10. Building a Learning Continuum for Life --- ​Undergraduate Geoscience Education as Part of the Continuum of Career and Lifelong Learning

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

As geoscience work increasingly demands a broad portfolio of knowledge, technical abilities, and professional skills in areas that are rapidly changing, an individual can no longer rely on their formal education and work experience to stay relevant. Students' undergraduate education generally focuses on core geoscience knowledge and skills and the requisite educational outcomes of a balanced undergraduate education. It forms the foundation for lifelong learning and facilitates further training and education not encompassed in undergraduate geoscience program. The traditional 120 credit limit for undergraduate degrees is insufficient to also educate students in professional skills, such as communications, economics, and project management, let alone the specialty skills, advance knowledge, and regulatory understanding required for workplace success. Even a post-graduate master’s experience may not fully prepare students for all the skills needed, (e.g., see skills needed for Environmental Consulting; Box 10.1).

Box 10.1: Selected Skills Needed for Geoscientists in Environmental Consulting

  • Core geoscience skills

  • Chemistry

  • Physics

  • Biology

  • Environmental engineering

  • Soil science

  • Hydrogeology

  • Hydrology

  • Field mapping/data collection/instrumentation (e.g., LIDAR, GPR, etc)

  • GIS/spatial data analysis and management

  • Drone-based acquisition (emerging)

  • First Aid/CPR/AED training

  • OSHA HAZWOPER training

  • Technical writing and speaking

  • Business writing and speaking

  • Business finance

  • Environmental compliance/regulations/law course

  • Scientific and business ethics

Compiled from Houlton, 2015; Wilson, 2018; 2015 Geoscience Employer Workshop

The importance of knowing how to learn was stressed at both the 2015 Undergraduate and 2018 Graduate Geoscience Employers Workshops. Students need to recognize their formal education is only one component of the learning they will need while in school and during their career. One outcome from any undergraduate degree program is that students should learn how to learn and should become intentional learners as they focus on building specific knowledge and skills during their career. A portion of the needed skills will be developed through their formal education experience, but many others will need to be built either through co-curricular activities or ongoing professional development.

For students to continue to learn, undergraduate degrees must provide them with the foundations for a learning continuum, including core knowledge and principles, and prepare them for geoscientific and systems thinking, while proactively learning and applying new skills and knowledge. This preparation is critical for those starting careers immediately after graduation and for those going on for master’s and doctoral degrees.

External Certifications

Geoscience programs and their students should be aware of the opportunities and requirements for professional geoscience licensure. While many professions have overarching accreditation agencies, such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) for engineers, geoscience does not. Nonetheless, with 32 states requiring a license for a geologist to practice professionally (with some employment exceptions), it is critical for students planning a career as a geoscientist to understand the licensing process within their state. The National Association of State Boards of Geologists (ASBOG®) administers two exams: the Fundamentals of Geology exam is taken either during the final semester of college or shortly after graduation; and the Practice of Geology exam is taken after passing the first exam and having completed a specified amount of required work experience for licensure. Globally, licensure of geologists is even more common than in the United States and represents an opportunity for employment mobility.

Professional licenses require ongoing continuing professional education. However, accumulation of Continuing Education Units (CEU) (also often referred to as Professional Development Hours — ​PDH) is not limited to those who have completed their formal studies. As an extracurricular activity, students can take in-person and online professional development courses that provide recognized CEUs. The American Institute of Professional Geologists (AIPG), in cooperation with AGI, offers on-demand, online professional development courses with a nominal fee for all students to gain CEUs and begin this professional development and certification process.

Through professional development courses, students can build and document their professional skills with coverage of critical topics such as ethics and regulatory compliance, as well as exposure to technical topics in their field of interest so they gain an understanding of how the science is used in an applied context.

Learning to Learn for Life

Rapid advancements in technology and science requires students and professionals to master the fundamentals, evolve their understanding, continue to learn new concepts and skills, and even change their view on “settled science.” Just as most professional licensure programs require certain levels of ongoing education to retain currency, all professionals need to continue learning over the duration of their careers.

One fundamental transition for most students is moving from the formal education environment to the approaches used within professional and continuing education. Professional development experiences commonly use different modes of delivery compared to formal education, such as on-demand online courses, intensive short courses, or developmental workshops.

The scope and approach of continuing education experiences is varied, whether hyper-focused on a specific technical application or looking at the development of a professional skill within an organizational or disciplinary context. Additionally, the mode of communication is often closer to guiding tutorials, with an expectation that the learner be either versed in, or developing, the habits of mind of the profession (Coble, 2019). The continuing education environment relies on teaching an intentional learner, which can be a substantial change in posture for a student transitioning from a formal education environment.

Some skills desired by employers may be difficult to get in the regular course of study within the existing curriculum — ​such as computer programming or data analytics. In a reformed curriculum, these skills may well be embedded to help students meet the needs of the modern workforce, but there are substantial external resources, such as MOOCs, code academies, etc., where students can gain some level of certification proving their exposure to these skills. Facilitating the immediate utility of a continuing education experience is critically important, especially if it can be coordinated within a degree program. Developing well-defined skills and competencies is a prime outcome of an intentional learning approach and enabling students to utilize these skills in their courses builds competency and efficacy.

The Changing Workforce

Three factors are changing the nature of work in the geosciences and the expectation of what a geoscientist is: generational turnover, automation of “middle-skills,” and evolution in how geoscientists work. All three factors are coming into play in 2020 and will likely define the careers of a generation of students.

First, the geosciences have been preparing for over a decade for the “Great Crew Change” as Baby Boomers retire (Martinsen et al., 2012). This generational shift has already occurred in the minerals industry and is well underway in the energy sector. The environmental sector does not face quite such a generational shift, but it faces the retirement of many of its most experienced workers. This generational shift, when coupled with technological advances, is leading to the elimination of many traditional geoscience occupations, and current recent graduates are defining new geoscience occupations that meet the needs of today and into the future (Malchuk, 2018).

Second, the advancement of data analytics and machine learning is transforming the nature of work in the geosciences (Keane and Wilson, 2018). In 2017, the mining industry analyzed how their geoscientists spent their time and found that 80–82% was spent collecting, collating, and preparing data for analysis. The petroleum industry had similar findings during a 2018 study, with their geoscientists spending 79% of their time wrangling data (Malchuk, 2018; Salamis, 2017), i.e., cleaning, restructuring, and processing raw data into a more usable format. Many companies are using advanced data analytics and machine learning to automate a substantial amount of the data wrangling and basic technical evaluation previously done by those geoscientists, freeing more time for the geoscientists to apply their domain knowledge to increasingly complex problems. Though this automation is beginning to displace middle-skill geoscience work such as routine core logging, stratigraphic interpretation, and data discovery, it is freeing up geologic talent to tackle intellectually more challenging problems and fundamentally increasing the value of the geoscientist to the employer (Keane & Wilson, 2018).

Third, as in many complex fields, collaborative work is critical to success. For the geosciences, there has been a natural progression as the interdisciplinary nature of the science has become integral to its definition. Having evolved from subdisciplines, to collaborations, to the current standard of integrated teams of specialists, the emerging trend with major employers is towards teams of integrated geoscientists who all possess a base level of broad skills in the pertinent areas of geoscience, engineering, and business issues, but with each member bringing particular strengths.

These factors result in the expectation that the future geoscientist is a professional with a broad spectrum of competency and selected areas of mastery (Fig. 10.1). This trend was reflected during both the 2015 Undergraduate and 2018 Graduate Geoscience Employers Workshops in which employers emphasized that new employees need to be well-versed across all the major geoscience concepts and conceptually literate of the ideas within them, while also having the technical skills to apply the science. Additionally, employees are be expected to have solid professional skills, including business and economics, ethics, and project management. Within this mode, individuals can work across a range of problems, but excel with greater mastery in selected areas, both in a domain science and technical/professional skill space.

Conceptual spectrum of geoscience skills for a future geoscientist

Outcomes and Ongoing Challenges

Even with a continued emphasis on lifelong learning, cyclicity in employment remains a reality in the geosciences as it is in every employment sector. With the softening of the resource industries' job market in the mid-2010s, it became evident that individuals with stronger quantitative skills and additional technical skills, such as programming and database management, had greater employment resilience than geoscientists focused on a specific industry (Keane and Wilson, 2018). Two potential explanations for this trend have been considered. First, the resilient employees, by the nature of their more rigorous preparation and continued commitment to learning, potentially represent better-qualified or more motivated workers. Second, with a diverse and evolving skill set, workers are more readily able to switch career tracks when the demand for their geoscience expertise is limited. In some sectors, such as mining, where exploration and development activity can change extremely rapidly, having the ability to quickly reassign geoscience expertise can be a strategic advantage to the company and a critical approach for workers to ride through the natural business cycle pressures on employment.


  • Provide students with a framework for mapping future educational plans and understanding that undergraduate experience is a foundation of lifelong learning

  • Make students aware of external certifications required for some geoscience employment and the availability of Continuing Education programs

  • Prepare students for the changing workforce with new careers and jobs that require use of new technologies, strong quantitative and computational skills, data analytics and machine learning, interdisciplinary problem solving, and teamwork, etc.