State Geo Departments Struggle to Stay Afloat

In their collective struggle to stay afloat, geology departments at state-run universities are calling upon industry to throw them a life preserver.

AAPG, among other interests within the industry, has consistently answered in the form of a multitude of grants and scholarships – but it’s not nearly enough to maintain the current educational landscape, according to some educators.

“You know, we’re going to get to the point one day where there’s not going to be geology programs like we know them, unless we have support from the industry,” said AAPG member David King, a geology professor at Alabama’s Auburn University and the faculty adviser of AU’s AAPG student chapter.

“Universities like mine – state universities – are now state assisted,” he said. “They’re not state supported, and that’s true of most places. They look to outside money to make up the difference because we don’t have the tax revenue support like we used to.”

The Classic Squeeze

Of course, the problem King addressed is a widespread one and it’s gotten plenty of mainstream media attention.

Just do an Internet search for the phrase “university budget cuts“ and an endless train of news articles will show up about different universities and different state legislatures, all telling the same story: Since even before the recession, funding from states has been in steady decline while enrollment has steadily increased, forcing state-run schools to tighten their belts and scrape for savings and revenue wherever they can find it.

“This is the classic squeeze in our business,” said Rick Aster, the new head of Colorado State University’s Department of Geosciences.

Along with raising tuition, schools also typically cope by packing classrooms and asking faculty to do more with less, which has worked out well in some cases, but not others.

Geology programs, of course, fall into the latter category.

“You might be able to teach calculus to 500 kids with those electronic clickers on their desk, but you can’t really teach field geology and not go out in the field,” King said.

His comments were echoed by Aster, who explained that the field and laboratory work, as well as the quantitative and scientific intricacies of the subject, demand more hands-on teaching and learning than a simple lecture-style teaching model will allow.

“If you look at educational paradigms, our pedagogies are considered highly desirable,” Aster said. “Our field camps that we’ve done, traditionally, are classic examples of experiential learning, where people go to the outcrop, they observe, they share, there’s back-and-forth with the instructor. It’s highly experiential, and that leads to great learning outcomes, but it requires a lot more effort than doing large lectures and multiple-choice computer-graded exams.

“Geosciences has a traditionally low student-to-faculty ratio, even at some of the more pressed universities,” he added. “If you look at a psychology department or a big math department and so forth, those people can be pushing 30-40 undergrad students per faculty member.

“But the course and the traditions are different, the teaching demands are different, the laboratory demands are different and so forth,” he continued. “Sometimes you worry about people making apples-to-oranges comparisons between different fields.”

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In their collective struggle to stay afloat, geology departments at state-run universities are calling upon industry to throw them a life preserver.

AAPG, among other interests within the industry, has consistently answered in the form of a multitude of grants and scholarships – but it’s not nearly enough to maintain the current educational landscape, according to some educators.

“You know, we’re going to get to the point one day where there’s not going to be geology programs like we know them, unless we have support from the industry,” said AAPG member David King, a geology professor at Alabama’s Auburn University and the faculty adviser of AU’s AAPG student chapter.

“Universities like mine – state universities – are now state assisted,” he said. “They’re not state supported, and that’s true of most places. They look to outside money to make up the difference because we don’t have the tax revenue support like we used to.”

The Classic Squeeze

Of course, the problem King addressed is a widespread one and it’s gotten plenty of mainstream media attention.

Just do an Internet search for the phrase “university budget cuts“ and an endless train of news articles will show up about different universities and different state legislatures, all telling the same story: Since even before the recession, funding from states has been in steady decline while enrollment has steadily increased, forcing state-run schools to tighten their belts and scrape for savings and revenue wherever they can find it.

“This is the classic squeeze in our business,” said Rick Aster, the new head of Colorado State University’s Department of Geosciences.

Along with raising tuition, schools also typically cope by packing classrooms and asking faculty to do more with less, which has worked out well in some cases, but not others.

Geology programs, of course, fall into the latter category.

“You might be able to teach calculus to 500 kids with those electronic clickers on their desk, but you can’t really teach field geology and not go out in the field,” King said.

His comments were echoed by Aster, who explained that the field and laboratory work, as well as the quantitative and scientific intricacies of the subject, demand more hands-on teaching and learning than a simple lecture-style teaching model will allow.

“If you look at educational paradigms, our pedagogies are considered highly desirable,” Aster said. “Our field camps that we’ve done, traditionally, are classic examples of experiential learning, where people go to the outcrop, they observe, they share, there’s back-and-forth with the instructor. It’s highly experiential, and that leads to great learning outcomes, but it requires a lot more effort than doing large lectures and multiple-choice computer-graded exams.

“Geosciences has a traditionally low student-to-faculty ratio, even at some of the more pressed universities,” he added. “If you look at a psychology department or a big math department and so forth, those people can be pushing 30-40 undergrad students per faculty member.

“But the course and the traditions are different, the teaching demands are different, the laboratory demands are different and so forth,” he continued. “Sometimes you worry about people making apples-to-oranges comparisons between different fields.”

And that “apples-to-oranges” comparison is all too often the standard operating procedure for administrators, at least in King’s experience.

“At most universities, the administrators are not scientists,” he said, explaining that most administrators tend to assume that the teaching model that worked for them in their own classroom experience will work for all subjects.

STEMing the Problem

Adding to geoscience professors’ difficulties is yet another problem that’s been plaguing education and the national economy in general: A widespread lack of preparedness among students in what are known as “STEM” subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math”), which leaves them woefully unprepared for the demands of an undergraduate geoscience program.

“Certainly, we have a lot of schools where the high school science teacher doesn’t have much of a scientific background,” Aster said.

In fact, it’s not entirely uncommon to hear about high school athletic coaches … who also teach geology as a side-gig (that is, if the school offers a course in geology in the first place).

“Some of those people can surprise you, but a lot of them just are not trained, scientific educators,” he said. “They don’t know about the fact that geoscience is one of the most data-intensive, highly computational fields in the world.”

So, without adequate preparation or even realistic expectations of what geology entails, university-level instructors have to take up the slack by remediating many students in key subjects that, ideally, they would have learned in high school.

“We do have to fill that in, and there is a subset at all large schools of students who are either not particularly strongly trained in math, or who have some degree of math fear that we have to bring up to speed,” Aster explained. “It’s certainly something we have to address both in the core curriculum at a big university like this, and also in some of our curricular items.”

“It’s significant here and I suspect its significant basically everywhere,” he added.

King pointed out another factor compounding the problem further: “We don’t have accrediting agencies like engineers do – nobody comes in and tells the administrators, ‘Look, you need to do this with your geology program or we’re going to take away your accreditation, and then the degree won’t mean anything.’ They don’t have that in geology.”

So, with the pressure of ever-decreasing funding and without clear outside guidance on how geology should be taught, school administrators nationwide typically see two options: Pack more students into classrooms and diminish educational quality, or cut the program entirely.

And because of the higher price tag associated with teaching geology relative to other subjects, it’s usually the most conspicuous target when administrators have to find places to make cuts.

“They’d rather have courses where they don’t have labs, but that’s not a science,” King said. “You can’t get a degree like that.”

Consequently, as explained by AAPG member Rebecca Dodge, associate professor of geosciences at Midwestern State University in Texas, geology programs and other science departments are increasingly becoming an endangered species in higher education – especially if enrollment in the program is low in the first place.

“Honestly, if you’re in a state college, like I am, the state organization that looks at departments on state universities all over Texas a couple of years ago started looking at how many students were graduating with degrees in geology or chemistry or math or whatever, and they just about did away with the chemistry program,” she said.

“Geology and environmental science combined into one program, because we were graduating enough people, but they killed our physics program,” she added. “And this can happen, and has happened to geology departments.”

And if schools start cutting geology departments, King said the damage would be all but impossible to reverse.

“It could be another geology department that’s gone, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. “Once a program like that is gone, they never bring it back … Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

It Takes an Industry

Without hope in sight for any significant reversal in state funding trends, geoscience educators like King, Aster and Dodge are looking to the private sector to alleviate some of the pressure.

And to some degree, that’s already begun to happen.

“AAPG is providing scholarships this summer for 17 teachers from across the nation to take an online course on ‘Teaching Earth Science at the high school level,’” Dodge said.

The American Geosciences Institute is offering the course, paid for by scholarships provided by the AAPG Foundation, and it’s hosted by the Illinois Institute of Technology, using their online course software.

“This a course for high school earth science teachers, and it’s designed to make sure that earth science, in the states where it’s taught at the high school level, is taught really well,” said Dodge.

Dodge developed the course and is the co-instructor of record, along with an instructor from AGI.

The course is a pilot program, with a national rollout planned for later this year.

As participation in the course increases, Dodge said it will prepare high school students for college and graduate-level geoscience courses by equipping their teachers in high school, and it will increase enrollment in those programs.

“One of the things that would help departments that don’t feel they’re getting the resources that they need would be if they had more majors coming in – if there was more demand for the geology major,” she said.

“Some of these high school students, when they’re in high school, can figure out that they want to be a geology major. And, it’s designed to encourage more high school students to become geology majors and to think of that as a valid career choice, and that will benefit departments with low enrollments, and even departments with high enrollments will get more students,” she said.

Of course, higher enrollment has been part of the overall problem threatening to drive geology programs to extinction, but not all enrollments are created equal, as Dodge explained.

“My experience has been, on several different college campuses, that very few students sign up to be a geology major in their freshman year. They decide that they’ll major in geology after they take a geology class and they really, really enjoy the field trips or the lab or something. So, they change majors to geology,” she said.

“What that means is that it takes them more than four years to graduate,” she said, “and that makes the geology department look like it’s not doing a good job.”

Not appearing to be doing a good job, of course, puts a department on the chopping block when budget cuts need to be made.

“That’s just one part of the puzzle to help departments that feel like they’re under pressure because they don’t feel like they have enough majors,” Dodge added.

Help Wanted

There are, of course, many more puzzle pieces needed from the industry to restore geoscience departments to their once-proud stature.

And money, of course, is great for buying puzzle pieces, among other much-needed instructional tools.

“One thing that that oil companies, large and small, can do for U.S. geology programs – assuming they want them to be around for the future – is to actively support such programs with funds and employment contacts,” King said. “This needs to go on outside the oil patch. Grant support to faculty is also critical; and student internships. Just the Imperial Barrel Award is not enough.”

King wants more than just financial support from the industry, though. Hand-in-hand with that, he said, would be active communication with administrators to convey the needs of the industry, and what a quality education in the geosciences should look like.

Also, Aster listed a few different areas in which the industry could help:

  • More (paid) summer internships.
  • More scholarships (like those offered by AAPG).
  • More research funding.
  • Endowed funds for research or specialized faculty expertise in particular areas.

“We would love to see more private sector involvement (and there are all sorts of win-win arrangements) if the people in the various communities were highly motivated to increase their number of high-quality résumés and hires,” Aster said.

“That said, it’s not a panacea. It’s part of a set of solutions for addressing the challenges and stress points for higher education,” he added.

King said that kind of involvement happens more near major areas of oil and gas production, but it’s not sufficiently widespread to preserve the current state of geologic education.

“If we want only those big schools near the oil patch to be the ones that survive with geology programs, and that’s good with everybody, we can just keep going down this same path,” he said. “But I think it’s good to have diversity and different kinds of geology programs.”

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Comments (1)

State Geo departments struggle to stay afloat.
One possible solution is for geology departments to transform themselves into large schools with combined departments of geology, geography, atmospheric sciences and environmental sciences under a new umbrella. Deans like this because it means dealing with one school leader instead of four department heads. Certain functions like clerical pools and accounting can be housed in the school office, eliminating their need in a departments. Most importantly, schools are harder to eliminate than departments. A second possible solution is to form an alumni geology foundation with an alumni advisory board to guide the department and help raise funds. Those funds can be used to leverage administrative sources of funding as a match.
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9/1/2014 1:50:47 AM

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