For the past decade, educators have made a serious effort to get minority, female and non-traditional students involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Today that effort has intensified because of a combination of impetus from industry, research in geoscience education and societal changes.
Attempts to attract more minority and female students to science studies have gone “generally well,” according to Eric Riggs, associate dean of graduate affairs and diversity for the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
“There has been significant investment, by the National Science Foundation in particular. The needle has moved,” he said.
Riggs is the immediate past president of the American Geosciences Institute, a former president of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers and will continue as a member of the AGI board of directors until later this year.
While the number of minority and female students seeking STEM-related degrees has increased, geoscience educators are searching for ways to reach truly representative levels of participation.
“The percentage of women in all university geoscience programs, undergraduate and graduate has come up to about 40 percent and stayed stubbornly flat,” Riggs noted.
And educators are also searching for ways to encourage minorities, women and non-traditional students to reach for advanced degrees in the geosciences.
Karen Viskupic is a research professor in the Department of Geology at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho. She received her undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis, then went on to earn a doctorate in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I would say I needed a lot of encouragement from my undergraduate instructors. It wasn’t on my radar screen as a junior,” Viskupic said.
Seeing What Works
Special programs in many university geology and geoscience departments seek to attract more incoming students in the “minority and other” category.
Sharon Mosher, dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas-Austin, said the school has made a special effort to attract minority and non-traditional students with a program that started in 2005.
“We have a program, GeoFORCE, that is dominantly funded by the oil and gas industry,” she said. “We take students on geology field trips in the summer during their high school years. It’s been extremely successful.”
GeoFORCE largely draws from inner-city students and students in southwest Texas – “the Eagle Ford area,” Mosher noted. The program takes about 600 high school students on geological field trips in Texas and throughout the United States.
University faculty, research scientists, other educators and professional geologists from industry partners lead the outings.
Students who have taken part in the program have a 100-percent high school graduation rate. “That’s unheard of,” Mosher said – and about two-thirds go on to pursue STEM-related degrees in college.
“There are success stories,” Riggs said. “There are programs that have been very focused. Right now we are trying to understand why some programs are more successful than others.”
“We’re trying deliberately to understand what’s working, but we have a ways to go,” he added.
Those efforts are targeted at identifying the specific steps and actions educators can take to attract more minority and female students to degree programs, retain them as students and help them earn degrees.
“What can a college do? What can a university do? What can an individual faculty member do?” Riggs said.
Preparing for the Great Crew Change
In one sense, it’s easy to understand why industry in general supports the effort to attract students to STEM-related degrees. A technologically-oriented society can’t afford to have minorities and women take up science and engineering at disproportionately low percentage rates.
“Having a workforce that is diverse, and also highly skilled at communicating with diverse communities around the world, is essential. We need the talent pool,” Riggs said.
For the oil and gas industry, the need to attract minority and female scientists is probably even more acute. Faced with a flood of retirements and some evidence that former employees are abandoning the industry, meeting future staffing level requirements could be challenging.
Non-traditional students may be single parents, employed full time, physically limited, older, veterans who have completed their service, or have other qualities that set them apart from the typical student population. Geoscience education programs try to accommodate and encourage those students.
For encouraging minority and female students, a key concept in college-level geoscience education is to have more minority and female professors in tenured and leadership positions.
“Standards are never lowered. You don’t get yourself anywhere by lowering standards. There are capable people that reflect all components of our society,” Riggs said.
Texas A&M is actively working to get minority and female faculty in more prominent, and more visible, positions, according to Mike Pope, head of the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M University in College Station.
“I know we’re having a trend in trying to hire more women as faculty members,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of role models in tenured faculty members who are women.”
In recent years, a few researchers have criticized the push to attract more students to STEM-related degrees. One observation is that a STEM degree does not lead directly to employment in a technical field, or guarantee a high salary or an uninterrupted professional career.
A significant number of former employees of the worldwide oil and gas industry can attest to that last point.
But any university degree, even an advanced degree, can’t guarantee a career path for an individual. Supporters of the STEM approach say literacy in science and technology is essential to contemporary society, which requires the “talent pool” mentioned by Riggs.
A stronger effort to attract minority, female and non-traditional students isn’t the only story in geoscience today. Geoscience education research has flourished and is beginning to produce impressive results, Riggs said.
“You actually have people presenting programs on this instead of just saying what they think will work. That’s an exciting trend,” he observed.
“It’s refreshing to see this growing organically out of the geoscience education community,” Riggs said. “Even the petroleum industry is starting to research how expert-level specialists learn. It’s an exciting time.”