Strengths and Weaknesses of the UTEP Department of Geological Sciences

by Diane Doser

The Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is of moderate size (15 faculty) with ~30 undergraduate and 50 graduate students. We have functioned well as a department with relatively little friction for over 15 years.

I believe our biggest strength is that we work hard to develop a sense of community between faculty, undergraduates and graduate students. Most faculty welcome students on a "drop-in" basis and provide plenty of mentoring and life skills coaching, as well as assistance with academic and research problems.

At the undergraduate level we try to engage as many students as possible in research projects, especially paid research. The research helps them to see how to apply their classroom experiences to real world situations, as well as building skill sets such as keeping a field or laboratory notebook, making oral and written presentations, and learning to organize and take a project to completion.

At the graduate level most students participate in one or more "research groups" that focus on discussions of cutting edge research papers, solutions to problems encountered in the students' own research, and the ins/outs of preparing for life after graduate school.

The highlight of our academic year is a student run research colloquium where undergraduates and graduates present research projects in oral or poster form. Professionals from industry and neighboring academic institutions serve as judges for the presentations. Feedback from the judges is used to help assess the quality of our undergraduate and graduate programs. We also use the colloquium as a recruiting tool. Community college students are invited to attend the evening undergraduate poster session. They have opportunities to talk with undergraduates, tour the geology department, and talk with professors about the program. Prospective graduate students from outside UTEP are also brought to campus for colloquium. This provides them with the opportunity to talk with students, faculty, staff, and prospective employers all in a short period of time.

Although we function well as a department, we face many external challenges to our program. Our graduate program is strong and recognized as an asset by the administration, but we are continually challenged to increase our enrollment at the undergraduate level. Over the past 5 years we have worked hard at outreach, especially at the high school and community college levels, and we have begun to see a small increase in enrollment.

A recent legislative mandate to cut all university undergraduate degree plans to a maximum of 120 semester credit hours (including a mandated 37 hours of core courses taken outside geology), forced us to completely overhaul our curriculum. It was extremely difficult to develop a degree plan that would adequately serve our geophysics undergraduates. We eliminated the requirement for geology majors to have a minor. This allowed for more electives in their degree plans but necessitates more careful advising to insure the electives are selected to enhance a student's career goals.

Funding for graduate teaching assistants has not been increased for several years and no state funds can be used to provide tuition assistance for students. At first we were able to stay competitive by offering "signing bonuses" and other incentives funded through gifts from oil companies and a few endowed funds. However, this year nearly all the prospective graduate students we made offers to (who are not currently UTEP students) turned us down because we were not sufficiently competitive with regard to salaries and other support. Since we have worked hard to keep our graduate program a successful mix of about 1/3 local students, 1/3 U.S. citizens from other regions of the state and nation, and 1/3 international students (including many from Mexico), this will be a difficult hurdle for us to overcome. We are currently contemplating if we will need decrease teaching assistantships, allowing us to increase salaries, but also increase student workloads. Faculty with grants can provide research assistantships that are competitive with other institutions, but we are way of building a two tier system of support. Many students also may need to switch between teaching and research support during their two to four years of study at UTEP, and would be unhappy to take a pay cut when reverting to a teaching assistantship.

Another challenge we face is that our university is working hard to obtain "Tier 1" status, but with a strong commitment to "access and excellence" using limited resources. This demand is taking a toll on our faculty who have heavier teaching loads than Tier 1 institutions, but are still expected to increase research funding with limited infrastructure and staff support.