain in teaching geoscience that you would like to engage at the workshop?

Attitudes/motivations that influence entry and/or exit from geoscience courses/careers

What expertise or experience (in study of the affective domain or teaching of geoscience) will you bring to the workshop? How would you like to contribute to the workshop?

Together with Roger Levine and other colleagues at AIR, have conducted critical incident studies looking into factors influencing participation of underrepresented minorities in the geosciences (as provider of technical assistance to NSF-funded OEDG grantees). We can contribute to the workshop by sharing some of the results of the evaluation of effectiveness of these OEDG programs, especially changes in attitudes and other aspect of the affective domain. We can also provide expertise in the development of instruments that can assess the effectiveness of course/programs in terms of the affective domain.

Essay: Why would I want to work in the dirt with rocks?

The last few years I have been involved in a project for which we have developed a conceptual framework for recruitment and retention in the geoscience career "pipeline". This framework includes a set of factors that appear to affect an individual's attitude toward entering or leaving the pipeline. A pilot critical incident study we have carried out (Fuhrman et al., 2004) has identified several such factors that are specific to the geosciences. These include indicators such as past outdoor experiences and familial characteristics. Based on this framework, we assist OEDG grantees in the evaluation of the effectiveness of their programs in encouraging members of underrepresented minorities to enter and remain in the geoscience career pipeline. The instruments used typically include items that assess students' attitudes toward geoscience: fiscal expectations, interest, perception of difficulty, perception of "fun", and support of family and friends. Some items address whether students have prior experience in the outdoors, but one set of factors that we tend not to emphasize in either surveys or interviews is the students' perceptions of physical safety and comfort associated with learning in the geosciences. These factors do sometimes appear when open-ended items are used that ask "What did you like LEAST about the program?" or when students are asked to journal their experiences in a field-based program.

In the last few years, I have had many conversations with geoscientists and people who at some point were in the geoscience pipeline but are no longer. I am convinced that the issue of physical comfort is very important in an individual's attitude toward geoscience as a future profession or even as a course to take. Drawing on anecdotes from these conversations and my own experiences as someone who wasn't really interested in terrestrial geology until after realizing during college that planetary geologists have to first learn on planet Earth, I have developed a list of "physical comfort" issues that I think concern students when they find out that they are expected to do "field-work" in a course. How the students deal with these issues and conditions will have a strong affect on how they feel about taking field-based geoscience courses and considering pursuing the geosciences as a career:

  • Personal hygiene issues: Will I be able to take care of my private needs privately?
  • Fitness issues: Am I physically strong and fit enough?
  • Personal safety issues: How dangerous is it? Are there dangerous insects/animals/trails?
  • Comfort issues: Will I get hot/cold, wet, dirty?
  • Related "prestige" issues: Do I want to pursue a profession that requires discomfort and exposure to dirt and the elements??

For members of certain groups, cultural or social/economic class concerns dealing with these issues may cause potential students (and their families and friends) to ask "Why would I want to study/pursue a field of study that means I have to get uncomfortable and dirty in order to do it? Field-work is for the lower economic classes -- my ancestors worked hard to leave that all behind...why should I go backwards?"

An extension of our pilot critical incident study and subsequent survey items can assess the significance of these issues -- it is important to included as interviewees people who had the opportunity to enter or stay in the pipeline but have left at a relatively early stage -- people for whom these issues have not proved obstacles may continue in the pipeline but leave for different reasons.

So what? Isn't being uncomfortable and dirty part of being a geoscientist? Why should we encourage people who don't like or are unfamiliar with the outdoors to study geoscience? Hopefully the answers to these questions are obvious....but what are some solutions? What strategies can be used to mitigate these perceptions and attitudes?

Dave Mogk discusses some of these issues in terms of planning logistics and reducing the "novelty" aspects of field-work. Many concerns can be addressed by giving students lots of information so that their unspoken and potentially embarrassing questions are answered (Mogk, 2006 and 1997). But what about the cultural and class issues that may underlie some of these concerns? Parental attitudes about career choice clearly influence college major decisions (Bembry et al., 1998). One solution is to make sure that students and their families not only see people from a range of cultures and classes doing and enjoying field work, but the same people working in the lab and reporting at conferences/teaching looking clean, neat and professional. Role models need not emphasize the discomfort of doing geoscience as if it were a badge of some sort --- as a profession, need to let students know that you don't have to "look like a geologist" to be one.

Bembry, J.X., Walrath, C., Pegues, J., and Brown, S.V., 1998, Project Talent Flow, II: SEM field choices and field switching of Black and Hispanic Undergraduates (Grant No. 98-6-16). New York: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Fuhrman, M.; Gonzalez R.; and Levine R. (2004). Developing Short-Term Indicators of Recruitment and Retention in the Geosciences, EOS Trans. AGU 85(47), Fall Meet. Suppl., Abstract ED21D-02

Mogk, D.W., (2006), Vignette 3: Teaching in the Field,, accessed 12/20/06

Mogk, D. W., (1997), Field Notes, In: Brady, Perkins and Mogk (eds.), Teaching Mineralogy, Mineralogical Society of America