2. Process Summary: Summits, Workshops, Survey

The Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education initiative, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), addressed three critical questions facing undergraduate geoscience education:

  • What concepts, skills, and competencies do undergraduates need to succeed in graduate school and/or the future workforce?

  • What are the best teaching practices and most effective uses of technology to enhance student learning?

  • How do we recruit, retain, and ensure success of a diverse and inclusive community of geoscience majors and support K–12 science teachers to contribute to a well-informed public and dynamic geoscience workforce?

In 2014, the Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education made major progress developing a high-level community vision for the geosciences. The Summit brought together a broad spectrum of the undergraduate geoscience education community, about 200 faculty from Carnegie Classification R1, R2, and R3 research universities with undergraduate programs, doctoral/professional universities, terminal Master’s programs, four-year private and state colleges (4YC), and 2-year community colleges (2YC) from across the country, as well as about 20 representatives from industry, government and professional geoscience societies.

Group celebrating while showing a large drawing
Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG)

Energized by keynote presentations and informed by panel discussions, the participants spent nearly three days discussing the three questions above in small working groups. The working groups then presented their summarized results to all Summit participants, prompting discussions among all Summit participants. A key point of consensus from the working group reports was that developing critical competencies, skills, and conceptual understandings was more important than students taking a specific menu of courses. Attendees agreed to a list of important conceptual, scientific, and geoscience specific skills and competencies (Figs 3.1, 3.2, 3.3), and a summary of the Summit outcomes was published on the web (Mosher et al., 2014).

A comprehensive electronic survey (Appendix A) was distributed nationally to geoscience faculty and employer contacts following the Summit. Approximately 470 individuals responded: 77% academics and 23% employers (17% industry, 3% government, 2% other, 1% professional societies). Approximately 85% were not Summit participants. Although the survey remained open through 2019, most responses were submitted in 2014 and 2015. The survey respondents agreed with the 2014 Summit participants that improving competencies, skills, and conceptual understanding was the most important issue in undergraduate education, with 95% of the survey participants rating this goal as very important or important. Eighty percent of the survey respondents agreed with the major conclusion of the 2014 Summit that developing competencies, skills, and conceptual understanding was more important than taking a specific menu of geoscience courses. Respondents also concurred with the list of important concepts and skills generated at the Summit.

Additionally, the survey included questions on the status of curriculum reform efforts in departments, on the use of various research-validated teaching methods, on the constraints on geoscience degree programs, and, for both the departments and employers, on the type of programs offered or supported for broadening participation of underrepresented groups and for K–12 teacher preparation in geosciences.

The 2015 Geoscience Employers Workshop brought together 46 participants evenly distributed among representatives of the energy industry, hydrogeology, engineering and environmental consulting firms and companies, and various government agencies. One representative from a mining company was present, along with a few professional society representatives. This workshop further investigated the important concepts, competencies, and skills students need for success in the future workforce. The workshop followed the same format as the 2014 Summit, with working groups comprised of employers from different sectors focused on topics related to universally-needed skills and concepts. The geoscience employers strongly agreed with the 2014 Summit and 2014–2015 survey outcomes on the skills and concepts undergraduates need, regardless of employment sector (see Summa et al., 2017). In addition, they provided increased granularity on key skills and concepts and identified that in their view experiential learning strategies as the best way to instill these skills in students (Appendix B). They also provided insights into how industry could help departments implement this community vision.

In 2016, a second Summit event was held specifically for department heads, chairs, and other administrators. This Summit focused on further development of the emerging community vision for undergraduate geoscience education and to develop implementation strategies for this vision at the departmental level. Participants included over 100 geoscience academic leaders from Carnegie Classification R1, R2, and R3 research universities with undergraduate programs, doctoral/professional universities, terminal Master’s programs, four-year private and state colleges (4YC), and 2-year community colleges (2YC) from across the country. The Heads and Chairs Summit followed the same format as the previous events, with the additional assignment that each institution submit an action plan for their department.


These development plans varied widely depending on size and type of institution, stage of undergraduate curriculum evaluation, and areas of focus (i.e., curriculum, pedagogy, broadening participation, etc.). Several follow-up workshops targeting Heads and Chairs were held between 2017 and 2019 to increase the number of departments engaged in the process and to gather further input and departmental action plans and progress reports. By 2017 a total of 91 individual department action plans were submitted. Progress reports on these action plans were submitted by 56 departments, gathered between 16 to 36 months after the Heads and Chairs Summit or 2017 Earth Educators Rendezvous workshop; 12 submitted a second follow up progress report providing insight into the time horizon for needed change. The results of these reports are discussed as case studies in Section 13 and presented and analyzed in Appendix C. These reports provide insight on best practices for curriculum reform, changing pedagogy, and other undergraduate program changes based on the experiences of the responding heads and chairs. In addition to the case studies in Section 13 and Appendix C, we have interspersed quotes from these progress reports where relevant throughout this document.

In 2018, as part of a new NSF-sponsored initiative on Improving Geoscience Graduate Student Preparedness for the Future Workforce, we held a second Geoscience Employers Workshop, representing a broader range of employment sectors and disciplinary specialties. The purpose was to explore the universal skills and competencies that should be part of graduate education for doctoral and master’s students in Earth, ocean, and atmospheric sciences. Although this workshop concentrated on the graduate experience, geoscience employers also discussed skills they expected undergraduates to develop before coming to graduate school. Participants in this workshop highlighted the same menu of skills and competencies identified in the undergraduate effort, but the increase in importance of some skills was notable.


Overall, the academic and employer community involved in this geoscience education initiative reflect the distribution of faculty by institution type and of geoscience employers (Fig. 2.1 and Appendix D). Input from academic institutions was: 11% two year colleges (2YC), 33% Bachelors, 6% from M.S., and 50% Ph.D. (31% R1s, 18% other Ph.D., 1% international) granting departments. Input from employers was: 29% petroleum related, 19% federal agencies, 14% mining/minerals, 9% hydrogeology/environmental/engineering consulting, 4% museums/other education, 3% state agencies/surveys, 3% from weather/climate related, 1% energy, 1% reinsurance, 1% other consulting, 7% NGOs and 14% professional societies. For the undergraduate effort, most the participants were from the solid earth geosciences with some representation from the ocean and atmospheric sciences. For the graduate effort, there was an even distribution of participants across Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences.

An initial draft of this document was written in mid-2019 with each member of the committee writing sections most closely aligned to their expertise based on findings from the Summits, followed by a review of all sections by all committee members. The changes and additions from individual committee members were compiled by Mosher and Keane and the document reworked to have a consistent style. In mid-2020, the committee met to discuss the new draft and construct specific recommendations. After modifications, the committee reviewed the entire document again and final edits were incorporated. The revised document was reviewed by four external reviewers and based on the reviews further revised by Mosher and Keane.

This document outlines a robust community-wide vision supported by both representatives of the geoscience academic programs and employers. Well over 1,000 geoscientists have provided input to this vision for the future of geoscience undergraduate education. Additional studies of education in the geosciences, and of STEM education in general, support and substantiate the findings of this Future of Geoscience Education initiative (see References).