Supporting Minority Students in Geoscience at UNM
Information for this profile comes from the University of New Mexico Earth and Planetary Sciences website and an interview with Gary Weissmann on December 9th, 2013. You can get additional information about the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department on the UNM website.
The University of New Mexico is a Hispanic Serving Institution with 38% of it's 29,000 student body being Hispanic. It also serves relatively large population of Native American students (5.5% of the student body) and a high percentage of first generation and 2-year college transfer students. One factor that contributes to the high percentage of minority students is that the state of New Mexico provides scholarships for students to attend college through revenue from lottery ticket sales. This helps to increase the diversity of students attending the school which benefits over 5,000 students per year across the state.
Keys to Success
- Attracting new students to the program through recruitment from introductory courses
- Supporting majors through a variety of campus-wide programs that support underrepresented STEM students
- Preparing students for careers by ensuring students are prepared for graduate school
Attracting New Students
The department recruits students into its majors by enticing students from the 100-level courses to continuing to take more geology and environmental science courses. Environmental Science 101 has been the fastest growing course on campus for the past several years. Every semester the course reaches about 5% of the student body (around 1,500 students). Recruiting from this large pool has proven to be successful in building a large group of majors in the department. Faculty identify and meet with students individually who are top performers in these classes also seeking students who seem interested in the material. Since so many of the department's majors come from this introductory class, faculty take 1-2 class periods to talk specifically about careers students can have upon graduation.
Supporting Our Majors
Faculty in the department support majors in several ways. First, faculty advisers meet individually with students to help them outline a course program that fits their interest in Environmental Science or Geology. Faculty spend time discussing the major with students, and encourage them to get involved in undergraduate research or internships outside UNM.
The department feels that providing research experience for undergraduate students is a very powerful way to enhance a student's education. To that end, there are several programs that help support students in getting this research experience.
The department provides undergraduate research opportunities for students. Faculty choose students not based on grades (which may only reflect what the university culture expects of the students), but based on which students show the most potential in classes, display innovation in their thinking and who are the most excited about the content. Some faculty members attempt to select students who represent minority groups such as women and minority students. These one-on-one advising and mentoring relationships support students in developing their research skills and in preparing for further study in graduate school.
There are also several campus-based support programs for undergraduates in the sciences, some of which promote and support undergraduate research experiences:
- LSAMP program (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation), provides funding for undergraduate research experiences in the STEM fields.
- There is also a relatively new campus-wide program called the STEM Gateway program which aims to increase success in introductory STEM courses that traditionally have low passing rates like general chemistry, calculus-based physics, and introductory math courses and which keep students from continuing on in STEM fields. The program provides an extra 1 credit course with a graduate assistant to support students in passing the class (by providing instruction in ways that the general content can be applied in the student's desired major) and continuing on in the STEM fields. For instance, the E&PS department offers a 1 credit course in geochemistry to support learning in general chemistry with the goal of helping students see how the material they are learning is applied in either Environmental Science or Earth and Planetary Science. The course is targeted to first-generation and minority students, but all students can take the course.
- Another campus-wide program, STEM UP offers tutoring help, programing through curricular clubs (like the geology club) and other supports to minority and low-income STEM students with the goal of assisting students who transfer to UNM from 2-year colleges.
Preparing Students for New Careers
Most students are preparing for continuing their education through graduate work. Students who get jobs directly upon graduation tend to find jobs with local consulting agencies or national laboratories (like Sandia or Los Alamos National Laboratories). Native American graduates find jobs within tribal governments.
To help students understand the types of skills and courses that will benefit them in their chosen career paths, the department provides panels of alumni to come in and discuss what skills they use and what courses provided those skills. The panels are offered as brown bag lunches three times a semester. Alumni from local industries discuss what kinds of skills are needed for careers in that industry, how to be successful in the career, and provide resume assistance. The current graduate students at UNM have also organized sessions where they discuss how to get into graduate school with current undergraduate students. Students tend to listen to their peers, so these sessions are typically quite useful for current students.
Courses that prepare students for these careers
Since the typical 'working degree' needed in Environmental Sciences and Geology is the master's degree, students are gradually prepared and encouraged to go on to graduate school throughout their undergraduate education. This is accomplished through:
- the campus-wide McNair Scholars program, where students can take advantage of learning skills needed to succeed in graduate school including research skills and support for the graduate school admissions process. Students who enroll in the McNair program gain summer research experience and financial support as well. This program is geared toward first-generation college students and underrepresented minority students.
- an informal undergraduate research program between faculty and students (as mentioned above). Some faculty members actively select students from underrepresented groups and women to partake in this research.
- a wide range of elective courses can be selected by students to help them tailor their education to their career interests. GIS, hydrology, geochemistry courses, etc. are all offered to help students gain skills needed for future employment or graduate study.