Report on a Workshop on "Broadening Access to the Earth and Environmental Sciences"

Diane Doser, Cathryn Manduca, Dallas Rhodes, Steve Sempkin, James Tyburczy, Joshua Villalobos (workshop conveners)

Meeting global challenges for a sustainable future, including the issues of energy sustainability, natural hazards, and climate change, requires attracting students from diverse backgrounds into the geosciences, supporting them throughout their educational experiences, and preparing them for the workforce. The NSF sponsored InTeGrate (Interdisciplinary Teaching about Earth for a Sustainable Future) program held a workshop February 23-25, 2014, at Arizona State University on "Broadening Access to the Earth and Environmental Sciences: Increasing the Diversity of Undergraduate Students Learning About the Earth" that focused on the sharing of best practices and meeting challenges to increasing diversity in the geoscience workforce. Diversity was broadly defined to include ethnic and minority groups, women, people with disabilities, veterans/active military, people of low socioeconomic status, LGBTQ and other groups that are not represented in the geosciences in proportion to their abundance in the general population. About 40 participants from 2-yr (community colleges) (2-YCs), 4-year colleges (4-YCs), research universities, and non-profit and governmental organizations participated.

As geoscientists, we have both a societal and professional responsibility to increase diversity. We cannot adequately educate the general populace on issues and challenges that are related to the Earth if the make-up of the earth science community does not reflect that of our society at large. Because intelligence and talent are equally shared by all elements of society, lack of diversity means were are missing some of the best and brightest sources of talent to participate in solving complex environmental and resource challenges.

A keynote speech by Dr. Eric Jolly of the Science Museum of Minnesota set the tone of the workshop by focusing on the fact that we are asking many students to consider making a huge commitment to a discipline they have never considered as a field of study and a future career. Because earth science has not been part of their thinking, Dr. Jolly observed that most students are missing some of the pieces required for success in our discipline. All programs that successfully help students acquire these missing pieces contain the following elements: 1) engaging students' interest in science and sense of belonging within the discipline, 2) providing a climate where students can learn and prepare for the workforce, and 3) insuring continuity in the educational process so students can navigate from one opportunity to next.

"Homework" for the workshop requested that participants provide essays and examples of successful programs that work at institutional, regional, and national scales. Some programs moved students from high school to higher education, some from 2-YCs to 4-YCs and some from 4-YCs to graduate school or the workforce. Many were successful institutional or regional programs that need to be scaled up to higher levels. For example, Dirk Baron of California State University (CSU) Bakersfield described their successful dual-credit program that allows about 350 local high school seniors to annually complete 5 units of Introductory Physical Geology for transferable college credit. This has lead, in part, to an increase from 20 to 120 undergraduate geology majors over the past 7 years.

Workshop participants suggested that earth science courses that are rich in locational and cultural context hold the potential to be the most successful at recruiting and retaining underrepresented students. These courses include service learning, inclusive learning communities, and are closely connected to today's environmental and resource challenges. Early exposure to research and a research-focused curriculum also increase retention of not only underrepresented students but all students. Summer-long research internships (e.g., Charlevoix and Morris, 2014) have been shown to increase diversity; however, mini-REUs (research experiences for undergraduates) or virtual research experiences could be of great value for many students who are unable to spend weeks away from homes, jobs, and families.

Faculty self-awareness of their own traditional (academic) culture and its impact on their careers is important when developing relevant curriculum for underrepresented students. Gary Weissman described a program at the University of New Mexico during which faculty wrote cultural autobiographies to focus on how their background affected their teaching styles. The culture of science and science education can often be a barrier to underrepresented students. Because there is more than one way of "knowing" and "doing", insisting on a single approach to solving scientific problems can be exclusionary. This is especially true of equitably addressing environmental and resource issues where both cultural knowledge and location-specific knowledge are required.

Advising and mentoring of students is crucial to retaining diverse students. Advisors, mentors, and faculty must have the cultural competence, the knowledge of cultural or religious challenges ethnic students may face in their education, to guide students who find the academic world confusing or threatening. Diana Dalbotten of the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL)/National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED) provided an example of how SAFL has worked with the Ojibwe (Chippewa) community to build a partnership that supports diversity in the geosciences (Dalbotten et al., 2014). This included listening to stakeholders and target audiences to design an effective team approach to mentoring students and establishing a flexible academic program located where the students lived.

Educators need to coordinate with employers to produce materials that inform and interest students in geoscience careers. Employers should also be prepared to assist students as they transition to the workforce. Students need to understand the cyclical nature of some jobs within our discipline and the challenge to be creative and flexible in a changing world; such need for flexibility is not unique to the geosciences. Change in the workforce should never be a surprise and everyone should have a "Plan B" with clearly considered options.

The greatest source of potential employees for increasing the diversity of the geoscience workforce is in the 2-YC systems. More than 50% of minority students enrolled in higher education across the nation started at 2-YCs (American Association of Community Colleges, 2011). Early intervention and attention to students taking their introductory earth science courses at 2 YCs is vital for attracting them into the earth sciences as a career choice. Diane Doser (University of Texas at El Paso-UTEP) and Joshua Villalobos (El Paso Community College) have developed a 2-YC to 4-YC bridge program involving careful articulation of courses between institutions and joint undergraduate research experiences that has led to more than 10 underrepresented students transferring to UTEP in the 2013-2014 academic year.

A virtual presentation by Michael Carroll (Hunt Oil) emphasized that geoscience faculty need to partner with faculty at Historically Black Colleges (HBCU's) to promote geoscience courses and activities, because most HBCU's do not offer geoscience or environmental science degrees and are unlikely to have the resources to start new degree programs in these disciplines. Dr. Carroll also pointed out that visiting local churches and other community organizations is an effective method of recruiting African American students into geoscience programs.

Although the workshop identified successful approaches to broadening access, significant challenges exist, as stressed in a virtual presentation on the history of diversity in the geosciences by speaker Marilyn Suiter (National Science Foundation). Geoscience has the lowest racial and ethnic diversity of any STEM field (Velasco and Jaurrieta de Velasco, 2010) and it is also difficult to attract students with physical disabilities into the discipline. Most importantly, we lack a strong set of research results that identifies what obstacles underrepresented students face in our discipline, how students overcome these obstacles or leave the discipline, and the best methods for helping students through these obstacles.

A summary of the workshop, the participants' essays and descriptions of successful programs, presentations and reference material from the workshop can be found at Other examples on how to increase diversity in your program can be found at:

The workshop's organizers and participants plan to enhance the existing National Association of Geoscience Teachers traveling workshop program to include new content on ways academic units can broaden access to their programs. Part of this new material will be piloted at a workshop scheduled at the Fall 2014 AGU meeting. We also are planning a topical session that focuses on best practices to broaden access and increase diversity.


The InTeGrate program is supported by award DUE-1125331 from the National Science Foundation. We wish to thank C. Manduca, S. Semken and J. Tyburczy for comments and suggestions on an early draft of this manuscript. The staff of Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration for their logistical assistance that helped make the workshop a success.


American Association of Community Colleges (2011). American Association of Community Colleges: 2011 fact sheet. Retrieved from

Charlevoix, D.J, and A.R. Morris (2014). Increasing diversity in geoscience through research internships, Eos v. 95, no.8, 69-70.

Dalbotten, D., E. Ito, A. Myrbo, H. Pellerin, L. Greensky, T. Howes, A. Wold, R. Breckenridge, C. Drake, L. Buca, C. Kowalczk, C. Lindner, C. Olson, T.J. Ray, R. Rhoades, P. Woods, and T. Yellowman,(2014). NSF-OEDG Manommin science camp project: A model for engaging American Indian students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, J. of Geosci. Educ., in press.

Velasco, A.A., and E. Jaurrieta de Velasco (2010), Striving to diversify the geosciences workforce, Eos v. 91, no. 33.