The Role of Instructors in Broadening Participation in the Geosciences

Participants at the 2015 Focus Group for Instructors were asked to initially consider:

  • What are the resources most commonly utilized by your group members?
  • How do your group members identify/find these resources?
  • What are the challenges most commonly identified with these instructional resources?
  • What, if any, instructional resources have your group members found that are effective for underrepresented groups?

Instructors identified resources that were virtual/open educational resources which could be grouped into the following categories:

  1. quality assured (e.g., resources provided by professional geoscience-related organizations such as USGS, SERC, NOAA, NASA, UCAR, AMS, virtual field trips, etc.)
  2. quality unassured (e.g., resources found through searches on Google or YouTube) with a purpose for students to examine and analyze.

Instructors find these resources through the following methodologies:

  1. Google & YouTube searches, which requires both courage and the ability to assess quality;
  2. Social media that includes Facebook and Twitter links;
  3. Colleague recommendations that may come from peers at the same institution, peers from a 4-year university, adjuncts or local professionals;
  4. Dissemination of resources by professional societies that may occur virtually through email lists and online activities, or face-to-face through field trips, conference attendance, and meeting materials;
  5. Professional organization websites such as EPA, USGS, NOAA, NSF, Government STEM organization; (6) students, for example their knowledge of local field trip sites;
  6. The SERC website;
  7. Textbook publisher provided materials and resources;
  8. Resources created by the instructor themselves, which is particularly required for place-based resources; and
  9. Scientific supply catalogs.
Focus group members noted that when underrepresented students have the opportunity to participate in directed research and active learning, their engagement increases.
What is clear from this discussion is that instructors use a wide range of techniques to find and adapt instructional materials.

Several strategies were identified as being effective for engaging underrepresented students in the geosciences. Direct exposure to the workforce, including internships, was perceived as the most important and effective (but limited) strategy. When students have the opportunity to participate in directed research and active learning, participants note increased engagement of underrepresented students. They identified a need for sufficient institutional support for under-prepared students, such as tutoring and learning centers. Ensuring that needed resources are low-cost (or no cost) is important both for instructors at small institutions and also for their students who have limited financial resources. Participants suggested strategies such as making course resources available at the library or for rent instead of purchase. Resources should be multi-lingual and easily available to students, such as on websites. Instructors can utilize course management analytics to verify that all students are capable of effectively using the institution's course management software. Many participants suggested that place-based learning techniques have been particularly effective for minority students, including urban field guides and connecting to local context/culture to the geoscience curriculum.

[M]any participants were concerned about the status of the geosciences in K–12 education and adequate preparation of K–12 Earth science teachers. It is important that students learn about geoscience and its professional opportunities from a young age.

Participants noted that minority students need support to grow their network of role-models and mentors who can support them through the college process. Successful alumni, near-peer mentors, and even videos (such as the Neil deGrasse Tyson series) can be used to spark interest and support students to success. Field trips to larger universities can provide exposure, information, and connections to minority students. Students often need help in building their support community (such as free bus passes, scheduling that fits needs, and daycare).

Multiple situational challenges exist that make it problematic for MSI and 2YC geoscience departments. In general, the majority of students are non-majors. There are a wide variety of different levels of student preparation and demands related student work/life balance. Students may not have adequate or accurate advising and they do not feel connected to campus communities. Limited funding for equipment, field trips, and lack of administration support for instructors (particularly adjuncts) make it difficult to implement innovative teaching strategies that are most effective for minority students. The location of the institution itself poses challenges. Urban departments often lack local field trip sites and students are not familiar (and perhaps not comfortable) with the outdoors. Large suburban two-year colleges often have a need for increased cultural sensitivity to attract more URM students.

Many times the institution itself poses both challenges and opportunities. Very small departments lack sufficient numbers of instructors to foster collaboration and growth of the department. Many departments are dominated by adjuncts who must endure undependable workloads; at the same time, the department's quality and consistency of content can become threatened if dependent upon adjunct instruction. Adjuncts themselves have little power and are perceived as not being truly a part of the department. Small departments often have small classes which can increase student engagement and consistency between lab and lecture with the same instructor. These small departments often have flexibility, particularly in 2YCs, to try new things and to set new curricula. Urban universities usually have sufficient technology and good instructional support. Some 2YCs have nicer facilities and lab space for the geosciences than their four-year counterparts. Four-year institutions need support for equipment and grant writing.

Participants identified several important assets that today's students bring with them to the classroom. Students are incredibly tech savvy and use smart phones and technology/media as a learning resource (e.g., YouTube videos or online pictures/images). Participants described their students as adaptable, enthusiastic, and task oriented. Some participants described their students as hard working while others did not. All agreed that students are willing to try new things. Students who are in our classrooms can be utilized as assets themselves. They may share their own geoscience experiences and personal stories in the classroom. Multinational/diverse student populations often bring geologic/ environmental experiences that can be used to enrich instruction. Age diversity in students can also be beneficial because these students are perceived as being generally more motivated. All participants agreed that more experienced students can help others in the class.

Suggested institutional changes to courses, curricula, or programs that can help to recruit and retain underrepresented minority students included:

  • Offer additional courses related to student interests and job opportunities; for example, expand offerings to entice students to take more courses, or offer more basic geoscience courses within an existing environmental science program.
  • Structure programs and support to accommodate needs of URM students; for example extend the duration of programs to account for the family and work obligations of non-traditional students, provide mentoring for all students, provide math and writing tutoring in collaboration with other departments, and move more course offerings online to accommodate work schedules.
  • Increase institutional and administrative support; for example increased investment in the department, maintaining classroom and research space, hiring of instructors, providing instructors with time and/or credit for curriculum development and recruitment activities, and persuading the administration to value geoscience as part of the STEM courses.

Building relationships to facilitate student success was largely reflected in action items pertaining to improved marketing of geosciences within the institution to recruit more students to existing programs. Participants identified the following steps that could be taken:

  • Work with academic advising to promote geoscience courses and programs; for example, attend meeting with academic advisors to explain classes available, to promote job opportunities in geosciences.
  • Create new or leverage existing student opportunities; for example, create new student groups such as a geology club; interact with existing campus groups that support minority students and/or STEM students, and take advantage of existing campus opportunities to engage in special events and guest speakers.
  • Use students as ambassadors; for example, incorporate public outreach into classes so that students gain experience in speaking about their science to the community, and incorporate service learning into classes. (Read more about Service Learning, including example activities.)
  • Connect students to the major and profession; for example, use guest speakers or alumni to make students aware of opportunities in the profession, set up a departmental advisory council of alumni to provide talks, outreach, and employment connections. (Read more about Building a Network of Alums, Employers, and Career Center Staff.)
  • Develop regional 2YC/4C connections; for example, connect students in 2YC programs with those who have successfully transferred to 4YC programs, and develop regional consortia of 2YCs, MSIs, 4YCs, research institutions, and state and federal agencies to share needs, desires, program offerings, research opportunities, events, field trips, etc. (Read more about Building Connections between 2YC and 4YC.)
  • Make the department a welcoming place; for example, update displays, work with campus marketing to increase the department's visibility, and create holistic departmental outreach, recruitment, and retention plans.
[Participants] called for public relations and marketing campaigns at both the national level and within their own institutions and communities to reframe the geosciences as a profession that serves and betters the community.

Finally, participants identified actions that would improve the image of the geosciences through marketing of geosciences to the community outside of the institution. The specific suggestions focused on community outreach activities and included:

  • Actively recruit students from the surrounding (minority-majority) areas; for example through departmental public speaking or community outreach events.
  • Improve interactions with K-12; for example organized outreach activities (summer camps, high school visits, mobile lab) both on campus and in the K-12, and provide workshops for local K-12 teachers to promote geoscience.