Initial Publication Date: June 14, 2016

GP-Impact: Improving Geoscience Education Pathways through Engaging Scientific and Career Experiences

Brian Savage, University of Rhode Island (PI)
Dawn Cardace, University of Rhode Island (Co-PI)
Karen Kortz, Community College of Rhode Island (Co-PI)
Duayne Rieger, Community College of Rhode Island (Co-PI)

Short Description

This project partners geoscience faculty at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) and the University of Rhode Island (URI) in a collaborative effort to bridge gaps in the 2-year to 4-year college transfer process by offering engaging scientific and career experiences. The project aims to increase the number and diversity of geoscience majors, and to prepare students who are critical to the future of the geoscience workforce more effectively. The target population is 1st and 2nd year students, especially women and underrepresented minorities.

Rhode Island is a small state with well-defined college pathways. The University of Rhode Island is the only in-state public option for Community College of Rhode Island geology transfer students, creating a clear pathway. The University of Rhode Island is a learning-centered research university where all faculty are involved with teaching undergraduate students. Since 2005, most geoscience majors at URI have been male (69%) and white (84%). Overall, the student population at URI is more diverse: 46% male, 54% female, and 22% minority. In contrast to URI, CCRI's student population is 41% male, 59% female, and 41% minority. There is a small but steady transfer of CCRI students to URI in geosciences: generally 9% of geoscience majors at URI come from CCRI. Approximately 750 students annually enroll in introductory geoscience courses at URI and CCRI, with a population that is slightly more white and male than the general student population at each school. This project aims to increase the number and diversity of geoscience majors at URI through attentive recruitment and retention practices, including a focus on increasing geoscience "immigrants," students who have previously majored in a different discipline before turning to the geosciences.


This project's overarching goals are to:

  1. Improve the rate of transfer from CCRI to URI in geosciences,
  2. Increase the number and diversity of geoscience graduates from URI,
  3. Enhance geoscience graduates' employability in geoscience and STEM-related fields, and
  4. Contribute to the evidence base of successful practices in enhanced geoscience student numbers and diversity.

Students will benefit from closer alignment of course content, clarifications of the transfer process and course sequence, and general easing of transfer shock (the temporary lowering of GPA during adjustment to a new academic culture and subsequent delay to graduation).


The project activities are designed to ensure effective results and are based on published findings of successful practices to recruit and retain geoscience students, especially 2YC transfer students and diverse students. The following is a sampling of some of the activities employed to meet the project goals:

Develop a new research-focused course team-taught by CCRI and URI faculty (Goals 1-3)

This jointly-offered course is taught by both University of Rhode Island and Community College of Rhode Island geoscience faculty (Project leaders Savage and Rieger) allowing 2YC and 4YC students to interact as peers, develop relationships with faculty, and reduce transfer stress. This hands-on, data-driven course provides excellent opportunities for: 1) increasing geoscience enrollments in a second geoscience course beyond introductory courses; 2) ensuring that students develop a set of skills that are desired in college and beyond; 3) reducing barriers for transfer students, and 4) fostering student engagement as students learn the process of science.

Support transfer students through events, curriculum collaboration, and advising (Goals 1-2)

To facilitate 2YC student transfer, the Department of Geosciences at University of Rhode Island participates in transfer student orientation days at URI, hosts a new transfer student lunch in the department, provides a tour of the department, and coordinates a brief round-robin session with faculty and current geoscience students. Community College of Rhode Island transfer students are reached online and face-to-face to provide advising and mentorship before they transfer to URI. Faculty at CCRI and URI work together to align the curricula of introductory geoscience courses at both institutions and they share teaching resources (e.g., mineral/equipment collections, specimens, data, video, lab space).

Recruit students through events at Community College of Rhode Island (Goal 2)

Project leaders coordinate with campus-based student groups, orientation events, and career fairs to organize events at CCRI. In addition, information sessions are held specifically for students enrolled in introductory geoscience courses, with personal invitations to take additional geoscience courses and consider joining the major. Events involve URI students, both graduate and undergraduate, especially those who transferred successfully from CCRI, to informally share information and advice.

Provide internship support at University of Rhode Island (Goal 2)

The project provides stipends for 8 summer student research internships at URI. Two existing avenues for these internships at URI are the Coastal Fellows Research Internship Program and the Science and Engineering Fellows Program, both of which have built-in mentoring and advising. Student recruiting includes a focus on underrepresented minorities and transfer students, and matches students with internships in the summer or in the academic year, depending on student needs. Academic credit can be earned for internship work.

Offer joint field trips (Goal 2)

The project offers one joint full-day field experience each semester, supported by a graduate teaching assistant, for introductory geology students at both CCRI and URI. These field trips center on aesthetically inspiring and geologically significant RI locations. They promote socialization, providing students with an opportunity to bond with other geoscience majors and faculty.

Offer workshop on applying for internships or research positions (Goals 1-3)

Project leader Rieger offers an 8-hour workshop, delivered over 2-4 meetings, to build research skills, prepare students for research opportunities, and assist students in acquiring an internship or research position. Students from both URI and CCRI may participate. Internships and undergraduate research are high-impact practices for undergraduate learning and retention, and align with recommendations in the educational research literature.

Theory of Change

The Community College of Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island are developing both on- and off-campus components to bridge the college transfer process. These components include: targeted improvements to the gateway course to the major; systematic enhancements of the undergraduate curriculum in terms of data-rich activities, collaborative learning, and field experiences; a series of information-sharing and mentoring events for prospective geoscience majors; streamlining of the transfer path into geosciences; a new research-focused course that is team-taught by CCRI and URI faculty; and a workshop engaging students in the process of applying for internships and research opportunities. The hypothesis is that this suite of activities will smooth the transfer pathway from CCRI to URI, thus increasing the number and diversity of undergraduate students majoring in the geosciences. In addition, this project will enhance the undergraduate experience and provide new mentorship and paths to professional success for all geoscience students at both institutions.

Changes made to CCRI and URI curricular programs will endure, and new community building events will foster a more engaged geoscience community in Rhode Island. Further, this project will cement emerging collaborations between CCRI and URI geoscience faculty, paving the way for future projects and serving as a positive example of 2YC/4YCU partnership within RI and nationally. Because the project team is purposefully choosing activities that have a relatively low cost to implement and are evaluating relative effectiveness, their findings will be adaptable to other situations.

Instruments and Measures of Success

The project evaluation includes formative and summative components, collecting and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data. We will examine not just the change in the number of students, but what is causing the change, and why that change is occurring. Evidence of success will be gathered using a variety of tools, including surveys and focus groups, to get at this information.

Below are the main techniques we will use to measure success:

  1. Examine enrollment and participation numbers, in particular we will be looking for increases in overall participation as well as increases in diversity of geoscience majors and transfer student numbers.
  2. Keep records of which students participate in which activities. We will compare that data to which of these students become geoscience majors; transfer to the University of Rhode Island; gets an internship; is employed after graduation; etc.
  3. Distribute surveys to students after participation in various activities to learn how the activities changed students' attitudes towards geology as a major. We will distribute other surveys as appropriate (such as ones to measure student confidence).
  4. Run many focus groups with students at a variety of levels (e.g. intro courses at CCRI or URI, students in the research-focused team-taught course, majors at URI, graduating seniors) to learn what the factors are that most influence student decisions to become and remain geology majors (such as interest, barriers, etc.).

This work is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation GeoPaths program, grant #1540719.