Initial Publication Date: June 10, 2016

Role of Administrators

Systemic changes are needed to facilitate increased participation by students from underrepresented groups in the geosciences. Institutions of higher education and departments must be committed; faculty must have access to professional development in areas such as cultural sensitivity and literacy, and in "best practices" in instruction for all students; systemic reform requires alignment of higher education goals and practices with K-12 education and clear lines of articulation with 2-Year Colleges (2YCs).

Institution-wide initiatives are needed to make the geosciences visible in recruitment of new students, admissions and advising services on campuses need to be able to provide degree and workforce information about the geosciences to incoming students, and departments and instructors need to work with institutional curriculum committees to be included in general education or core curriculum requirements.

The 2015 Administrators' Focus Group was asked to provide context about their institutions with the prompts:

  • Report on the mission of their institutions, their settings, and the profiles of their student bodies.
  • Consider who are your students? Where do your students come from, what are their needs?
  • What are the workforce needs in your region?

A critical first step in developing Geoscience programs for students from underrepresented groups is careful alignment of institutional mission with the identified needs of students and the local workforce. This group of administrators was then asked to provide input on how the Geosciences can contribute to their institutional mission, including:

  • How is geoscience (or environmental science) taught at your institution?
  • How can instruction in geoscience contribute to your institutional mission and the success of your students?
  • What are your needs in staffing and resources to support geosciences at your institution?
  • What resources currently exist that can help expand instruction in geosciences at your institution?

Most administrators reported that the geosciences do not have a clear identity on their campuses, possibly because geoscience courses may be taught in physical science, environmental science or related disciplines such as physics or engineering. They did recognize that the Geosciences can play a foundational role at their institutions by contributing to a variety of general education degree requirements, particularly when focused on societal issues such as natural hazards, resources, planning and in demonstrating concepts on the nature of science.

Major themes that emerged from the Administrators' focus group include:

  • Administrators recognized the importance of aligning the institutional and departmental missions with diversity efforts. Different types of institutions serve different student populations, and occupy different "niches" in the educational ecosystem. Institutions of higher education occupy a special place in the communities they serve, and can optimize recruitment of diverse students through targeted recruitment efforts.
  • Administrators also recognized the need to recruit a diverse faculty, and to develop a departmental culture that is welcoming and inclusive. Continued professional development for faculty, staff, and instructors, is needed to help them become more effective mentors and develop cultural literacy.
  • Administrators recognized the importance of knowing both national trends and the local needs of the geoscience workforce. Departments need to proactively seek relationships with local, regional, national employers of geoscientists to demonstrate career opportunities. Many students may be reluctant to move for employment, so it is important to establish relations with local employers and optimize opportunities for exchanges with companies, site visits, and invited speakers. Find more information about Building a Network of Alums, Employers, and Career Center Staff.
  • Administrators recommended developing a deep knowledge of the needs of their own students, and developing structures that meet these needs. Our participants reported that their students are increasingly job and task-oriented, and that students are motivated to improve their family and community situations. These administrators also recognized that many students are academically under-prepared to undertake a full academic load of geoscience, mathematics and cognate courses, and that student success support structures are needed throughout their academic careers. Rather than characterizing these students as being in need of "remediation," a culture shift is needed that recognizes students as simply pursuing their collegiate academic journey from different starting points. Metrics of institutional success, such as time to graduation, may be better measured as persistence (steady, if slower, progress towards a degree) to accommodate the needs of URM students.
  • In addition to geological knowledge and skills, students need to develop "professional skills": communication, quantitative, interpersonal to prepare for the future workforce. There is a growing call for undergraduate students to have authentic research experiences starting in the first two years of their collegiate career (PCAST, 2012), and that these experiences, particularly for students from underepresented groups, have higher retention and success rates as they gain ownership and responsibility for their own work (e.g. Gregerman, 2008). Support for research experiences, both embedded in coursework and as more advanced independent study projects, is needed at the upper levels as well.
  • The types of degree programs offered can have a large impact on recruitment efforts. Although the MS degree "is the degree for employment and most likely to promote career growth within the profession" (Houlton, 2015, p. 2), this expectation can present a formidable barrier to entering the geoscience career pathway for many students from underrepresented groups, and particularly for first generation college students. Departments and programs can demonstrate the range of career/job opportunities with less formal education required. Workforce preparation programs that require an Associate degree or certification in a particular work skill (e.g., GIS) may prove to be a valuable mechanism to recruit diverse students to the geosciences.
  • Administrators recommended more proactive marketing of the geosciences in two ways. One, students are not aware of potential career opportunities and the pathways that lead to these careers. Data about salaries and career opportunities (e.g., those available from AGI) can be actively shared with students in introductory courses. Beyond "traditional" geoscience careers (e.g., resource extraction, natural hazards, environmental remediation), departments can direct students to career opportunities where a degree in the Earth sciences can serve as a foundation for careers in public planning, law, teaching, and business. Rather than narrowly define the geosciences, consider students to be part of the geoscience community if they pursue careers in related field such as teaching, policy, planning, or business. A degree in geoscience can be marketed as preparation for these other career paths.
  • Administrators recommended targeted outreach as a second means or proactive marketing of the geosciences. For example departments need to reach out to institutional recruitment and admission offices to make sure that geoscience degree programs are well-represented. Partnerships with feeder school districts and high schools, particularly those in high needs districts, can impact recruitment efforts. Four year institutions can work with their feeder two year colleges to develop articulation agreements, based on trust and respect, to ensure student success upon matriculation. Departments can also work to build relations with regional employers; local geoscientists can be a great resource for mentoring, providing guest lectures, attending or sponsoring field trips, and providing internship or co-op experiences for students.