Commentary

Curriculum Accreditation Needed

A recent survey overwhelmingly indicates that professional geologists recognize a need for program accreditation in the geosciences and a crucial need to assure and express quality in the educational program for geologists.

In a perfect world, accreditation would not be necessary because a general agreement would exist as to what coursework, content and educational outcomes are needed for the degree; and academic administrations would provide proper resources for degree programs simply because of need.

However, those are not today’s reality. As reported by Tepel (2002) and Schmitz (2002), “suggested” curriculum for a geology program has been provided by several different professional groups – AAPG, AIPG and AEG, to name a few.

Hence, program accreditation is desperately needed to establish a quality baseline for educational quality and to provide leverage for resources.


Without geology degree program accreditation, no benchmark exists as to what a bachelor of science degree should contain. Further, absent accreditation, the public has no means to compare programs or to understand the outcomes of the education.

This has resulted in great variation in curriculum among programs granting geology degrees, reducing the overall credibility of the degree itself. Educational accountability is not measured nor is the essential utility of the degree program evident compared with programs that are accredited.

Academia, former students, employers and state boards of registration/licensure report vast variability in geology curricula. Hence, the following questions are unanswered or unanswerable:

  • Does the degree ensure enough coursework for the student to be successful in geology graduate programs?
  • Are there deficiencies in the coursework?
  • Does the course title on the transcript guarantee that the material in the course was covered adequately?
  • Students may be admitted to graduate school based on the reputation of the undergraduate degree program. Are students from a less-known program as likely to be admitted?

Employers report a great variety in geology curricula on transcripts. Many employers hire entry-level geologists based upon the reputation of a program and institution, rather than just looking for the degree. This same criteria is applied in graduate school admissions as well.

Many employers report through communications or in forums that the great variety of coursework between different programs is of serious concern.


State boards of licensure also report the great variety of content found in a geology degree.

Each board reviews the coursework shown on each applicant’s transcripts during processing of an application for registration and licensure – not just for the degree itself, but for the content of the coursework. State boards have discovered transcripts/dossiers from graduates of programs that grant a degree in geology from a curriculum whose minimum requirements were 12 hours of geology coursework above the introductory level – about 20 hours total geology coursework.

Is that a sufficient amount of coursework for the degree? If so, then why do other programs require as much as three, maybe four times that much geology coursework? Is that too much?

In the states that have registration/licensure of geologists, the passing of a “fundamentals” examination is used to ensure a certain minimal level of knowledge was attained as a part of obtaining the registration/licensure. This is necessary is because of the lack of a baseline for curriculum requirements and quality of learning outcomes leading to a geology degree.

Additional evidence of the variety of coursework and content in curricula is provided by former students, from two different perspectives.

  • One is by exposure to other programs while they are in graduate school. “I can’t believe they don’t teach that in this program,” or “Why didn’t my program have that course?” are commonly heard.
  • Former students also provide evidence from an employee perspective in somewhat similar form: “I am glad we had that course/experience, it has really been a benefit,” and “I couldn’t believe that my co-worker’s program did not have it,” as well as “I needed to have that, like my co-worker’s program did.”

Without degree/program accreditation there is no identifiable baseline for curriculum and for educational outcomes.

Availability of resources further intensifies this situation – budget cuts have resulted in losses of partial or entire programs … but degrees are still being awarded.

How often does a degree with program accreditation get eliminated? Academic administrations flaunt accredited programs.


Accreditation is needed in today’s world not only to provide a quality baseline for educational content, but also to obtain and maintain necessary resources for programs.

Program accreditation for geosciences will assure respect as in other professions and protect academic programs from erosion in challenging economic times.

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A Suggested Solution

Accreditation can be established without the prescriptive nature that was the case decades ago.

It is not necessary to mandate certain courses by specific names, with a specified number of hours, faculty or other resources. Accreditation can be established in a manner that considers content across the curriculum, regardless of the course title or even number of courses, as long as a minimum content is provided.

Today’s accreditation can have flexibility in assessing faculty and resources by looking at the faculties’ capability in terms of expertise to teach certain content, and number of faculty needed based upon a program’s purpose.

Essentially, a degree program faculty unit may establish its objectives (what its graduates will be anticipated to accomplish in the first few years after graduation); it also may establish its outcomes (what graduates know and can accomplish by graduation). Accreditation would be awarded for the program that shows objectives and outcomes being achieved by graduates.

Two or three faculty may be acceptable for a bachelor’s degree only program with teaching-only faculty members. Such would obviously not be the case if the program was expected to conduct research. Similarly, resources would be assessed with respect to a program’s expectations.

– DARREL SCHMITZ


Darrel Schmitz
Darrel Schmitz

Darrel Schmitz, a 30-year AAPG member, is a geology professor and head of the department of geosciences at Mississippi State University. He also is vice president (and former president) of the Mississippi Board of Registered Geologists and past president of the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists (AEG) and National Association of State Boards of Geology (ASBOG).  

Darrel Schmitz was joined by several other educators in preparing his commentary – a group that he cited for its expertise but also its diversity.

“They represent department heads and chairs, full professors to assistant professors, tenured and un-tenured, state registered and non-registered,” he said. “There is a female and a foreign national.The institutions represented range from large to small and private to public.

“There could have been more contributing authors,” he added, “but that did not seem to add any to the diversity.”

“There could have been more contributing authors,” he added, “but that did not seem to add any to the diversity.”

The co-authors are:

  • Scott F. Burns, professor and geology department chair, Portland State University.
  • Bridget C. Doyle, assistant professor, geology and environmental geosciences, College of Charleston.
  • C. Dale Elifrits, director of pre-engineering and outreach, Northern Kentucky University.
  • Jerry D. Higgins, geology and geological engineering department, Colorado School of Mines.
  • Christopher C. Mathewson, Regents professor, geology and geophysics department, Texas A&M University.
  • J. David Rogers, Karl F. Hasselmann Chair, Missouri University of Science and Technology.
  • Abdul Shakoor, geology professor, Kent State University.
  • C.F. (Skip) Watts, geology department professor and chair, Radford University.
  • Terry R. West, professor, earth and atmospheric sciences, Purdue University.
  • John Williams, geology department, San Jose State University.