Overcoming Physical Barriers to the Geosciences

The geosciences have always attracted people with a sense of adventure, a mind for problem solving and the propensity to travel to remote areas and work in physically challenging landscapes. In the early days of geology, the capacity to traverse rugged terrain was an important requisite to employment in the geosciences. As the geoscience workplace has modernized, however, there are now many career opportunities that do not require the physical ability to explore the landscape on foot. Yet, the perception that the study of geology must be interwoven with physical challenges still acts as a barrier to participation for students and practitioners with disabilities in the geosciences.

The International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD) works to change that perception.

I was inspired after working on a project that provided students with mobility disabilities the opportunity to study the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky. These students were just as engaged and excited to learn about the Earth, but were never given an opportunity to do so. I became driven to help shift the traditional focus on physical or sensory ability being a requisite skill to be a geoscientist.

Today, that vision has evolved into the IAGD: a 501c3 non-profit I founded with the mission of promoting inclusive instructional practices, creating research opportunities for students with disabilities and raising awareness for improving access and engagement in the geosciences for students and professionals with disabilities. The IAGD is led by an executive committee of volunteers from academia and industry who are passionate about making the study of the Earth a more inclusive endeavor. By supporting a range of activities from teacher training workshops to field experiences for students with disabilities, the IAGD has become instrumental bringing attention to the challenges of access in the geosciences, as well as working to address those challenges with innovative solutions.

Image Caption

The students, research faculty and support team for the IAGD’s most recent inclusive field experience in Ireland.

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The geosciences have always attracted people with a sense of adventure, a mind for problem solving and the propensity to travel to remote areas and work in physically challenging landscapes. In the early days of geology, the capacity to traverse rugged terrain was an important requisite to employment in the geosciences. As the geoscience workplace has modernized, however, there are now many career opportunities that do not require the physical ability to explore the landscape on foot. Yet, the perception that the study of geology must be interwoven with physical challenges still acts as a barrier to participation for students and practitioners with disabilities in the geosciences.

The International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD) works to change that perception.

I was inspired after working on a project that provided students with mobility disabilities the opportunity to study the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky. These students were just as engaged and excited to learn about the Earth, but were never given an opportunity to do so. I became driven to help shift the traditional focus on physical or sensory ability being a requisite skill to be a geoscientist.

Today, that vision has evolved into the IAGD: a 501c3 non-profit I founded with the mission of promoting inclusive instructional practices, creating research opportunities for students with disabilities and raising awareness for improving access and engagement in the geosciences for students and professionals with disabilities. The IAGD is led by an executive committee of volunteers from academia and industry who are passionate about making the study of the Earth a more inclusive endeavor. By supporting a range of activities from teacher training workshops to field experiences for students with disabilities, the IAGD has become instrumental bringing attention to the challenges of access in the geosciences, as well as working to address those challenges with innovative solutions.

What the IAGD Does

Student members of the IAGD have found mentors and opportunities to strengthen their geoscience skills through inclusive programs and accessible field study experiences. For some of these students, their participation in geoscience research activities also sends an important message to the broader scientific community. Student ambassador Sean Thatcher describes his participation in IAGD-sponsored field experiences as a place where “everyone is engaging with each other and working with each other and learning from each other — it not only builds inclusion but it also lets people understand that people with physical disabilities or intellectual disabilities are not only capable of doing research … but they are capable of contributing to the community at large, to something bigger than themselves.”

During a recent study, students with various physical disabilities participated in field-based research experiences through the use of mixed-ability team collaboration and digital communication in the complex geologic landscapes of western Ireland. This project combined two aspects of the IAGD mission by creating a unique opportunity for students with disabilities to participate in collegiate level fieldwork and also created an opportunity for groundbreaking research into accessible approaches to field learning.

The diverse membership of the IAGD comes from almost 30 countries around the world and includes students, faculty and industry professionals. Support and training for instructors and mentors working with students with disabilities are crucial to success in bringing them through a degree track in the geosciences and into the workforce. Additionally, support is needed for current geoscience practitioners who have acquired disabilities either through accident, illness or the normal aging process. Keeping these knowledgeable and talented people engaged in the workforce is no less important than any other aspect of this global organization.

Working at both ends of the workforce spectrum, the IAGD offers professional development workshops and accessible field courses to instructors and teaching assistants in higher education and K-12, and industry personnel who engage and include all students and geoscientists with diverse physical and sensory abilities in the various classroom and workplace environments.

Support from the AAPG Foundation

Recently, the leadership of the IAGD began to notice that as the organization has grown and evolved, their web-presence was beginning to lag behind the vision for the organization.

We want to be the go-to source for faculty looking for innovative ideas and resources for inclusive teaching practices, as well as a community of support and opportunity for students and professionals with disabilities in the geosciences, but our outdated website and online resources were simply not up to the task.

Now, thanks to a generous donation from the AAPG Foundation, a full overhaul of the IAGD website is under way, along with updated resources to support persons with many disability types, including new information to accommodate those with Autism and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Once completed, the website will continue serve as an information hub for anyone interested in accessibility in the geosciences and across all STEM disciplines, designed with the latest inclusive design practices for ease of navigation and accessibility for all users.

For more information about the IAGD, please contact me at director@theiagd.org or (513) 556-3613. 

The author would like to acknowledge Anita Marshall, doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida, for her contribution to this article. 

 


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