Initial Publication Date: May 8, 2017

GP-Impact: Engagement of Students and Faculty at Community Colleges to Enhance Recruitment to 4-Year Geoscience Programs

Larry McKay, University of Tennessee-Knoxville (PI)
Sally Horn, University of Tennessee-Knoxville (Co-PI)
Karen Affholter, Pellissippi State Community College (Senior Personnel)
Arthur Lee, Roane State Community College (Senior Personnel)
Clark Cropper, Volunteer State Community College (Senior Personnel)
Stephanie Drumheller-Horton, University of Tennessee-Knoxville (Senior Personnel)
Colin Sumrall, University of Tennessee-Knoxville (Senior Personnel)
Andrew Steen, University of Tennessee-Knoxville (Senior Personnel)
Kelsey Ellis, University of Tennessee-Knoxville (Senior Personnel)

Short Description

The project involves partnering with geology and physical geography faculty at the University of Tennessee (UT) and at Pellissippi State, Roane State, and Volunteer State (regional community colleges) to engage students at the freshman and sophomore level through field experiences, internships, research projects and mentoring. Students begin by participating in a residential geoscience retreat at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, with faculty and students from UT and their home college. Students are assigned UT faculty mentors who work with them throughout the transfer process and their subsequent studies at UT. Faculty partnerships forged through this project are expected to lead to improved transfer procedures and greater opportunities for students.


The University of Tennessee at Knoxville is the flagship campus of the University of Tennessee system (UT), with about 28,000 students and programs at the Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate levels. Undergraduate geoscience programs are offered through a Geology concentration (approximately 80 students) in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Physical Geography concentrations (about 35 students) in the Department of Geography. About 20% of UT students transfer from a community college, but this is expected to increase due to the recent implementation of a statewide program for free community college tuition for residents (the "Tennessee Promise"). At present, UT doesn't effectively track completion rates or challenges faced by transfer students and there are numerous anecdotal examples of courses that don't transfer, as well as social/cultural challenges for transfer students.

The three partner community colleges Pellissippi State, Roane State, and Volunteer State tend to have a higher proportion of first generation students than UT, along with greater ethnic, racial and economic diversity. Pellissippi State and Volunteer State are suburban campuses located in/near Knoxville and Nashville, respectively. Roane State is in a rural setting. All three colleges have a strong set of introductory geoscience courses offered by tenured faculty with PhD degrees in geology. The "pipeline" for geoscience students moving from community colleges to the University of Tennessee is slowed by lack of awareness of career opportunities, lack of field or research opportunities, and the institutional/cultural/social factors typical of moving from a small college to a major university.


The main goals of this project are to:

  1. Enhance recruitment and success of community college (CC) transfer students entering geoscience programs in geology or physical geography at the University of Tennessee (UT) through early engagement and building excitement about geoscience studies and careers;
  2. Prepare CC transfer students for greater success at UT, leading to faster graduation and more effective movement into the geoscience workforce or graduate programs;
  3. Increase opportunities for students at the partner CC's and increase diversity in geoscience programs at UT.


Each year, UT and CC partners will participate in a series of geoscience enrichment, research, and teaching activities. These include:

  • Offer an experiential learning workshop for geoscience faculty. In year one, this workshop was led by staff at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute. Subsequent workshops will be led by the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center;
  • UT faculty and alumni will visit each of the partner community colleges to talk about geoscience opportunities and recruit students to the program;
  • Students from each of the community colleges will be invited to attend a 3 to 5 day-long geoscience experience at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute, where they will work with faculty and students from UT and their home college;
  • Additional 1-day field trips and visits to UT will be held periodically during the students' sophomore year to sustain the excitement raised during the Smoky Mountains experience;
  • Faculty partners at each community college will develop their own field trips or research projects using funds provided through the NSF grant;
  • Students will be assigned a UT mentor in their sophomore year. Mentors will help them with course advising, transfer applications, applying for internships, and career mentoring. The same mentor will work with each student through to graduation from UT;
  • UT and CC faculty will work with their respective administrators to develop improved transfer pathways and develop methods to track the progress and challenges faced by geoscience transfer students.

Theory of Change

The project is based on the hypothesis that personal, ongoing contact with UT faculty and students, along with exposure to diverse and exciting geoscience fields, will increase CC student interest and preparation for success in 4-year programs. Contextual factors relating to the project include the perceived social barriers and educational disparities that many rural Appalachian CC students encounter when they consider transferring to 4-year programs at large urban universities. Building strong connections with university students and faculty prior to transferring has the potential to decrease impediments and lead to greater student success. A logic model, relating the inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes is shown to the right.

Instruments and Measures of Success

Project evaluation will span the 3-year duration of the project and will be guided by the logic model. It will include both formative and summative evaluation and be performed using a mixed-methods approach including: interviews with participating faculty from UT and partner community colleges; focus groups with recruited students as they finish their 2-year course of study at each partner CC; survey data measuring student satisfaction with individual program activities; focus groups with the first cohort of CC participants who enroll at UT, and again near their graduation; and participant data gathered to document individual student experiences. Staff from the Social Work Office of Research and Public Service (SWORPS) at the University of Tennessee are the independent evaluators for the project and they helped develop the human subjects research application for the Independent Review Board.

SWORPS will collaborate with the primary investigators, and other key stakeholders, on tool development and data collection. This includes development of a telephone survey protocol that stakeholders can use after the end of the grant period, to begin tracking student post-educational experiences (long-term outcomes). SWORPS will process and analyze all data. Descriptive analyses will be run on all demographic and participant data, post program event surveys, and any other quantitative data. Focus group data, interviews, and other qualitative findings will be coded and analyzed for key themes. Interim reports will be prepared for investigators and stakeholders at the end of Year 1 and again at the end of Year 2, to inform program improvement. A final project report addressing program implementation, outputs, and outcomes, will be prepared at the end of Year 3. SWORPS will work with project PIs to develop a plan to disseminate findings to the public and other interested parties.

This work is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation GeoPaths program, grant #1600376.