Building Strong Departments > Workshops > Strengthening Your Geoscience Program > Participants and their Contributions > University of Mary Washington

Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Mary Washington

By Jodie Hayob and Melanie Szulczewski


The University of Mary Washington (formerly Mary Washington College) is a public, co-educational university with a strong emphasis on liberal arts that primarily serves undergraduate students. Master's programs are offered in a few disciplines such as business and education, and are being planned in a few other areas. Mary Washington has offered majors in both Geology and Environmental Science (with either a natural or a social science concentration) for 30+ years, although the particular departments that housed these programs have varied. In 1993 the Department of Environmental Science & Geology was created for our two programs; in 2007 we changed our department's name to the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences to better reflect our course offerings and focus.

In 2007 we overhauled the Environmental Science concentrations, in part so that the core courses required for the natural vs. social science tracks would be more distinct, and we added new core and elective offerings. The core requirements of the Geology major have remained constant for many years, but as our faculty have grown we have added quite a few new electives to this major (e.g., computer applications w/ GIS, soil science, fluvial geomorphology, hydrology). Currently, we have about 20 majors in Geology and about 100 in Environmental Science; numbers have held steady in the geology program and increased in environmental science in recent years.


Mary Washington has offered a major in Geology for over 40 years, and our program in Environmental Science (established in 1979) is one of the oldest in the state of Virginia. Our location is ideal for a variety of research projects and field trips – we are within an hour or less of the Chesapeake Bay, the Rappahannock River, Lake Anna, the Appalachian Mountains and Washington, DC. We have 7 full-time, tenure-track faculty and until recently also maintained a part-time adjunct position to help teach introductory geology courses (this position has been eliminated for the fall of 2009 due to budget cuts). Our most recent faculty members were hired in 2000, 2003, 2005, and 2008 – so we have a steady track record of adding new faculty in the last ten years. Most of our faculty teach courses that appeal to both majors, so we are a close-knit group pedagogically. Our faculty have complementary expertise in aquatic ecology/animal physiology, structural geology/GIS, mineralogy/petrology, hydrology/geochemistry, micropaleontology/climate change/stratigraphy, geomorphology/watershed analysis/GIS, and soil science/environmental chemistry/environmental policy.

We are well equipped for a public institution with ~ 4000 undergraduate students. Laboratory equipment includes: an automated powder XRD, a fluid-inclusion microscope, a U-stage, a uv/vis photospectrometer, a magnetic susceptibility detector, research-grade petrographic and wide field microscopes w/ image capture software, a Coulter counter, student petrographic microscopes and various apparatus for sample preparation (fume hood, centrifuge, drying oven, kiln, rock saws, etc.). Our department shares in the maintenance of a fairly new Hitachi VP-SEM with EDS, and we have access to an ICP-AES, GC-MS and NMR. All classes and labs are fully networked and we have a departmental computer lab (including ArcGIS software and a dedicated plotter/printer for poster presentations). Field equipment includes: a 22' research vessel w/ coring winch, a network of on-campus monitoring wells, GPS instruments, a diamond coring drill, soft-sediment coring devices, and various water chemistry instruments. Students have routine (supervised) access to all of our equipment and facilities.

Excellence in teaching is a core value at Mary Washington, and is the primary consideration when faculty are tenured. However, research expectations have risen greatly over the past decade or so, and our department has a strong emphasis on high quality research (usually collaborative with our students). We strongly encourage all majors to engage in internships and/or independent study; qualified students are encouraged to pursue honors research (we have a well established set of guidelines and expectations). Our close proximity to Washington DC and our state capital (Richmond, VA) gives our students ready access to a variety of internship opportunities.


Teaching Load: One of our most significant weaknesses is our heavy teaching load (~ 4/4 equivalent). This is partly due to Mary Washington's strong history as a teaching institution, and partly a reflection of our strong general education requirements (all students must take two science classes, one of which has a lab, and one must be a pre-requisite to the other). Each fall, we offer ~ 7 sections of introductory geology and the equivalent of 4 sections of introductory environmental science; in the spring we typically offer 10 introductory sections to satisfy general education needs. Because of our heavy teaching loads, we have not yet been able to develop and offer a field course within our program (although most courses include extensive fieldwork or fieldtrips). Ideally, we would like to create a hybrid course to serve both majors. The situation is improving however, as more flexibility has recently been given to department chairs to set teaching loads and develop creative ways of decreasing them.

Support Personnel: our department does not have any dedicated technical or administrative support. The four science programs in our building (biology, chemistry, physics, and earth and environmental sciences) share one administrative assistant/secretary. We had a second person for a year who has left, but has not been replaced because of current budget constraints. We do have two laboratory specialists who serve the entire building, but the chemistry and biology departments consume most of their time and energy.

Space/Infrastructure: the science faculty had already outgrown our new building when we moved in during the summer of 1998. Our space crunch has only worsened: the building has only 4 classrooms for general use (the rest have already been converted to laboratories), and the building lacks any dedicated rooms for seminars (we had two, but both have since been converted to offices for new science faculty). We actually had to carve up part of our departmental computer lab to create another office after our most recent faculty hire this past year.

Planning and Review:

Our department will develop a Sustainability minor during this next year (Szulczewski is leading this initiative). This new minor will combine courses already offered in the department as well as new courses to be implemented next year. We are also considering the addition of a major in Environmental Geology. Finally, we are considering a 5th year masters in environmental science or environmental studies. We hope to get advice and feedback from others on the viability of these offerings and how best to develop these additional programs. Our department's next 10-year external review is scheduled to begin fall 2010, so this summer going into the '09-10 academic year is an ideal time to be preparing for this review process. We hope to network and possibly recruit external reviewers to assess our programs for this external review process. We would also like to engage in discussions about how best to prepare our students for the workplace and how to better recruit/retain geology students in particular.