Robert Gray is a man on a mission.
Gray, an AAPG Grover E. Murray Distinguished Geology Educator Award winner in 2014, said he is tired of lower-level geologic study at community and city college levels being treated like the Rodney Dangerfield of academia.
"We're all well aware," this professor of earth science at Santa Barbara City College said, "that large major 'research' universities require the tenured geologic professors to focus on research with the aid of graduate geo-majors (who get financial assistance from the research work)."
What they miss, he wants you to know, is often the student.
"Without the threat of Publish or Perish," Gray said of SBCC - but he includes other city and community colleges as well - "we can focus more on the freshman and sophomore students. We have time to counsel them more thoroughly and to push them out to the university of their choice".
"Our whole geology program is centered around 'geology in the field.'"
Ahead of the Curve
It's a case of quality and quantity - and it works not only for students, but also, ultimately, for the industry.
"Over the years I have received emails and, in the past, letters from our geo-majors who have gone on to universities extolling their achievements at the junior and senior level, because they were way ahead of their classmates who had taken the freshman and sophomore courses at the university."
And here Gray makes a bold claim.
"I'm not sure that the universities really care about the freshman/sophomore classes."
An overstatement, maybe, but in those letters and emails, Gray said, his graduates are thankful for not only the kind of courses they took at SBCC, but the environment at the school as well.
"They feel that they are better equipped and more focused than their similar geo-majors who came up through the university program."
This nurturing process, though, begins even before the student gets to college -any college.
Gray said that very few geology majors are born that way and the courses that might excite them have much to be desired.
"Many earth sciences courses at the high school level are perceived as 'easy' natural sciences courses for the non-natural scientists majors," he said.
This continues in what he calls the "rocks for jocks" courses in high schools, which are an easy-out for students who need to take a natural science course.
"Unfortunately, high school counselors often promote the earth sciences courses for less-academically inclined students," he said.
The problem is exacerbated once the student enters college.
"The geoscience programs at some of the most prestigious major universities focus almost entirely on the graduate geology programs," he said. "Little interest is shown in recruiting freshman geology students."
Fixing the Pipeline
Which is where, he believes, the community college can excel, where this recruitment and encouragement can take form. He believes the success of a community college program should be measured in attracting geo-majors. This way, there will be a link to either an upper-division geology program at a four-year university or to a geo-technician program leading to work in industry.
"In our case (at Santa Barbara Community College), we had both going from 1975 to 1987 until the petroleum industry in Ventura, California collapsed."
He feels it behooves a) community college geology professors to focus on such recruitment, and b) the industry and associations like AAPG to recognize and encourage those efforts.
"So I'm only asking that AAPG or any other geology organization occasionally include the community colleges for their role in recruiting geology majors," he said.
"I really think that many major universities never explain that some or perhaps many of their geo-majors came through the community colleges."
In conclusion, he said, community colleges that have good geo-majors programs are a better place to get early training for students than bigger schools.
"There is more flexibility to mix and match classes at a community college than at the university in this early-going stage."
His goal, he reiterates, is not to knock what's going on at the bigger schools, especially when it comes to research, which admittedly and obviously is something at which the smaller schools cannot compete. What he wants from industry - and this is important to him - is for the profession to remember and acknowledge how vital the role of community college geology department and their geo-majors are.
"Our motto is to recruit, recruit, then retain, retain and foster a collegiate approach to all of our geo-majors," he said.
In fact, at Santa Barbara, over its 48-year history, more than 800 geologists have gone into industry.
"We're proud of that accomplishment."