A whole new world: tenth grade GeoFORCE students – comprising honor students from predominantly minority regions of southwest Texas – experience the Grand Canyon. Photos courtesy of GeoFORCE
Some people talk about how important it is to introduce young students to the wonders of geology.
Some people actually walk the talk.
GeoFORCE, an AAPG Foundation-supported program that began in southwest Texas but already shows a potential for global impact, is a pre-college program that provides a welcome mat to the world of science for middle and high school students.
Its goal is to encourage underserved yet talented and committed students a chance to pursue education – and, perhaps in a perfect world, careers in science.
And maybe it aspires to something even higher.
To Doug Ratcliff, the program’s director of outreach, GeoFORCE contributes not only to the advocacy of science but the transformation of lives.
“The strength of GeoFORCE,” Ratcliff said, “is its ability to give students a powerful and memorable experience that has a lasting impact on their lives.”
This is done, he says, by the GeoFORCE experience, which he describes as intensive.
“The ongoing nature of the program – every summer for four years throughout high school – is critical,” he said, “with spectacular field trips to emphasize science learning and exciting travel to new environments.”
GeoFORCE is run by the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Its intent is to increase the number and diversity of students pursuing degrees in math and science, especially the earth sciences.
Specifically, GeoFORCE takes high school honor students from predominantly minority regions of southwest Texas and the Houston area on geological field trips across the country to educate and excite them about science.
Each summer for four years, students travel to different sites – some as close as Austin, Uvalde and Port Aransas, and some as far away as Florida, Washington, D.C., and Oregon.
AAPG Foundation Help
Before a program can motivate students, and before it can show them the wonders of science, it first needs to find those students whose DNA is conducive to such a relationship.
“GeoFORCE identifies high achievers in math and science at the eighth grade level and then provides the students with a four-year series of work-and-reward activities that motivates them to excel in school and builds their awareness of opportunities in math and science,” Ratcliff said.
Why this is important is both obvious and worth repeating – both on an individual and societal level.
“The U.S. economy is dominated by technology,” he said, “with roughly half of economic growth over the last 50 years attributed to scientific innovation.”
The problem, as he and others have pointed out, is America is losing its edge in global innovation. The future is not bright. According to Ratcliff, math rankings of U.S. 15-year-olds compared to other developed countries now place us at position number 28.
GeoFORCE, he believes, is part of the answer.
“The program is designed to improve this situation by providing spectacular, multi-year, science learning experiences,” he said.
With everything from notebooks to airfare, chaperones to tuna sandwiches, cameras to field guides, a program that takes students to the Grand Canyon can get expensive.
The AAPG Foundation, which places a priority on geoscience education, has contributed $10,000 annually for the past three years (to the program).
Moreover, Ratcliff says that having the AAPG Foundation onboard acts as a catalyst for attracting industry support for the program.
In fact, 17 energy companies as well as state and federal agencies have provided additional contributions as well over the program’s six-year life.
Ratcliff wants to emphasize the key to the success of GeoFORCE is that it is a hands-on experience – and not based solely in the classroom.
“We have learned that one effective way to excite and engage young people is to immerse them in geologic experiences that spark their imagination, inspire their academic development, and broaden their perception of the world.”
U.S. Geological Survey geologists give ninth grade GeoFORCE students a lesson on the geology at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Adventures in (Geologic) Wonderlands
Students in the program participate in summer field sessions, or “academies,” which occur every year throughout their high-school education, with each academy building upon the previous year.
The academies include two-day to week-long study at the University of Texas, as well as discovery experiences and field trips to places such as Mount St. Helens, the Florida Keys, the Guadalupe Mountains and the Grand Canyon.
It is these summer programs, Ratcliff said, which define the program.
“The heart of the GeoFORCE program is the summer field trip experience,” he said, “with each year progressing from the simple to the more complex.”
The program includes:
♦ Year One: Ninth grade – Trips start in Florida, where students see a variety of sedimentary processes in action, and visit the Gulf Coast and the Florida Keys.
♦ Year Two: 10th grade – Students are taken to the Grand Canyon to see sedimentary rocks and to discuss geologic time.
♦ Year Three: 11th grade – A trip to Oregon, focusing on volcanoes and plate tectonics; students also visit the Pacific Ocean.
♦ Year Four: 12th grade – The year takes place in the Appalachians, where the students encounter deformation processes like folding and faulting. They conclude in Washington, D.C., with visits to the Smithsonian and the U.S. Geological Survey.
"By the end of the program students have a strong grounding in Earth sciences," Ratcliff said.
Young geoscientists also take similar, though shorter trips. In general, each trip has 40 students, a professor, an educational coach, a geologist from a sponsoring company, a coordinator, a trail driver and six counselors.
Mining the Urban Canyons
The program, which now boasts 700 students, expanded recently to the inner city Houston area, which presented a new set of challenges.
“Houston demographics are not the same as the Southwest region,” Ratcliff said. “The public school population of southwest Texas is rural and 85 percent Hispanic, with very few African Americans. The Houston public school population is urban, 53 percent Hispanic, 28 percent African American and 8 percent white – with a sizable Asian population and some Native Americans. More than a third of the Houston participants are African American.”
And while outreach was and is the goal, standards stay high. Students must maintain a B average in all GeoFORCE work to continue in the program.
And they are.
One hundred percent of students in the GeoFORCE program achieved college readiness test scores, as opposed to 29 percent for non-GeoFORCE students in the region.
According to program statistics, 90 percent of the inaugural group of 80 GeoFORCE students were accepted into junior colleges, colleges and universities, with 63 percent majoring in science, engineering or math – and not only did 23 of them become students at the University of Texas, but five of them are pursuing majors in the Jackson School of Geosciences.
Clearly, the circle was unbroken.
“Of course, having these students attend UT (is) a bonus to our program,” Ratcliff added.
Learn about GeoFORCE
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