Building Strong Departments > Workshops > Strengthening Your Geoscience Program > Participants and their Contributions > George Mason University

Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences (AOES) at George Mason University (GMU)

by Randy McBride and Julia Nord-Cooper

The Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Earth Sciences (AOES) was recently created within the GMU College of Science and has 16 tenure-stream faculty. The geology and earth science program within AOES is small, consisting of four tenure-stream geology faculty and two full-time term faculty, and strongly oriented towards undergraduate education (similar to a geology department at a liberal arts college). The department offers a Geology B.A. and an Earth Science B.S., the latter degree has five different concentrations (geology, earth surface processes, oceanography & estuarine science, environmental science, and earth science education). Additionally, the department offers three minors, comprised of five to six courses each (i.e., 18 to 21 credits): a) geology, b) earth science, and c) ocean & estuarine science. The four tenure-stream geology faculty have expertise in the following areas: a) stratigraphy and sedimentary geology; b) geomorphology, coastal geology, and geological oceanography; c) structural geology and paleomagnetism; and d) igneous petrology. The two term faculty members have been part of the geology program for over five years each and have expertise in mineralogy, igneous and metamorphic petrology, and in paleontology and paleoclimatology. Although oriented towards undergraduate education, some of the department's geology faculty teach graduate-level courses and have graduate students through affiliated GMU departments, such as Environmental Science & Policy (ESP) or Geography and Geoinformational Sciences (GGS) that also offer M.S. and Ph.D. degrees.

In terms of student enrollments, about 1300 to 1400 students complete geology courses annually. Most students (~1200) are enrolled in the introductory geology courses (Geol 101 [physical] and Geol 102 [historical]) as part of the general education requirements of the university. Geol 101 typically has ~700 students annually with up to 28 lab sections of 28 students each, whereas Geol 102 has ~500 students annually with up to 16 lab sections. Most of these labs are taught by part-time adjunct faculty or geology graduate assistants. Currently, the department has a total of about 85 declared majors (65 Earth Science B.S., 20 geology B.A.) and about 35 minors (6 Geology, 11 Earth Science, and 18 Ocean & Estuarine Science). In 2009, 20 majors are scheduled to graduate (16 Earth Science B.S., 4 Geology B.A.), which is above average as compared to past years. Typical geology and earth science graduates secure jobs with geotechnical companies or Federal agencies (e.g., USGS) in the Washington metropolitan area and a few go on to graduate school.


Geology faculty have continually taught a traditional geology curriculum (i.e., physical geology, historical geology, mineralogy [hand sample and optical] igneous & metamorphic petrology, sedimentology & stratigraphy, geomorphology, structure, field mapping, paleontology), and we require geology field camp for both the Geology B.A. and Earth Science B.S. (geology concentration only). This has enabled us to expand the 100-level classes to their current size and provide dedicated, well-supplied laboratory classrooms and a geology prep room for both lower and upper level geology classes. . Because most of our upper-level classes are small in size (10-24) and include field trips, we have an excellent rapport with our students.

Students do pay lab fees, which are returned directly to the department for lab support. The program has 18 good quality petrographic microscopes, many binocular microscopes, and a large collection of rocks, minerals, thin sections, and fossils for both teaching and display. Following rather static enrollments from 1995 to 2005, the geology and earth science program is now experiencing a moderate increase in the number of majors and minors. We believe this is due to the following decisions: 1) started to offer all required upper-level geology courses annually (instead of alternate years), 2) added new concentrations in the Earth Science BS in oceanography & estuarine science, earth surface processes, and environmental science [Note: We will be introducing a new concentration in atmospheric sciences in Fall 2009], 3) added a new minor in Ocean & Estuarine Science, and 4) started to make short classroom visits to conduct corporate advising (i.e., PowerPoint presentation) about geology and earth science degrees and minors (Note: Geology Coordinator visits all Geol 101 and 102 lecture sections once each semester and during summer school).

GMU is located on the Piedmont, close to Washington D.C. and associated federal museums (Air and Space, Natural History), federal agencies (e.g., USGS, NASA, MMS, etc.), numerous consulting companies and NGO's, and local geoscience groups. The university's location in the metro area provides access to well-qualified professional peers who teach some upper-level classes and geology labs. We probably could better utilize our location and access to a large pool of professional peers. Our geological location is also strategic. The majority of our upper-level courses have a required 2+-day field component, and we can easily access Precambrian Blue Ridge rocks, the Paleozoic sedimentary rocks of the Valley and Ridge, the Tertiary Coastal Plain deposits, and Holocene shoreline sediments.

Challenges or Limitations

We are critically short of tenure stream faculty and need to increase the number of permanent faculty who complement existing tenure-stream and term faculty. Also, Northern Virginia is extremely expensive. GMU salaries are not keeping pace with high costs in the area. Thus, it is challenging to recruit new faculty and maintain existing faculty. Also, teaching stipends are not competitive in the local market.

Over the past ten years, after starting out as part of the Department of Chemistry in the 1980's, we have been part of the following departments: Geography and Earth Systems Science, Environmental Science and Policy, and now AOES. We have lacked a consistent departmental home. Geology has always been the smallest piece of the respective departmental pie so it has been difficult to have a consistent plan and stick to it and get other non-geology faculty to agree with our needs. As such, long-term planning has been challenging.

Although we have three tenured and one tenure-track faculty, we lack full-time in-residency of these faculty. One faculty member is currently in the Dean's Office, one has been at NSF four of the last five years, and one is split between AOES and the Center for Teaching Excellence. This situation has been a drag on the geology and earth science program resulting in faculty fragmentation, difficulties in getting together for meetings, and lack of cohesive goals. In addition, as most of the tenure/tenure-track faculty are often elsewhere, it is challenging to involve undergraduate students in ongoing research. We do have some graduate students in MS and PhD programs. Moreover, classroom and space resources are now stretched almost to the breaking point. Geol 101 has increased to 28 lab sections, and thus this lab classroom is used beyond capacity for six days of the week. A new science lab classroom building is scheduled to be built over the next four years, and faculty are heavily involved with design input. Thus, the geology and earth science program will hopefully have four dedicated geology labs, one of which may be shared with another department.

Living in Northern Virginia is again a mixed blessing for our students. As stated earlier, the cost of living is expensive and many of our students have to work full-time or part-time to simply get by, thus they are typically spread too thin. GMU is the most diverse university in the Nation (Princeton Review) but this is not reflected in our geology student population. In addition to being a degree that is not necessary popular with parents (i.e., they want their child to be a doctor or lawyer or to pursue a degree with a better job potential), weekend field trips can be challenging because they might encroach on religious practices (e.g., Sabbath services), and even dietary and clothing restrictions can pose issues.

Planning and Evaluation

Over the past five years, we have had several faculty retreats where the geology and earth science curriculum was reviewed, discussed in detail, and modifications implemented. Also, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) performs an official state review each time a new degree is proposed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Moreover, the entire university is currently experiencing an internal review as part of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) reaccreditation process. More specifically, AOES has started an external review process of the entire department. The external review committee has been organized, and committee members will visit the campus in fall 2009.