School of Geography and Earth Sciences, McMaster University

Information for this profile was provided in 2009.

Burke Science Building Room 235
McMaster University
Hamilton, ON L8S 4K1
(905)525-9140 ext 24179


NOTE: The School of Geography and Earth Sciences is administered by the Faculty of Science at McMaster University but offers both B.Sc (Science) and B.A (Social Science) undergraduate programs. The data provided below are for B.Sc (Science) programs only.

Faculty: 31 (of which 16 are Science faculty and 15 are Social Science faculty)
Graduates per year: Number of graduates per year: 25 Honours B.Sc.; 5 pass (3 year) B.Sc.
Degrees Offered:

  • B.Sc. Honours Earth & Environmental Sciences (4 year)
  • B. Sc. Honours Earth & Environmental Sciences Co-op (5 year)
  • B. Sc. Geoscience (3 year) (administered by Faculty office—not discussed here)
Requirement for Graduate Students to Teach?: Not Applicable
Institution Enrollment: 21,000

Recruitment and Retention of Students

Students enter their B.Sc. program in Year 2 after completion of Science I, a common introductory program for all Science students at McMaster. Recruitment into the Honours Earth & Environmental Sciences (EES) program is primarily through three Level I introductory Environmental Sciences courses—Earth & the Environment, Atmosphere and Hydrosphere and the Living Environment. Each of these courses has enrolments of between 325 and 450 students. Level I students from any faculty can take any of these three courses as an elective. Physical geography and geology are not compulsory high school credits in Ontario and many students take the Environmental Science courses for interest in their first year—few students come to McMaster with the intention of becoming geoscience majors! However, many students enjoy the material presented in the first year courses and enter our B.Sc programs in Level II. We also gain a large number of students into the program as transfers from other Science programs or from the Engineering and Social Sciences Faculties in Level III. Our recruitment strategies appear to be working as we have substantially increased student numbers both in our courses (Level I enrolment growth of 133% between 2000 and 2005) and in our EES program (41% program growth between 2000 and 2005).

Program Design

Honours B.Sc. in Earth & Environmental Sciences (and Co-op option)

This program is designed to meet the changing needs of the geoscience and environmental science communities and to allow students to fulfill the academic requirements for professional certification as geoscientists in Ontario.

All students take a series of core courses that integrate a solid grounding in fundamental sciences including Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Math, with a range of geoscience and environmental science skills including Geographic Information Systems (GIS), fieldwork, laboratory analysis, remote sensing and personal skills development (inquiry, written, visual and oral communication, group work and numeracy).

Students may follow a basic program which includes core courses in earth history, remote sensing, field methods, GIS, environmental assessment, earth surface processes, environmental geochemistry and surface water hydrology. Students in this program can also select a number of elective courses of their choice. To maximize the focus of their elective choices, students may choose to enter one of three specialist streams at the end of their second year. These streams are: Geosciences, Geochemistry, and Hydrosciences.

These specialist streams are designed to provide students with in-depth knowledge and experience in a specific area and complement the broad science background obtained from their basic program. Students who choose to specialize in Geosciences take additional courses in soils and the environment, environmental mineralogy, structural geology, environmental geophysics, sedimentology, glacial environments, plate tectonics and ore deposits, and geochemistry. Those students who specialize in Geochemistry select courses in environmental organic geochemistry, watershed ecosystem biogeochemistry, environmental reconstruction using stable isotopes, ecology of inland waters, climate change and ecosystem impacts, and sedimentary geochronology. In Hydrosciences students select courses from surface climate processes and environmental interaction, physical hydrogeology, advanced physical climatology, physical and chemical processes in freshwater ecosystems, hydrologic modeling and contaminant hydrogeology.

Students may also choose at the end of their second year to enter the five-year Honours Co-op B.Sc. in Earth and Environmental Sciences. The Co-op option involves students working for two eight-month work terms in placements in private industry, academic institutions, federal and provincial government departments during their third, fourth and fifth years of study. Entry is competitive and based on a combination of a written application, interview and marks.

The strength of the B.Sc. Honours Earth & Environmental Sciences program is that it allows students to gain a breadth of knowledge and experience as well as in-depth specialist knowledge and skills. Second year program start and third year specialist stream entry allow students to take a variety of courses before they make final program choices.

Research Experiences, Teaching Opportunities, and Internships for Undergraduate Students

Research experiences: Many individual courses within the EES program involve undergraduate students in short- term (several weeks) independent or team research projects. Students present the results of their research either as a written paper or an oral presentation, or both. Longer-term research projects are undertaken by senior undergraduates as the EES program includes a fourth year research paper or thesis as a core component. Students electing to write a research paper in their final year spend a minimum of one term (13 weeks) researching a topic of interest and writing a summary paper. An undergraduate thesis usually involves two terms (minimum 26 weeks) of work and may include gathering of primary data during the summer months prior to the start of Level IV. Students writing an undergraduate thesis work with an individual faculty member and the research results may be presented at research conferences or written up for journal publication. Many of these students are employed as research assistants by individual faculty members during the summer months or on a part-time basis during term-time. Faculty can apply to McMaster University for funding to help offset the costs of hiring a student to assist with research. Funding agencies such as NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) also provide competitive scholarships for undergraduate students to work on research projects.

Several undergraduate students are also hired each year as 'Educational Research Assistants' to help with the development of new course materials, to conduct surveys and to help with curriculum development issues. Several of these students have written up the results of their educational research as an undergraduate thesis.

Teaching Opportunities: Graduate students and senior undergraduate students have the opportunity to work as Teaching Assistants (TA's). Undergraduate students are usually assigned TA positions in entry level courses; graduate students are employed as TA's for upper level courses. Undergraduate students must apply for a TA positions when they are advertised at the beginning of each term and are selected following an interview with the Academic Advisor for the School. A 'Teaching Assistant's Workshop' is held at the beginning of the fall term for both undergraduate and graduate TA's. The TA workshop is interactive and covers such issues as 'giving an effective presentation', 'ethical issues', and 'assessment and evaluation'. The Centre for Leadership in Learning (CLL) also provides instruction for all TA's at the University at the beginning of the fall term.

Internships: Undergraduate students have the opportunity to enter the Co-op option of the EES program.

Teaching Experiences and Training for Graduate Students

Not Applicable

Supporting Students' Professional Development: Mentoring, Career Advising and Others

The School of Geography and Earth Sciences have an Academic Advisor who counsels students about course and program choices and career opportunities. The progress of each student in the EES program is tracked by our Academic Advisor from entry into the program in Level II to graduation.

Guest speakers are invited into introductory environmental science courses to outline career opportunities to students. The undergraduate student society (Geography and Earth Sciences Society—GESS) also organize an Alumni Career Night in which a number of alumni from the School are invited to speak to program students regarding career experiences and opportunities.

Developing and Maintaining a Healthy Faculty

The School of Geography and Earth Sciences holds regular retreats (on a semi-annual basis—at the end of the fall and winter terms). Issues covered in these retreats include tenure and promotion concerns, instructional methodologies and intellectual property/ethics issues. Bimonthly faculty meetings are also held that allow discussion between faculty members on a range of issues.

Both the School and the University are very supportive of faculty and encourage interest in undergraduate education as well as discipline research.

Developing and Maintaining a Department Community that Supports Learning

The School of Geography and Earth Sciences have a strong commitment to the development and maintenance of a supportive learning community. All members of the School, including faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, staff and administrators are involved in this community. A number of new educational initiatives have been funded by a three-year grant awarded to the School including the development of a systematic skills acquisition program and enhanced experiential learning opportunities for students. Enhancing experiential learning opportunities, through incorporation of additional field courses and field excursions in the EES program, is considered important for the development of a strong culture in the School. Effective fieldwork experiences increase student and instructor satisfaction and facilitate informal communication between faculty, staff and students.

Undergraduate students have an active student society (GESS) that also promote interest in educational initiatives through co-ordination of student and staff volunteers as judges for science fairs and as presenters of the 'Rock and Mineral Road Show' to local elementary schools.

Department Involvement in the Institution

The School of Geography and Earth Sciences is widely recognized within the university community for its commitment to improvement of the learning experience of undergraduate students. In particular, the School is commended for revitalizing undergraduate interest in the geosciences through carefully planned curriculum reform and development. The undergraduate curriculum structure developed by the School, consisting of a core program and specialist streams, has been adopted by all departments in the Faculty of Science. Members of the School have leadership roles on the Faculty of Science curriculum committee. Individual members of the School are also involved in a variety of university-wide educational initiatives including leadership of the 'Refining Directions; curriculum development committee' which is designing ways to include curriculum planning as an integral part of every department's culture. The university is also developing a committee structure that allows inter-Departmental and inter-Faculty discussion of curriculum plans.

Members of the School are also well recognized for their contributions to discipline research and are well represented on University administrative committees.

Participation in Interdisciplinary or Multidisciplinary Programs on Campus

The undergraduate programs offered by the School of Geography and Earth Sciences are considered by many to be interdisciplinary. The Level I Environmental Science courses are designed as interdisciplinary courses and emphasize the importance of understanding the whole Earth system. Several of the upper level core and elective courses included in the EES program are provided by other departments such as Chemistry, Biology, Astronomy and Biochemistry; students from other departments and faculties also have access to many of the courses offered by the School. The accessibility of our courses to students from other disciplines has proved to be an effective recruitment tool.

A series of 'open entry' courses are also taught by faculty in the School. These courses are intended as elective courses to be taken by students from other disciplines and have enrollments of up to 1200 (Natural Disasters, fall 2005). These courses do not count for credit in the EES program. For many undergraduate students, enrollment in one of these courses provide their first exposure to the discipline of geoscience and they also recruit many students into the EES program.