Initial Publication Date: November 1, 2017

GP-EXTRA – Engaging Diverse Two-Year College Geoscience Students: Expanding Opportunities Through Undergraduate Research and Mentoring

Gretchen Miller, Wake Tech Community College (PI)
John Fountain, North Carolina State University (PI)
Lindsay Zanno, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (PI)
Adrianne Leinbach, Wake Tech Community College (Co-PI)
Stephanie Rollins, Wake Tech Community College (Co-PI)
Sara Rutzky, Wake Tech Community College (Senior Personnel)

Short Description

Wake Tech Community College (Wake Tech) is providing our diverse population of introductory geology students with paid summer geoscience research opportunities at our partner institutions: North Carolina State University (NCSU) and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS). Students who participate in the summer internships are also integrated into an ongoing program of mentoring and professional socialization. Through this program they are given multiple opportunities to present their research projects to various audiences including geology professionals at professional meetings, other undergraduate students at Wake Tech, high school students at career fairs, and to the general public.


Wake Tech, located in Raleigh, North Carolina, has a large and flourishing geoscience program consisting of diverse freshman and sophomore students who are looking to transfer to four-year institutions. Our Introductory Geology course is an ideal course to attract new students to geoscience: our faculty consists of 7 full-time geology instructors who teach approximately 500 Introductory Geology students per semester. Many of these students may not have previously considered majoring in this field but can become interested over the course of the semester. It is important for us to hook these students during their Introductory Geology semester since the broader professional geoscience community is struggling to diversify its workforce while also experiencing mass retirement. Much research demonstrates that undergraduate geology students who are exposed to geoscience research early in their education are much more likely to pursue geoscience careers than their peers who did not have this exposure.

From 2012 to 2016, Wake Tech collaborated with NCSU on a project to provide Wake Tech students with paid summer research experiences with NCSU researchers. This NSF-funded project successfully recruited over 40 diverse students into geoscience. Our NSF GeoPaths-EXTRA project continues to provide paid summer research experiences for our students with NCSU researchers, but expands the opportunities for Wake Tech students to conduct research through an additional partnership with NCMNS. Additionally, our program provides funding for our students to participate in professional socialization and outreach activities to increase the visibility of geoscience careers.


The overarching goal of this project is to increase the number and diversity of students majoring in geoscience at Wake Tech and at the four year colleges to which our students transfer through summer research and year-round programs. The specific objectives of the project are to:

  1. increase Wake Tech students' knowledge of and interest in geoscience fields, research methods, and careers;
  2. recruit diverse students, particularly underrepresented minorities, to participate in an extracurricular research and mentoring experience;
  3. retain and support students as they transfer or prepare to transfer to four-year geoscience degree programs;
  4. increase interest in geoscience in high school students in our service area;
  5. develop undergraduate research opportunities at Wake Tech; and
  6. further develop collegial relations among geoscience faculty and professionals at Wake Tech, NCSU, NCMNS, and members of the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists (AEG).


Increase Knowledge and Interest in Geoscience

During each semester, every member of Wake Tech's geology faculty will present geoscience career opportunities and outlook to our Introductory Geology students, and promote the opportunity for paid summer research internships. They will collect names of students who might be interested in a geoscience major or career, and mentor them towards applying for the summer research opportunity.

Paid Summer Research Internships

Students will be given the opportunity to apply for summer research internships with our project partners. Ten students each year will be matched to research projects within NCSU's Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences, usually in groups of two to three students per laboratory. In addition, two students each year will participate in a NCMNS research internship, including a field expedition to the southwestern United States, as well as research in the laboratory at the NCMNS.

Mentoring and Professional Socialization

All students completing research projects will create a professional poster for presentation at a minimum of one meeting, with most students presenting at least twice at different venues. All students in the program will also receive mentoring on different levels, including student-faculty, student-student, and student-professional; much of this mentoring will come through participation in the Geoscience Outreach activities, listed below.

Geoscience Outreach

Students who have completed research projects will also participate in outreach activities at Wake Tech, such as promoting geology at on campus STEM fairs, sharing their experiences in current Introductory Geoscience courses and at local Wake County Public Schools high school career fairs, and actively participating in the Wake Tech Student Chapter of AEG. These returning students will also be encouraged to work with Wake Tech instructors to develop new laboratory exercises based on their research experiences and results.

Theory of Change

Our hypothesis is that when students are given the opportunity to participate in meaningful geologic research opportunities, they will take ownership of their interest in geology and will become much more likely to follow a geoscience career path. Additionally, we hypothesize that other students are more likely to become interested in the geosciences if fellow students, or in the case of high school students, college students, talk positively about an experience in this field.

We hope to see an increase in interest in our summer research internship program and an increase in student enrollment in all of Wake Tech's geology courses.

Instruments and Measures of Success

We will feel that we have met our goals with this project if 1) students in our geoscience program develop more positive attitudes towards geoscience and a deeper knowledge of careers in these fields, and 2) we successfully increase the number and diversity of applicants to our summer research internship program. Our goal is that at least 50% of the students selected to participate in the internship will be from groups currently underrepresented in the geosciences and that at least 90% of the selected students will complete the program, including both the summer research experience itself and at least one presentation of their research at a professional venue. We further hold the goal that at least 50% of program students will make presentations to other undergraduate students, high school students, or the public in addition to their professional presentations, and at least 50% of our research interns will successfully transfer to a geoscience program at a four year college or university within two years of participating in our program.

We are implementing the following assessment tools and evaluation methods in order to measure our progress towards meeting the project goals and objectives:

  1. Student knowledge and interest in geoscience will be evaluated in our Introductory Geology courses using student responses to questionnaires given towards the beginning and again towards the end of the semester. These questionnaires will allow us to track changes in student attitudes and knowledge about geoscience over the course of one semester.
  2. Recruitment of underrepresented students to participate in the program will be assessed by a review and analysis of student data (e.g. demographics of applicants, selected students, and participants), recruiting materials, and selection procedures.
  3. Evaluation of retaining and supporting students as they transfer will include continued review of student enrollment and retention data, tracking of the percentage of students who transfer to a four-year college geoscience major, and follow-up interviews with students and faculty on student progress.
  4. Interest in geoscience by high school students, developing undergraduate research opportunities at Wake Tech, and further developing collegial relations among geoscience faculty and professionals will be assessed through qualitative analysis of interviews with participating students and faculty and observation of student research presentations. Implementation of student research into our geoscience laboratory exercises will be used to measure the success of providing our students with research-based laboratory activities. We will also maintain records to document student outreach efforts including those at professional meetings, Wake County Public Schools, and Wake Tech STEM events.

This work is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation GeoPaths program, grant 1600410 & 1600545 & 1600428