Changing the image of geoscience education

Between Rocks and the Hard Sciences

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

If science has a softer side, the geosciences have somehow claimed it – by unfortunate default.

Perhaps it is the regular slashing of funds for geoscience research at the National Science Foundation. Or, maybe it is because in many states, students on the “college track” are required to take biology, chemistry and physics, which are typically considered “hard sciences.”

Nevertheless, many students are never exposed to the geosciences in high school, and as a result, they remain unaware of the need for geoscientists and the many career opportunities that exist.

“The attitude that geoscience isn’t a hard science is perplexing, and it goes up to high levels,” said AAPG member and 2013 AAPG Foundation Professorial Award-winner James P. Evans, a professor of structural geology at Utah State University, explaining that many in Congress oppose supporting geoscience research.

“Most of us in the geosciences are not too pleased about that,” he added.

Yet look around, Evans suggested, and the need for geoscientists – even beyond the energy industry – is pervasive.

“There are really significant issues that we need to deal with as a society,” he said, “and they require geoscientists.”

Finding and managing water resources is one. So is the need to explore for raw material resources, such as tantalum – a rare earth metal that has become critical to billions of people.

“There are about one or two grams of it in every cell phone, but we have two-three billion cell phones on the planet,” Evans said.

“There are all of these cool things that geoscientists do, and I don’t see them reaching high school-level kids,” he said. “How do we get kids to realize that there is petroleum geology, biological engineering, oceanography, atmospheric chemistry and genetics?”

The most promising solution to date might be the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) – an internationally benchmarked set of standards based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education developed by the National Research Council in 2011 (see related story, page 14).

The goal of the NGSS, released in 2013, is to elevate the importance of the geosciences in the nation’s schools and begin teaching them at the primary, middle and high school levels.

Location, Location, Location

Utah State University is roughly 20 miles from the southern border of Idaho, a state – unlike Utah – that requires high school students to take a geoscience class.

Not surprising, a fair number of Idahoans enrolling at Utah State are choosing to major in geology and geophysics, Evans said, suggesting that exposure to the geosciences in high school does indeed make a difference.

Students from Houston, Denver or Calgary – North America’s major energy hubs – tend to have more exposure to the geosciences because their parents work in the field or because they know people who do.

“Who’s heard of geology if they live in Chicago or Minneapolis?” Evans asked.

Television networks such as PBS and the Discovery Channel no doubt take young viewers to exotic places where they can watch oceanographers study marine life or geologists map outcrops in the Himalayas.

Often, pre-medicine and engineering majors are required to take a geoscience class in college, and sometimes that class inspires them to change their major. Evans recalled a former physics major who chose geology as an elective because the class was near the physics building.

Needless to say, he added, she ended up a geologist.

“This is a common theme on college campuses,” Evans said, revealing that he decided to double major in engineering and geology after his degree plan required him to take a geology course. “It was super cool and super interesting and a lot more fun than engineering classes.”

Evans’ wife – a former anthropology major – tells the same story.

Furthermore, sometimes students study geology because they didn’t make the grades in advanced math classes that are required in the engineering track. But that’s ok, Evans said.

“In the geosciences, we don’t care if the kids get Cs in these classes,” he said. “The struggle we have in the geosciences is there are not enough students who have taken those classes, such as differential equations.

“It’s important that they simply have them under their belt,” he said, “so they can do quantitative work.”

Back to Basics

In addition to quantitative analysis skills, industry geoscientists also need experience in the field, said AAPG member and 2012 AAPG Foundation Professorial Award-winner Grant Wach, professor of petroleum geoscience and stratigraphy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

“We are losing our mentors in the industry who are capable of teaching field schools and training the younger generations. Structural geologists and sedimentologists have a lot of field experience, and many of them are retiring,” he explained. “Companies want to see more training in those basic skills for students who are graduating.”

Yet, the cost of field camps can be out of reach for many students, at roughly $2,500 per camp, Wach said. (Other professors report average costs closer to $4,000.)

“Field schools are expensive. A bus costs $1,000 a day. The decreases in grants to students and to universities often results in the cost of field schools being passed down to the students,” he said.

Approximately 43 percent of undergraduates majoring in the geosciences participate in a field camp, which is an academic program of a minimum of four weeks focused on field tools and methods, as defined by AGI’s 2014 Status of Recent Geoscience Graduates report.

However, the numbers of participants are increasing as employers emphasize the need for field experience, said Carolyn Wilson, a data analyst in the Workforce Program at AGI who compiled the institute’s report.

Why Geology, Anyway?

According to the AGI report, 66 percent of undergraduate geoscience majors choose a degree in geology.

“Students go into geology because they like the outdoors,” Wach said. “There is some backlash about geologists in the energy industry – that it is paradoxical. But geologists are strong stewards of the environment and they want to protect it.”

If there is anything paradoxical about geology, it’s that it is a science one can both see and not see, Wach explained.

“You can touch the rocks, but you have to be able to think in three dimensions and in the abstract because you can’t see the subsurface,” he said, noting that at his university, aboriginals and students with dyslexia tend to be drawn to the science.

Evans shared his own theory as well: It is simply “more fun.”

If teachers can instill a passion for geology into students while also underscoring the career possibilities and quality of life geologists can have, more high school graduates might be inclined to major in the discipline, Wach said.

Geoscience Haven
Joe Satterfield
Joe Satterfield

At Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, a small undergraduate geoscience program, which is arguably one of a kind in its offerings and intensity, has been taking shape over the last five years.

Started by AAPG member and 2015 AAPG Foundation Professorial Award-winner Joe Satterfield and his colleagues, James Ward and Heather Lehto, the program emphasizes field work, undergraduate research and volunteering as teaching assistants. Upon graduation, students will have experienced what many don’t encounter until their master’s programs.

Students of all majors often choose to take an introductory geology class – complete with a fieldtrip to Big Bend National Park – to satisfy a university science requirement.

Many change their majors to geology after that experience, Satterfield said.

“They generally know little about geology in high school. We are starting to change that,” he said.

Satterfield and his students reach out to local middle and high schools and help teachers integrate geology lab activities, such as simulating radioactive decay with M&Ms, into chemistry courses in order to give students real-life applications to what they are studying.

In talking with Satterfield and his geology students, high school and middle school students get a taste of the geosciences early on.

“They learn about my students’ backgrounds and future plans and get an idea of the fun of geology,” Satterfield said.

No doubt Satterfield’s students have much to share, as they take weekend field trips to the Llano uplift of central Texas, Guadalupe Mountains, Rio Grande rift volcanic field, and work drilling rigs near San Angelo.

Students prepare drafted maps, cross-sections and reports – just as they will in the workplace – in three diverse geologic settings in the North American Cordillera: Triassic – Cretaceous siliciclastic rocks in the Colorado Plateau, Mesozoic and Cenozoic gold-bearing igneous and metamorphic rocks in western Nevada, and Cretaceous carbonate rocks in Trans-Pecos Texas.

They work as volunteer lab assistants alongside their professors, and many work on their own research projects, including writing grant proposals, performing field and lab work, and formally presenting their results at regional and national meetings.

“Students here receive a taste of practicing geology at the graduate and workplace level – partly because we choose not to offer a graduate program and partly because class sizes are small,” Satterfield explained.

And to top off the program’s comprehensive curriculum, students who belong to the university’s AAPG Student Chapter attend joint meetings with the San Angelo Geological Society, an AAPG affiliate, and learn from geologists from all over the country.

Not many outside of West Texas have heard of San Angelo – least of all its university’s standout geosciences program. But in many ways, it is successfully spreading the word about the importance of the geosciences to young students, and graduating well-rounded scientists who are no doubt competitive in the academic and professional geoscience community.

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