Geoscience Programs Evolve Through Declining Enrollment

College students find science to be extremely exciting these days. They want to study biotech engineering, gene editing, artificial intelligence, robotics and the quantum realms of computing and biology.

Despite that excitement for all subjects STEM-related, however, as the world continues to work toward renewable energy, many students see petroleum geology as a profession of the past.

This thinking manifests itself in rapidly declining enrollment in the geosciences at universities, and as a result, operators are bracing themselves for a dearth of positions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in six years, there will be a deficit of approximately 118,000 geoscience positions in the United States. Four years ago, there was a total demand of 311,768 full-time geoscience jobs. That number is expected to increase to 344,704 in 2026.

On the flip side, an estimated 147,000 geoscientists are expected to retire by 2026, yet just 62,000 geoscience students will be graduating with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees to fill those gaps.

With oil reaching historic lows, massive layoffs, a growing stigma against fossil fuels, and new fields of science with a futuristic feel, it is understandable why studying the geosciences – particularly for careers in petroleum – might strike a student as a bad idea.

Most would agree the oil and gas industry has a major public relations crisis on its hands. To remain relevant, it must demonstrate the growing need for geoscientists in forward-thinking positions where job security is all but a given.

All About Jobs

Generation Z is an echo of Generation X in terms of practicality, said Christopher Keane, director of Geoscience Profession and Higher Education at the American Geosciences Institute.

“A degree doesn’t matter much to them. It’s the job prospects,” he said. “The mindset is extremely pragmatic and baked into their culture. At the current price for oil, it is hard to convince today’s students that petroleum is attractive.”

Keane does not believe students are being “drawn away” from the industry.

“They are being driven away,” he said. “The oil industry publicly advertises when people are laid off. That’s just a gargantuan turnoff to students. Today, with contraction in capex and bigger layoffs still to come, I worry about that. Students are looking for stability.”

While experienced professionals understand that majoring in the geosciences during a downturn can be good timing, with probability of an upswing and new jobs by graduation, college students aren’t familiar with navigating a cyclical field.

“Without seeing a specific plan for how the industry will recover, the oil and gas industry will not be attractive,” Keane said.

The mining industry can tout its ability to switch from coal to copper, nickel and lithium during ebbs and flows. Can the oil and gas industry compete?

The numbers are shaky and perhaps an ominous barometer for students’ confidence. In 2016, there were 31,744 traditional geoscience majors in the United States. Last year, there were an estimated 25,015. And, “we are expecting a drop this year of well larger than 10 percent,” Keane said.

Geoscience Has Evolved

At the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, AAPG Member Iain Stewart, a geologist and professor of geoscience education, also reports a sharp decline in enrollment – an estimated 25 percent in last several years.

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College students find science to be extremely exciting these days. They want to study biotech engineering, gene editing, artificial intelligence, robotics and the quantum realms of computing and biology.

Despite that excitement for all subjects STEM-related, however, as the world continues to work toward renewable energy, many students see petroleum geology as a profession of the past.

This thinking manifests itself in rapidly declining enrollment in the geosciences at universities, and as a result, operators are bracing themselves for a dearth of positions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in six years, there will be a deficit of approximately 118,000 geoscience positions in the United States. Four years ago, there was a total demand of 311,768 full-time geoscience jobs. That number is expected to increase to 344,704 in 2026.

On the flip side, an estimated 147,000 geoscientists are expected to retire by 2026, yet just 62,000 geoscience students will be graduating with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees to fill those gaps.

With oil reaching historic lows, massive layoffs, a growing stigma against fossil fuels, and new fields of science with a futuristic feel, it is understandable why studying the geosciences – particularly for careers in petroleum – might strike a student as a bad idea.

Most would agree the oil and gas industry has a major public relations crisis on its hands. To remain relevant, it must demonstrate the growing need for geoscientists in forward-thinking positions where job security is all but a given.

All About Jobs

Generation Z is an echo of Generation X in terms of practicality, said Christopher Keane, director of Geoscience Profession and Higher Education at the American Geosciences Institute.

“A degree doesn’t matter much to them. It’s the job prospects,” he said. “The mindset is extremely pragmatic and baked into their culture. At the current price for oil, it is hard to convince today’s students that petroleum is attractive.”

Keane does not believe students are being “drawn away” from the industry.

“They are being driven away,” he said. “The oil industry publicly advertises when people are laid off. That’s just a gargantuan turnoff to students. Today, with contraction in capex and bigger layoffs still to come, I worry about that. Students are looking for stability.”

While experienced professionals understand that majoring in the geosciences during a downturn can be good timing, with probability of an upswing and new jobs by graduation, college students aren’t familiar with navigating a cyclical field.

“Without seeing a specific plan for how the industry will recover, the oil and gas industry will not be attractive,” Keane said.

The mining industry can tout its ability to switch from coal to copper, nickel and lithium during ebbs and flows. Can the oil and gas industry compete?

The numbers are shaky and perhaps an ominous barometer for students’ confidence. In 2016, there were 31,744 traditional geoscience majors in the United States. Last year, there were an estimated 25,015. And, “we are expecting a drop this year of well larger than 10 percent,” Keane said.

Geoscience Has Evolved

At the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, AAPG Member Iain Stewart, a geologist and professor of geoscience education, also reports a sharp decline in enrollment – an estimated 25 percent in last several years.

“That trend seems to be pretty consistent across the UK geoscience departments,” he said. “There are indications from colleagues from across Europe as well as Australia and the U.S. that a similar, sudden downturn is underway. It doesn’t look like a local surficial blip, but something deeper and wider.”

Stewart, a former BBC television presenter for well-known geoscience-based documentaries, is well in touch with public sentiment. He believes that a “rising environmental consciousness” playing out in school climate strikes and in mainstream media only adds to the distaste for the industry.

Moreover, up-and-coming fields of science are captivating young students ready to conquer the world.

“In comparison with cutting edge R&D fields, the geosciences must look like a 20th-century science to them rather than an essential discipline of the 21st century,” he said.

Most are unaware that geoscientists’ entire career trajectories have changed over the last 10 years. Today, geoscientists are facing more itinerant journeys and are becoming more adaptable and able to work across multiple disciplines in the workplace, Stewart explained.

“We think differently from other scientists and engineers. We’re comfortable looking at the real world – above and below ground – in 3-D and in 4-D – and capable of lateral thinking to visualize a succession of very different physical worlds,” he said. “Alongside our robustness, independence and experience in critical thinking forged in the field, that’s a pretty powerful mindset.”

Perhaps the next challenge, then, is figuring how to lift the geosciences from their seemingly stale place on the shelf and showcasing them alongside other dynamic disciplines.

Looking Forward

AAPG Energy Minerals Division President Edith Wilson worked in the oil and gas industry for 30 years until renewables caught her attention in 2016. Today, she helps students and young professionals transfer skills, software and technology from the fossil fuel industry to “clean energy enterprises.”

“They are recognizing that this is not going to be a slow transition. It’s happening at faster and faster speeds,” she said. “People may think students have a negative view of oil and gas, but I think students are seeing what the future is and moving toward it.”

Based in Tulsa, Okla., Wilson counsels geoscience students in her own backyard and around the world. “They recognize that oil and gas is yesterday’s business. They ask me, ‘Do you know anyone in solar, mining or a field that is more forward-looking?’” she said. “Young people are leading the way on this, for sure.”

Changing Curricula

Just 60 miles west of Wilson is AAPG Member Camelia Knapp, professor and head of the Boone Pickens School of Geology at Oklahoma State University, who holds a different view. Acknowledging that enrollment in the geosciences at the undergraduate level has significantly dropped from roughly 175 students in 2014-15 to roughly 50 this academic year, Knapp believes the issue is tied to the cyclical nature of the industry and is compounded by oil’s exceptionally long and rocky comeback.

“We are clearly riding that wave,” she said. “When the price of oil is down, there is less hiring, and that affects enrollment.”

She believes the answer, in part, lies in expanding geoscience degree offerings, classes and outreach to high schools to keep the discipline thriving.

In the last two years, OSU has introduced new geoscience degree options including environmental geology and pre-law geology, for students with an interest in environmental law. The school also began offering a secondary teacher certification program for graduates who wish to teach the geosciences at the kindergarten through 12th-grade level, Knapp said.

Beginning last year, students at OSU could opt for a dual degree, five-year program to earn a bachelor’s in geology and an MBA, and this year they will be able to take an accelerated master’s program, graduating in five years with a bachelor’s and master’s in geology.

A minor in geophysics was added to the degree program in 2019, and the university is working on a proposal for an undergraduate degree in geophysics, Knapp said.

New courses for geoscience students include “The Story of Dinosaurs, Earthquakes and Disasters,” and “Yellowstone: Anatomy of a Volcano.” A first-time climate change class, “Climate Change and Humanity,” has been offered and is “doing well” with 50 students currently enrolled, Knapp said.

A professional science master’s program is in the works through a partnership with the OSU Tulsa campus, where students will take on-line or hybrid classes, including weekend-long labs, to earn professional geosciences master’s degrees with concentrations in geophysics, hydrogeology or petroleum geology.

OSU also sponsors science and engineering fairs and awards monetary prizes to students with outstanding geoscience-related projects. “It is a means of recruiting highly talented STEM oriented students,” Knapp said.

“Some students worry that if they enter the oil and gas industry, people will think that they don’t care about the environment,” Knapp said. “We explain to them that energy companies are very conscientious about their environmental footprint. We talk to them about (carbon capture and storage) and we also remind them that 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. We are not going to switch the valves anytime soon while developing renewable energy resources.”

Aware of the industry’s growing bleak image, Knapp has created a Branding and Media Committee to tackle public perception through its branding, website, social media and advertising outlets.

Public Relations

The industry needs robust marketing and public relations campaigns to penetrate public perception, Stewart said.

“There is a broad momentum toward sustainability and societal wellbeing that companies, organizations and governments are signing up for and delivering against, and geoscience needs to show how it is a part of that,” he said. “That doesn’t just mean harping on about future resource needs for sustainable energies and technologies as a way of justifying business as usual, but rethinking our entire business model.”

He believes that geoscience could reinvent itself as “the science of the subsurface” and sell the important opportunities the subsurface world has for addressing many of society’s concerns, emphasizing how geoscientists are the explorers of that “fresh and exciting planetary frontier.”

“It’s more or less what we do anyway, so it would allow mainstream geology to subtly and imaginatively redirect itself to the real problematic issues that will confront humanity in the continuing decades,” he said.

While there is no doubt that students see renewable energy and other cutting-edge sciences as exciting and of-the-moment, the industry needs to tout how the geosciences fall on equal ground.

Geoscience is changing fast and will play a key role in renewable energy.

“Hydrocarbons, gas especially, are going to be a staple energy source for many decades to come,” Stewart added. “And major operators are looking toward the energy transition by taking on renewable assets, so the prospect is of far more integrated technologies that build on synergies and reduce redundancies.”

Furthermore, if CCS technology takes serious hold, conventional geological experts will be center stage once again, Stewart said. “For this to happen though, it will require a regime change in thinking about how the oil and gas industry addresses the challenges of climate change and environmental sustainability.”

Endless Possibilities

So how will a geoscientist fit into this new world?

In addition to oil and gas, a world of opportunity awaits. Environmental hydrology, hazards and geological engineering are up-and-coming areas. NASA, NOAA and other government agencies also express a growing need for geoscientists, said AAPG Member Sharon Mosher, former dean of the University of Texas’ Jackson School of Geology.

“We need to put the message out there about all the fields where geoscientists are needed,” she said.

Mosher encourages more outreach at the secondary school level, including having discussions with high school counselors, playing popular videos – such as “Earth is Calling” – in the classrooms, and meeting with college admissions counselors about how to convey the diversity of the discipline.

“Today’s students are really attracted to high tech, and geoscience is a high-tech field,” she said.

Stewart added that students should be informed about how energy companies have tremendous potential to be catalysts for change in low-income, developing countries through capacity-building and education to appeal to their sense of wanting to help humanity.

“We’ve recently started a five-year UNESCO project on ‘Geology for Sustainable Development’ with former AAPG President Denise Cox as one of the leaders,” he said. “The goal is to use that platform to better demonstrate how geoscience thinking and skills can help deliver sustainable development ambitions.”

Foundation for the Future

The Houston Geological Society has been successfully recruiting students into the geosciences through its annual scholarship event, which allows undergraduate and graduate students to pursue their academic careers.

This year, despite the industry downturn, HGS raised more than $50,000 for scholarships.

In February, HGS invited astronaut Jessica Watkins, whose academic background is in planetary geology, to share with students career options they might not have thought possible. Watkins discussed how her love for rocks led her to NASA, where she looks forward to studying the geology of the moon and Mars (see related story on page 28 of this issue).

Olivia Rigsby, an HGS scholarship recipient and senior at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, listened intensely as Watkins talked about steering the rover, Curiosity, through Mars’ Gale Crater.

Rigsby’s uncle, a geologist, introduced her to the field, and Rigsby quickly found that geology classes were “more fun” than biology, her initial major.

“I like the structural aspect of geology, looking at a map and figuring out the geological history,” she said. “To be able to map an area and say, OK, there’s definitely oil and gas here – that would be the best job in whole wide world.”

Or, maybe the best job would be exploring other planets. After hearing Watkins speak, Rigsby feels torn. But she knows she has options.

“Space exploration is definitely going to be the next step for geologists, or at least I hope it will,” she said.

Whichever path she chooses, her decision will be informed – based on knowledge and awareness she has received from family members, professors, geological societies, professional geoscientists and her own experiences as a geoscience student.

Those are the foundations that all students need to embrace the geosciences and launch a successful career that will carry them and the world into a better future.

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