Initial Publication Date: June 14, 2016

Undergraduate Research in Geoscience at Northern Virginia Community College

Information for this profile was provided by Shelley Jaye, Geology.

Departmental/Institutional Context

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is the largest educational institution in Virginia and the second-largest community college in the United States, comprising of more than 75,000 students and 2,600 faculty and staff members. NOVA is also one of the most internationally diverse colleges in the United States, with a student body consisting of individuals from more than 180 countries. Located near Washington, D.C., the College includes six campuses along with four educational centers. NOVA offers more than 160 degrees at the associate's level and certificate programs. We also offer distance learning programs through our Extended Learning Institute and continuing education courses through Workforce Development.

The geoscience program at NOVA is large and robust. We have eight full-time faculty spread across our four largest campuses. I am located on our Annandale, VA campus which is NOVA's largest campus. We currently have three full-time geoscience faculty and five adjunct professors. We teach a variety of geoscience courses including introductory Physical and Historical Geology, Oceanography, Mineralogy, and, Environmental Geology. We offer an array of specialty classes, such as Snowball Earth and the National History and Environment of the Chesapeake Bay, as well as a large assortment of one credit field trip courses and longer, weekend, one- and two-week field courses in various locations in the US and Canada.

Research Program Description

The NOVA geosciences department regularly offers a comparable and transferable course in Mineralogy that includes a strong optical component. NOVA has a well-established relationship with the US Geological Survey headquartered in nearby Reston, VA. The Survey has hired a good number of NOVA geoscience students as interns and part-time employees. Through this partnership I have been able to establish a small research project involving Honors Mineralogy students. The project involves teaching the students how to make rock thin-sections and then complete detailed petrographic descriptions and modal analyses of crystalline basement rock cored from the Virginia Coastal Plain. The rock core was drilled by the USGS while conducting their discovery and scientific investigation of a buried impact structure near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

The project exposes early undergraduate students to one of the basic fundamentals of geologic research, which is whole rock petrographic analysis. This is a "win-win" situation for everyone involved. The students learn new skills in rock hand sample preparation and enhance their practice in optical techniques of mineral identification. The USGS is provided with detailed petrographic and modal analyses of core samples that they themselves do not have time to complete. It also provides the Survey with a ready pool of candidates for volunteer and internship positions. I am provided with an on-going honors project with about 1,000 feet of core yet to describe. I can also look to expand the project to include correlation with other available Coastal Plain core rock as well as similarly age-dated field locations in the Piedmont. Our collective hope is that this experience will encourage these Honor students to continue their education in the study of the geosciences.

Outcomes and Benefits

This research project began in earnest in the Spring of 2013. Six of the students enrolled in Mineralogy chose to become involved in the Honors Option project. The students learned to make thin sections of their specific length of the core. Using their best thin section products, the students completed detailed descriptions and point counts. Their data was gathered and plotted to specifically characterize the core sample. The process of getting to that point was documented and presented by two of the students at the Fall 2013 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting as well as at several regional and state meetings. This offered tremendous exposure and a fantastic learning experience for these students. Of the six students involved in the project, five are committed to pursuing advanced education in the geosciences and all are still completing requirements for transfer to a four-year university. One student has been hired by the USGS in a permanent part-time position while he completes his undergraduate degree. This particular student will receive the 2014 Subaru Minority Student Scholarship Award at the 2014 GSA in Vancouver (see:, Southeastern Section winner).

This research has provided many benefits to the geoscience department at NOVA. The visibility within the college has helped steer money our way which has allowed us to upgrade our polarizing light microscopes and all of our thin section production equipment. We have also been able to purchase a motorized mechanical stage to aid in the point counting process.

Challenges and Solutions

The main challenge in conducting research at the community college is time; both for the students and for myself. Community College students often face different challenges and demands on their time than those in a university setting. Most community college students have to work to pay for their education and living expenses; a good percentage of our students also receive some type of financial aid support. This presents a major challenge in allowing them the time to dedicate to a project that requires their presence on campus outside of class time. Also, these students are not "in their major" so they do not have the support of a larger student body all focused on advancing their geologic knowledge and skills. Fortunately, this research is embraced by all of the professors in the department, which has allowed us to create a small community of support. Our professors teach their own lab course sections which gives the research students access to the samples and equipment for extended periods of the day. Students are not allowed keys to any campus facilities therefore an instructor must be present to "oversee" the lab work.

Instructional load for community college professors in a science usually includes the equivalent of teaching three lecture plus three corresponding lab sections. This course load does not leave me with much time to be involved and available to effectively pursue the research to the level desired (looking at expansion, writing papers and grant proposals, specifically). With the support of my dean I have been able to group my course offerings on two long days so I can focus separately on teaching and research throughout the week.

Keys to Success

The key to the success of this project so far has been perseverance. This all began when I first arrived at the college and realized that we had thin section equipment purchased over 20 years ago that was in continual storage as the department moved from one location to the next on campus. The thin section cutting and grinding machines had to literally be chipped out of the floor because so much wax had built up around them. Putting the machines into working order was also a challenge due to pieces and parts having been lost over the years. Fortunately, NOVA Geology courses attract people from the local community that have time and expertise to share and were willing to help me get the equipment in working order so that the research project could begin. Lesson Learned #1: ask for assistance; it may arrive from unlikely sources. At the community college, senior citizens interested in learning about geology with time to help have been an invaluable source of knowledge and labor to our department. Lesson Learned #2: do what you can with as little as you may have. Your enthusiasm for what you are doing is infectious. Don't be afraid to "toot your own horn" and let everyone within your administration know what you are doing. The administration is also driven by student success and will keep you in mind when funding opportunities are available.

Our successes have been many – beginning with the first thin section to successfully make it through the process. The greatest success though, has been allowing the students the opportunity to be immersed in the scientific method with real research and data and a stage on which they can share their findings. Guiding them in creating posters and presentations and then seeing them discuss their work with USGS scientists, at state and regional meetings as well as on the national stage has been the greatest success of all. Knowing that they are well prepared and confident to continue their education in the geosciences is the real success.


Parker, M., Rohrback, R. and Jaye, S. (2013) Undergraduate Research on the Bayside Core of the Chesapeake Bay Impact Structure, Past, Present and Future Studies. Abstracts with Programs (Geological Society of America), 45(7): 211.

Jaye, S. (2012) Teaching Mineralogy at the Community College. Abstracts with Programs (Geological Society of America), 44(7): 572.

Mogk, David. (2008) Guided Discovery and Scoring Rubric for Petrographic Analysis of a Thin Section, The Role of Metacognition in Teaching Geoscience. Retrieved 13 Aug. 2014.