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SAGE Musings: Geoscience Career Skills

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
published Mar 29, 2018 9:44am

One of the three "strands" of the SAGE 2YC: Faculty as Change Agents project is facilitating students' professional pathways. Obviously, not every student will become a geoscientist, but we want to help those who do choose to pursue a geoscience career path. What does it mean to prepare our students to become geoscientists? Certainly one element is to make students aware of geoscience career options. Elizabeth Nagy-Shadman, one of the SAGE 2YC Change Agents, wrote about how she has students investigate geoscience careers in the March, 2018 edition of Foundations, NAGT's 2YC newsletter. Once students are aware of, and some are interested in, geoscience careers, we need to give them opportunities to build and strengthen the skills that geoscientists use.

What are the skills that students can be expected to use in geoscience careers? I'm sure every geoscientist could come up with a list, and many have (e.g. Manduca & Kastens, 2012; Mosher et al., 2014). Perhaps more to the point for readers of this blog, which of these skills ought to be included in courses taught for 2YC students? Here is my own list, no doubt shaped by my own career path.

Quantitative thinking. I simply can't imagine being any kind of a scientist without thinking quantitatively. Because of that, when I taught an introductory level Geology course on the geology of the national parks, I incorporated a number of exercises designed to give students practice thinking quantitatively. These included estimating the volume of lava erupted from Olympus Mons and from the Hawaiian hotspot; examining the "faithfulness" of Old Faithful using basic statistics, taught on the spot; and estimating when the last glaciers will disappear from Glacier National Park. The Math You Need math tutorials for introductory geoscience students provide instructional support for quantitative thinking exercises.

Collecting and analyzing data. Likewise, we can't do science without data. The exercises listed above all use data to answer (quantitative) geologic questions. There are hundreds more teaching activities on the SERC website that engage students in learning about introductory geoscience topics through data analysis. I think of geologic maps as rich sources of data, as well. But perhaps the best introduction to data analysis is having students collect their own data to answer geoscientific questions.

Spatial thinking. Spatial thinking is one of the cornerstones of geoscientific thinking (e.g. Manduca and Kastens, 2012). Oddly enough, given my background, I never intentionally incorporated spatial thinking skill development in my introductory geology courses. However, there are thousands of teaching activities with a strong spatial thinking component on the SERC website.

Communication skills. Communicating the relevance of science and scientific findings seems absolutely essential to me, perhaps more now than at any time in our past. Another key feature of my course on geology of the national parks was an oral presentation on a park of each student's choice. If I were re-designing the course today, I'd probably build in multiple smaller opportunities for students to communicate about science to their classmates. Skills are not built by doing something just once.

What skills would you add to this list? Do you give your students opportunities to practice those skills in your courses?


Manduca, C.A. and K.A. Kastens, 2012. Geoscience and geoscientists: Uniquely equipped to study Earth, in Kastens, K.A., and Manduca, C.A., eds., Earth and Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences: GSA Special Paper 486, p. 1-12.

Mosher et al., 2014, Summary Report for Summit on Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education. Accessed at, 27 March 2018.

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