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Geoscience Education Adapts to New Realities

Petroleum geoscience courses are still attracting university students, despite the downturn in the oil and gas industry, and those students should benefit from new research in geoscience education as they prepare for future careers.

“Our numbers have barely gone down in undergraduates. As far as graduates, our numbers have just started falling off a little lately,” said Mike Pope, head of the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Texas A&M continues to have almost 540 undergraduate students pursuing geoscience degrees and about 140 graduate degree geoscience candidates, Pope said.

Industry Downsizing

What’s knocked the props out a little from beneath petroleum geoscience education isn’t a lack of student enrollment, but a cutback in student-support funding by oil and gas companies.

“We’ve definitely seen a decrease in the number of internships, and also the number of fellowships,” Pope said.

Following the recent decline in industry activity and spending, Texas A&M saw its geoscience fellowships dwindle from 20 to just eight, he said.

Other universities also report cutbacks in student support by the industry. Especially hard-hit are advanced-degree programs where companies have reduced or completely eliminated subsidies for employees’ continued education.

Sharon Mosher, dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas-Austin, said the program “is still at overcapacity, but demand is down.”

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Petroleum geoscience courses are still attracting university students, despite the downturn in the oil and gas industry, and those students should benefit from new research in geoscience education as they prepare for future careers.

“Our numbers have barely gone down in undergraduates. As far as graduates, our numbers have just started falling off a little lately,” said Mike Pope, head of the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Texas A&M continues to have almost 540 undergraduate students pursuing geoscience degrees and about 140 graduate degree geoscience candidates, Pope said.

Industry Downsizing

What’s knocked the props out a little from beneath petroleum geoscience education isn’t a lack of student enrollment, but a cutback in student-support funding by oil and gas companies.

“We’ve definitely seen a decrease in the number of internships, and also the number of fellowships,” Pope said.

Following the recent decline in industry activity and spending, Texas A&M saw its geoscience fellowships dwindle from 20 to just eight, he said.

Other universities also report cutbacks in student support by the industry. Especially hard-hit are advanced-degree programs where companies have reduced or completely eliminated subsidies for employees’ continued education.

Sharon Mosher, dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas-Austin, said the program “is still at overcapacity, but demand is down.”

“We get a fair amount of funding from industry. Because funding is down, we’re bringing in fewer students. But it’s not a significant difference,” she said.

While the school hasn’t yet seen a decrease in applicants for its undergraduate geoscience program, Mosher thinks the numbers will begin to fall off if the industry slump continues.

Diversification

An interesting trend at both Texas A&M and the University of Texas is the number of students moving away from geology-only studies.

“Last year, we had almost as many geophysics majors as geology majors. That seems to have been a one-semester blip for us, but it was a big semester,” Pope said.

Mosher said she has seen a shift toward her university’s combination petroleum engineering-geoscience degree.

And unlike previous downturn cycles, Texas A&M hasn’t experienced an influx of former employees going back to school to upgrade their academic resumes, Pope said.

“One thing we found is that we thought we would be flooded with applications, especially in graduate school. But we haven’t been,” he noted.

If that means former employees are abandoning work in oil and gas, it could be an ominous sign for the industry, already facing a raft of retirements as pre-1985 hires continue to leave the workforce. (See related story on page 8.

Trends in Geoscience Education

Numerous sessions on geoscience education took place at the second annual Earth Educators’ Rendezvous, held in July at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and more papers on the subject will be presented at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Denver in September.

Karen Viskupic, a research professor in the Department of Geology at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho, served as a co-chair for the Rendezvous event.

She said important topics at the meeting included encouraging diversity in the geoscience student population and getting geosocience classrooms to be more active than passive.

“Also, I think, connecting learning in the geosciences to social issues, all of the things society is trying to figure out going forward – There’s a lot of new curricula being developed now that takes best practices and sort of wraps that around social issues,” Viskupic observed.

Key program themes at the Rendezvous included:

  • Diversity, especially in getting women and minorities more involved in geoscience studies.
  • Curriculum design and effectiveness, and identifying the most promising trends in geoscience education.
  • Geo-competencies – the specific skills directly relevant to geoscience.
  • Teacher and instructor training – “how to do it and feel comfortable,” as Viskupic described it.
  • Integration of geoscience with social issues, and also with other disciplines.

Integrating geoscience with other areas of study involves using geoscience concepts to address problems, Viskupic explained.

“How could we have students in an economics class or a political science class learn something about geoscience?” she said.

Another trend in geoscience education is research into how geoscience students learn, Viskupic said. For example, “what are the best ways to improve spatial thinking? How does that learning develop in students?” she said.

Mosher has worked with the National Science Foundation-sponsored Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education Summit. As part of that effort, more than 100 academic leaders identified skills and competencies that need to be developed in geoscience students, then industry input “added granularity” to the list, she said.

At GSA2016 in Denver, presentation topics will include K-12 geoscience education, technological innovation in geoscience instruction, earth science and creativity, and geoscience data resources.

The topic “Incorporating Field Experiences and Project-Based Learning into the Geoscience Classroom” reflects current thinking in geoscience education about the importance of fieldwork, lab work and hands-on discovery.

“We’re trying to build so students can actually show more of what they do when they leave here,” Pope said.

Pope said his department aims for what it calls a “high-impact learning experience,” with students getting plenty of attention from professors and instructors.

“Usually the classes are small, so the students get a lot of experience with the faculty members or with the graduate students,” he said.

Getting students into the field to do research is another key component of the experience, “or to get them into the lab. It doesn’t have to be in the field,” Pope added.

The Jackson School of Geosciences also makes sure undergraduates have plenty of time to interact with faculty members, grad students and specialists, Mosher said.

“You aren’t just mentoring them,” she noted. “You’re getting them involved in creating and doing.”

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