1. Introduction: A Call for Action

During the last six years, over 1,000 members of the geoscience community have helped shaped a vision for the future of undergraduate geoscience education to better prepare future geoscientists. This vision provides a roadmap as educators to make critical, positive changes to our programs over the next decade. This call for action is motivated by many factors ranging from the success of our students to the health of the geoscience profession.

Drone flying above people
Nicholas Perez for AGI's 2017 Life as a Geoscientist contest

As educators, we need to help students build a foundational understanding of how the Earth system works, so they can apply this knowledge to complex and profound issues where geoscience and society intersect. Evidence of geoscience processes impacting society is increasingly common and highlight geoscience-themed “grand challenges” that will confront our global population in the coming decades, including more frequent and intense natural hazards, threats to coastal infrastructure from rising sea levels, the effect of our warming climate on food and water supplies, and meeting global energy and resource needs in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way. The types of thinking inherent to the geosciences — ​working with complex systems, temporal and spatial reasoning, and the collection, interpretation, and analysis of complex natural data — ​are among the most crucial approaches to addressing these future challenges.

Geoscience research has evolved to meet these challenges, with interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary and transdisciplinary teams addressing complex Earth system problems of societal importance with new tools, technologies, and approaches. Both undergraduate and graduate education need to undergo similar changes to prepare students for their future. Successful geoscientists need a strong foundation of disciplinary knowledge and scientific skills while being able to work across domains.

Beyond academia, employers are also responding to a new reality that includes use of multidisciplinary approaches by diverse teams drawn from a broad range of backgrounds, experiences, and capabilities. These teams use innovative tools, models, and skills to integrate new ways of thinking and a range of datasets. Recent geoscience graduates are entering fields that have experienced rapid changes in how work is done, due both to significant changes in the type of work and skills needed and from the incorporation of new technologies. Employment opportunities for geoscientists are expanding. Graduates with training in economics, risk management, ethics, or policy, and the ability to work across cultures and communicate with diverse audiences will have a broader array of opportunities for career advancement. Some future graduates may find themselves in occupations that did not exist a decade ago, while others will find themselves in occupations that are yet to be invented.

Our understanding of the complex interactions between different parts of the Earth system, including the Earth’s interior and surface, hydrosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere, and in the chemical, physical, biological and geological processes that help shape the Earth system continues to grow. Yet much of undergraduate education still compartmentalizes these processes and components. Geoscience programs need to adapt curricula to emphasize these critical interactions. While the geoscience community has begun to create resources that support interdisciplinary learning about the Earth, and the important role that the geosciences play in addressing grand challenges, we have much more to do to incorporate these ideas deeply into geoscience programs.

Student success requires more than just sophisticated content knowledge. The geoscientist of the future needs a range of skills and competencies. Students who can conduct quantitative analysis, apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills, manage and analyze large data sets, communicate effectively in a variety of formats, and work well in teams will be likely to succeed in the future work environment, even if they choose non-geoscience employment. The knowledge and skills needed for success will change throughout a career, so creating programs that encourage students to develop the flexibility to adapt to change will be important. Geoscience departments must assess their programs and incorporate opportunities to facilitate the development of appropriate skills and competencies.

How undergraduate education is delivered by faculty to students has also been transforming. We now understand that HOW we teach has a direct impact on how well our students learn. Effective, research-supported teaching strategies have been increasingly incorporated in STEM classes during the last several decades but remain far from ubiquitous. Widespread adoption of these approaches to teaching by geoscience college instructors will lead to students who are more successful and better-prepared to enter the workforce.

Education research tells us that students learn better when they can actively monitor their understanding with purposeful activities during class. Furthermore, knowledge is socially constructed, and people learn best in supportive social settings such as small collaborative groups in active learning environments. Active and experiential learning increases student learning and reduces attrition in science, math, and engineering courses and can reduce performance gaps among different student populations, especially those that are traditionally underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. We must support improved student performance and develop more compelling learning opportunities by reshaping the way we approach university teaching and learning and adopting documented best practices.

As our understanding of effective practices in undergraduate education has grown, technology has become more readily used to support learning, including virtual and interactive experiences, videos and animations, blended learning modalities, and crowdsourcing of open education resources. These advances enable multiple types of opportunities for learning and the sharing of community created educational resources. Furthermore, significant advances have occurred in tools for visualization and geospatial analysis, for using massive amounts of quantitative information, and for computational modeling, animation, and simulation for both predictive capabilities and generating new insights into Earth processes and global-scale events. Undergraduate students need to be prepared to use these rapidly evolving technologies and the large data sets they produce in the future.

As a substantial segment of the current workforce retires and geoscience opportunities increase, we will face shortages of geoscientists in the future workforce if enrollments do not increase. Despite continued efforts by educators and industry and with considerable support from federal funding agencies, the geoscience community still has difficulty recruiting students from underrepresented groups to our programs and sustaining success through completion of their degree and into the profession. Changing how geoscience departments and programs in 4- and 2-year institutions recruit, mentor, support, and educate students is necessary to increase enrollments and ensure that we are creating an inclusive and diverse workforce.

The Next Generation Science Standards for K–12 education have put Earth and Space Sciences on an equal footing with Physical and Biological Sciences, which is a tremendous opportunity and challenge for our field. Using the NGSS approaches to teaching science will help us improve introductory and non-major courses and align them with learning expectations of new students. Additionally, this is a pivotal time to engage pre-service K–12 teachers in our undergraduate programs and courses to build their content knowledge, scientific skills, and confidence in facilitating students' investigations into Earth science questions in their future classrooms. Geoscience content in middle or high school courses can create an interest in geoscience careers while contributing to development of a scientifically literate society.

The White House
Christopher M. Keane

Over the last decade, the expectation that STEM graduates will be prepared for the workforce has increased. Calls for change to undergraduate education have come from the National Academies and National Research Council, the Association of American Universities, Association of American Colleges and Universities, the National Science Foundation, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the President’s Council of Advisors in Science (PCAST). Legislatures, governing boards, regents, presidents, provosts, as well as parents, alumni, the public and students have put concurrent widespread pressure for change on universities. This concern is fueled in part by an increased divergence between the needs in the workforce and what undergraduates learn. A focus on concepts and skills, and the ability to use them (i.e., competencies) provides an excellent educational foundation while preparing students for future success regardless of their career path.

Departments are more likely to attract students and thrive if they invest their time and resources in helping students develop a rich set of critical skills and content knowledge clearly linked to potential careers and the aptitude to manage their developmental pathway. Instructors and students are investing in the multi-year development of life-long skills, and the return on that investment comes when students secure employment and are prepared for a successful career in a wide range of occupations and work settings. As educators, we derive personal and professional satisfaction when our students succeed, and we have an obligation to prepare our students for the future.

The community vision outlined in this document provides a roadmap for positive changes to undergraduate geoscience education, recognizing the differing priorities and capacities among our diverse educational institutions, and promoting strong collaborations between educational institution types (e.g., community colleges and four-year institutions). Lasting changes for the benefit of our profession and the students we educate will take the combined efforts of geoscience departments and programs, led by administrators, individual faculty, geoscience professional societies, and employers.

Our learning environments and curricula must evolve to address future geoscience challenges and prepare students to build long and successful careers. Given regional and global challenges, the accelerating pace of change in all aspects of society, a renewed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and the evolution of geoscience careers, geoscience educators urgently need to reconsider our role in educating the next generation of geoscientists and in producing geoscience-informed graduates generally.

Key Outcomes:

  • The academic and employer communities have developed a consensus on the broad geoscience concepts, skills, and competencies that need to be developed throughout the curriculum across multiple courses and educational experiences.

  • The community-vetted concepts, competencies, and skills provides the basis for successful curriculum revision in which students learning outcomes become the foundation of curricula planning.

  • Geoscience educators should further embrace active teaching strategies that research has shown to improve student learning.

  • The community-vetted suite of student learning outcomes for discipline-specific and professional competencies can be used as the basis for geoscience program assessment.

  • Departments should help students take a proactive role in their education and co-curricular solutions to develop skills needed for future careers.

  • Growing demand for geoscientists requires departments and programs to recruit, retain, and promote the success of undergraduate geoscience majors across a broad spectrum of society.

  • Introductory and non-major courses should leverage the Next Generation Science Standards to engage all geoscience students and preservice teachers.

  • Programs and students must recognize that formal undergraduate education is a robust foundation for lifelong learning in support of a successful career.

Two women working in a lab
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin
  • Skills and competencies needed by graduate students for successful careers should be integrated into Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences graduate programs.

  • Undergraduate program revision efforts are multi-year processes that require patience, persistence, and leadership to maintain engagement and sustain momentum.

  • Many individuals and organizations have a stake in the success of undergraduate geoscience education and a responsibility to help accomplish the vision for the future.