8. Recruiting, Retaining, and Promoting Success of Undergraduate Students with Emphasis on Students Underrepresented in the Geosciences

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.

Challenges and Opportunities

The demand for geoscientists in a range of employment opportunities continues to expand and outpace the number of students preparing for geoscience careers. The American Geoscience Institute (AGI) using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data estimates that by 2028, there will be a shortage of 35,000 geoscientists (FTEs, full time equivalents), and geoscience employment will increase over the next decade by 4–8%, depending on the specific occupation. Traditional undergraduate geoscience enrollments have declined recently with six major universities reporting between 28% and 71% (54% average) declines, and many smaller colleges report ‘plummeting’ or steeply declining enrollments (data from Summit action plan progress reports). Recruitment of students and retention to degree completion is critically important to our profession.

students looking at a map in the field
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

The demographics of the general workforce has changed, becoming more diverse and global, yet the geosciences enroll one of the lowest percentages of underrepresented minority students of all STEM fields (6%; Gonzales, 2010). The need for increasing diversity has been recognized for decades (e.g., initiation of NSF Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences (OEDG) program in early 2000s (Karsten, 2019); commencement in 1974 of AGI’s Minority Participation Program Scholarships) and is affirmed by position statements of geoscience professional societies1. The geosciences are still not effectively engaging the entire student population and thus are not competing for the best minds (Bernard and Cooperdock, 2018; Hofstra et al., 2020). Not only are we missing excellent future geoscience professionals, but also the diverse life experiences and perspectives that help in identifying and solving the geoscience-related problems facing society.

Most middle and high school students are unaware of what most scientists actually do, partly because they are rarely exposed to the active work of scientists. Most K–12 students have limited exposure to the geosciences, which impacts their building knowledge of our planet, its issues, and the potential of a career in the geosciences. Evolving science education standards (e.g., Framework for K–12 Science Education; NGSS) are improving these factors nationwide. Pathways for attracting high school graduates to careers in the geosciences include tapping into an interest in the world around them, working towards constructive societal impact, leveraging interest in high tech fields, and seeking well-compensated careers. Geoscience programs must engage these students as they enter post-secondary education, and work within the community of campus programs to foster interest in the discipline, both for the health of the discipline and the potential to engage the best and brightest.

The geosciences, like most STEM fields, struggle with recruiting and retaining diverse populations through graduation and actively promoting their success, not just completion of their degree. Developing a diverse workforce begins with emphasizing the role geoscientists play in societal and environmental issues and their role across society, providing tangible context on the world of geoscience work. Climate change, sustainability and availability of natural resources, and the increasing impact of natural hazards due to population growth are all beginning to affect society on larger scales. Though no community is spared, the increasing impact of these issues often disproportionately affects underrepresented minorities. If the geoscience community pulls from the greatest breadth of society, these diverse perspectives will lead to unique insights and solutions and effective engagement with all affected communities.

Limited opportunities for being outdoors, in outdoors spaces, or outdoors-related programs impedes the development of curiosity and discovery of the natural world and is a growing challenge to engaging potential geoscience students, and it is particularly acute for many underrepresented and urban populations. Communities, school districts, and institutions of higher education need to create opportunities for outdoor experiences so students can see the benefits and the impact of the environment on their life and local community.

Geoscience departments need to be on the forefront of marketing the geosciences as a fruitful and impactful career that benefits society and local communities. Departments and programs need to directly engage with prospective students and parents, as well as the campus-wide community, highlighting the local, societal impacts of the geosciences and its career prospects by developing community service activities that increase its exposure and build robust STEM support and mentoring systems for students. Faculty involved in such efforts should be rewarded for their contributions to this critically important challenge. We must ensure that we demonstrate the geosciences as a viable, honest, respectable, and intellectual occupation in our efforts to engage with underrepresented minority families.

Geoscientists work with people from all parts of the globe, from urban populations in developed countries to isolated and impoverished villages in the developing world. Students must be prepared to work effectively and respectfully in a culturally diverse environment. Experiences working with diverse populations while in college is a crucial step in that learning journey, so geoscience programs need to reflect and engage with a demographic representative of the nation and humanity. We need to ensure that different cultural perspectives, learning opportunities, and experiences are integral to the geoscience educational process.

Building a representative geoscience community has been a slow process, not from a lack of desire or effort, but because of the complexity of engaging at multiple societal, racial, cultural, and educational levels. The geoscience community needs to take a holistic approach to increasing diversity and a long view. It will take more than one generation to see full representation in the discipline. Consider that an 8^th^ grader in 2020 will be mid-career in 2050, so structural changes we make today in early education will only become inherent in the community in the second half of the century. We must make concerted efforts to set these internal processes in motion now, and look for near-term opportunities, such as encouraging bright undergraduates on our campuses to become geoscientists, to mitigate the immediate issues.

Summit Outcomes

The 2014 and 2016 Summit participants provided valuable insight into best practices for recruiting and retention of students, with an emphasis on students underrepresented in the geosciences, and for successful transitions from two year (2YC) to four-year colleges/universities (4YC). The 2014–2015 survey indicated that, of the respondents, 40% of departments and 34% of companies and other organizations have, or plan on, systematic efforts to encourage broadening participation and retention of a more diverse student population. Efforts ranged from using role models to collaborating with minority serving institutions (Fig. 8.1). Also, 57% of the departments and 31% of companies and other organizations track the participation and retention of minorities in their population (see Appendix A).

About 22% of the Heads and Chairs who participated at the 2016 Summit and subsequent workshops submitted progress reports that described successful recruiting and retention strategies. To recruit more students, some departments instituted new courses or changed introductory classes to active learning, worked with college admissions offices on recruitment, held open houses, and used updated marketing materials to advertise their programs to reach wider audiences, including presentations during introductory classes about the geology major and employment opportunities. One department deliberately started co-emphasizing laboratory and computer (e.g., GIS) work alongside fieldwork.

To increase retention of first-generation college and other underrepresented students, several departments increased mentoring of students and became more inclusive of disparate levels of science background by being flexible about the order a student might take science and math courses. One department showed students how courses connect by developing a curriculum roadmap that outlines expected skills and student learning outcomes, and developed e-portfolio programs for student self-assessment. Another department designed a 1-credit course that includes problem-based field and lab activities, discussions, and visits from alumni and industry-professionals.


Recruitment of undergraduate students to the geosciences commonly occurs when undergraduates discover the subject by taking an elective geoscience course. Having the best and most engaging instructors teach these courses is essential; these instructors should use best practices for active learning and concentrate on broad concepts, processes, and human interactions with the Earth system (see Sections 5 and 9).

Survey Question: If you sponsor, partner with, or have a program to encourage broadening of participation and retention of a more diverse student population, which of the following does that program offer?

Integration of practices recommended by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will resonate with many incoming students from their high school experience (see Section 9). As noted in the Best Practices for Instruction section (Section 5), by having a mix of high- and low-inquiry activities in introductory or non-major laboratory courses, students have more positive experiences and develop a better understanding of the geosciences. These students are more likely to persist and take a second course in the discipline. Math, physics, chemistry, and biology should be integrated into the lower division courses so that students understand why geoscience majors need a spectrum of STEM courses to be successful.

Many students who are initially attracted to the discipline through elective geoscience courses do not realize the technical nature of the geosciences. Departments need to provide prospective majors frank advice on degree requirements, including costs, time commitments and resources needed for the program (e.g., field camp related). Departments can also explicitly target beginning students planning to major in other STEM fields by emphasizing the rigorous aspects of the geosciences and showing that students can use their quantitative and technical skills to make a difference to society while utilizing a broad spectrum of scientific knowledge and skills.

students using a calculator in a geology lab
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

Ultimately, individual departments and programs need to be actively engaged in their own recruitment of students, both on and off campus. Take advantage of any opportunity to promote the geosciences and your program. Collaborating with recruiters in the central admissions office is also important, as they may know little about the geosciences. Provide the recruiters with information on what the geosciences and your program have to offer students. Other possibilities include leveraging other institutional recruiting organizations, such as those associated with athletics, and partnering with other departments, 2YCs and universities.

Websites serve as the front door for the department and program. The site needs to clearly communicate that geoscience is an undergraduate major with a lot of career potential (using AGI data) that impacts their community while solving socially relevant problems, including environmental issues. Websites should be inclusive in their language and imagery. The website is also a key entry point for internal recruitment of undecided undergraduate students, or those enrolled in degree programs that no longer interest them. Include clear roadmaps to degrees, including those for students transferring from other majors and 2YCs. If appropriate, discuss bridge programs starting from K–12 to 2YC to 4YC. Be aware that highlighting students outside in exotic locations working on non-socially relevant problems can be counterproductive.

To engage K–12 students early, representatives of the department or program need to visit schools regularly, especially for career days. Faculty and/or students should talk about different geoscience topics in K–12 classes, judge science fairs, and/or hold social recruiting events. Presentations and media should show diverse geoscientists as successful professionals. It is best to show geoscientists in the lab, on a computer, or in a formal office setting, in addition to the field. Provide career information, such as the American Geoscience Institute workforce brochures and The Earth is Calling (Be a Geo Video2), which offer brief introductions to geoscience careers. Visits to schools also provide the opportunity to develop good relationships with high school counselors and provide them with career information. In addition to working with K–12 schools, building stronger relationships with local informal science centers, museums, and civic or professional groups is another way to increase exposure of the geosciences and your programs.

Many departments and programs also work with high school teachers, providing support through educational resources, professional development, fieldtrips, or other opportunities. Getting more geoscience content and examples into middle and high school courses builds student exposure. Some departments even offer online geoscience instruction to institutions, particularly to those serving underrepresented communities. Dual credit high school Earth science courses, where students receive both high school and college credits, are another mechanism for developing prospective geoscience majors. Another approach is to mentor students entering international science and engineering fairs (Intel, Siemens, Regeneron, etc.) or Science Olympiads.

As parents often are the most influential factor in their children’s decisions related to choosing a higher education pathway (Noel-Levitz, 2009), connecting with them is critical. Parents should be invited to student recruiting events and provided with career, salary, and employment information. Recruiters should be candid with them regarding financial considerations for the degree, including unique expenses like field camp, financial aid, and opportunities for geoscience-related scholarships.

Increasing Diversity

The geosciences face major challenges in attracting undergraduate students, particularly those underrepresented in geosciences (Wilson, 2018). Although many STEM fields have similar issues, research has documented specific challenges facing the geosciences (Karsten, 2019), as well as solutions (Wolfe and Riggs, 2017; Gates et al., 2019). The public does not have a clear perception of what geoscientists do, our impact on society, or what geoscience occupations exist. Saddled with stereotypes of boom-and-bust petroleum industry cycles and that most Earth science courses taken in high-school and the introductory college-level are considered an easier science credit, our “storefront” provides little incentive for talented individuals to look more deeply at the geosciences. The lack of authentic geoscience role models who interface with the public over real issues affecting communities leads to misconceptions of what the geosciences are and the breadth of geoscience occupations that are available.

In marketing the geosciences, it is important to emphasize the ability for students to make a difference by solving problems of societal importance. Stressing ties to the local community and the societal aspects of problems is especially important because many underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students view returning to help their community as a major priority (Banks-Santilli 2015). Information on salaries and employment rates are also critical for demonstrating that geoscience occupations are well-compensated and have robust employment opportunities. Another attraction is that the geosciences are engaged in innovation and advanced technologies. When possible, programs should publicly showcase the innovation and advanced technology applications that your program is using while framing the geosciences as a professional occupational discipline.

Two popular geoscience marketing and recruiting approaches, working in the field and global travel, are very attractive to some cultures but not others and need to be presented carefully (see Sherman-Morris and McNeal, 2016). Students who love the outdoors are attracted by the opportunity to work in the field. Similarly, the opportunity to travel and work globally is very attractive to some students. However, many minority communities equate fieldwork with occupations involving manual labor, something they do not want their children doing. The message needs to be clear that geoscientists work as professionals and that most work is accomplished on computers, in offices, and/or in laboratories and that working in the field for a living is a choice, not a requirement.

Female students taking water samples
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

For community-centric cultures, travel can be viewed negatively by parents and prospective students. It is also important to show that there are opportunities, depending on their career choices, to stay in or near their communities and give back through their work.

The geosciences should adopt the messaging strategies of engineering (National Academy of Engineering; NAE, 2013; chapter 1) which for decades have coordinated with major corporations, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering (National Academy of Engineering, 2008), and professional marketing firms to present attractive, diverse images of women and minorities in engineering. Lastly, the geoscience community should advertise and demonstrate with tangible local examples that the geosciences can be a gateway undergraduate major that leads to a spectrum of careers by showcasing alumni.

Diversity issues are complex and recruitment or retention strategies will be unique to each institution. Different institutions and regions offer different challenges, potential impacts, and targets (e.g., high schools, two-year colleges, minority serving institutions, other undergraduate majors, etc.). Underrepresented student diversity classifications may include race, ethnicity, first generation, socioeconomic class, gender, age, disability, and veterans and therefore require different approaches.

Understanding the backgrounds of potential students is crucial to using the appropriate tactics and language their specific communities and cultures. Nonetheless, there are some fundamental outreach practices and program elements for improving diversity that can be emulated (discussed at 2014 and 2016 Summits). Recruitment often starts early during middle and high school with relationship building involving teachers, school counselors, families, and the community. In many cases this contact comes in the form of a geoscience or STEM program for underrepresented minority students at pre-high school and high school levels, either within the community or at the university or college. Whoever is involved in such programs or other recruiting efforts needs to value, and be aware of, cultural differences, local issues, and the roles of different individuals. Personal touch matters. Respect and trust come through building long-term relationships, so ensuring that the same person serves as the “recruiter” over multiple years is important.

Involving pre-college students in research programs has shown to increase self-efficacy and a continued interest in geoscience careers (Baber et al, 2010). Summit participants shared information on several successful programs that attracted and retained minority students (Box 8.1). The most successful recruiting programs provided financial support, reached out to students in their communities, involved members of the community (families, high school teachers, guidance counselors), included mentoring, and incorporated role models.

Some successful recruitment programs also provide mentors for prospective students who stay in touch through social media, email, etc. Many underrepresented students are first generation, and no one in their family has applied for colleges or financial aid. A few programs provide workshops to help with admission and financial aid application forms (including Free Application for Federal Student Aid — ​FAFSA^®^) or offer SAT or ACT preparation workshops. Many offer financial support for students accepted into their programs.

Because most undergraduate institutions' student body is more diverse than most geoscience departments and programs themselves, active recruitment from the entire campus population is another strategy to increase diversity. This recruitment might be achieved through increasing interdisciplinary courses and activities, offering engaging non-major courses, and working across academic departments at universities to give geoscience departments more visibility to a greater range of students.

When recruiting, departments should involve people of similar cultural backgrounds, particularly people closer to the student’s age, to more easily establish a rapport. If you have alumni or current students from an underrepresented community, invest in having them return to talk about their experiences. When possible, have minority geoscientists visit the schools and participate in recruiting events as role models.

Diversifying the faculty also demonstrates your commitment to diversity and provides role models and mentors to connect underrepresented students to geoscience careers more effectively (Archer et al., 2019). At the same time, do not overtax faculty from underrepresented populations with recruitment obligations at the expense of meeting their own career goals.

Group photo of GeoForce students holding banners
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

Box 8.1: GeoFORCE Texas --- Successful High School Diversity Field Program

GeoFORCE Texas3 is a highly successful K–12 outreach program designed to increase the number and diversity of students pursuing STEM degrees and careers, especially geoscience, at the University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences. Each summer, GeoFORCE Texas takes over 300 high school students on geological field trips to the Gulf Coast, Mt. St. Helens/Pacific Northwest, Grand Canyon, and central Texas. These field academies engage diverse students from challenged high schools in southwest Texas and inner city Houston and provide life-changing learning experiences at some of the most spectacular geologic sites in the country to broaden students' understanding of the Earth, geosciences, and engineering. Although it varies each year, the demographics are ~85% minorities (e.g., 2019: 59% hispanic, 17% black, 8% asian) and 60–64% female. GeoFORCE Texas also serves first-generation students and those from low-income families.

Each academy is about 1 week in length and involves active learning in an outdoor environment. Students are recruited in 8th grade and go on one field experience the summer before each of their high school years. They must maintain a B average during the school year and pass quizzes and exams during the week-long trip. Over 1,300 students have completed the program, and 100% graduated from high school. The academies are sponsored by companies and foundations, predominantly the petroleum industry, and are free for the students. Each academy has an instructor, a GeoFORCE coordinator, six counselors, a corporate/professional geoscientist mentor, and an educational coach. Many alumni of GeoFORCE come back and work as counselors in the summer.

GeoFORCE works closely with communities, high school counselors, and teachers. GeoFORCE staff are active with the students during the year, staying in touch and helping them prepare for college applications regardless of what school or major. Staff hold transition-to-college workshops for students and parents on the basics of college, the application and admission process, financial aid and scholarships, and SAT preparation. They also provide letters of recommendation, notify students of potential scholarships, and connect the high school seniors with undergraduates for advice. High school seniors present posters at the Jackson School Student Research Symposium. Incoming college STEM majors also participate in a Math and Science Institute to prepare for their college-level courses.

As of 2019, GeoFORCE had 582 graduates enrolled in college (432 in 4YCs, 77 in 2YC, and 73 in graduate school). ~86% of graduates go onto college with ~90% persisting through their second year. ~44% of undergraduate majors are pursuing a STEM major and 8% more in health and clinical sciences. The geosciences have 8% of the undergraduate and 18% of the graduate students. As of 2019, 492 students have bachelor’s degrees, 51 have masters degrees, and 7 professional degrees. 13% of all bachelor’s degrees are in the geosciences, 67% of which were earned by underrepresented minority students. Comparatively, 12% of bachelor’s degrees in geoscience were awarded to URM in 2016 nationally (NCSES, 2016). Of 51 master’s degrees earned by GeoFORCE alumni, 22% have been in geoscience (11).

The staff maintain contact with all the college students, helping them get involved in mentoring or other helpful programs at the university they attend and directing them to research opportunities and scholarships. The Jackson School has endowed scholarships and fellowships for GeoFORCE graduates who are accepted into the undergraduate or graduate program, and geoscience majors who attend universities other than UT Austin frequently participate in undergraduate research with JSG researchers as visiting scholars.

Retention and Successful Progress to Graduation

Successful progress to graduation goes beyond retention, particularly for students underrepresented in the geosciences. For example, students may complete the degree by meeting minimum graduation requirements but find themselves lacking the grade point averages and extracurricular activities sought by graduate schools and employers. For this reason, a multifaceted, institutional approach that nurtures the academic, social, and professional development of all students is central to success (Wolfe and Riggs, 2017). As students declare a geoscience major, the faculty advisor should discuss the curriculum, including concepts, skills and competency expectations for graduates, as well as detail those that align best to support their aspirations for graduate school or employment. Advisors and students need to also discuss the culture of the geoscience department, the professional societies, as well as extracurricular and social networking opportunities that support overall success.

As previously outlined, quantitative skills are a strong predictor for post-college success, yet are also viewed as a key recruitment and retention barrier. Many departments have piloted approaches to support students in developing their core science and math skills. One successful approach has been to integrate math, chemistry, physics, and computational science into all levels of geoscience courses so the students can both learn these topics in a geoscience context and understand their application and importance to their degree (e.g., “Math You Need, When You Need It”; see Section 3). Ongoing contextual success builds student’s sense of self-efficacy (i.e., belief in their ability to succeed).

To ensure students are building a solid foundation, departmental, program or institutional tutors or pre-calculus and lower level science courses and workshops can address any deficiencies. Rigorous summer bridge programs in mathematics and chemistry can provide for a better transition to college STEM courses (Ashley et al., 2017; Dickerson et al., 2014; Murphy et al., 2010). Some institutions incorporate more pre-college material in lower division science and math courses or teach material at a slower pace. For example, a course may have more contact (and credit) hours or be offered over multi-semesters. Others have tried a modular approach, breaking the material into multiple three-week segments. Some encourage students to take these more difficult courses during the summer when they can concentrate fully on the subject. Other departments offer calculus taught by geoscience faculty or sequence core science courses with contextual geoscience courses, such as one semester of physics and/or chemistry followed by a semester of geophysics and/or geochemistry.

Two students meeting with a teacher
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

Support is not just about academics; it includes social, economic, and cultural factors (Tinto and Engstrom, 2008). Develop a gathering place where students and faculty can get together on a regular basis to provide community continuity. Student organizations can help with building a sense of belonging, and successful inclusion of diverse students in the academic and social communities of geoscience campuses will address feelings of isolation and exclusion.

As nascent members of the geoscience community, undergraduate students need to be engaged in the development of a career to not only to prepare for their future but to help motivate them to complete their program. Strategies include inviting alumni to talk about what they do in their careers and how they achieved their present position. Having a successful professional geoscientist join a field trip to interact with the students can illustrate context relative to job opportunities. Career information should be provided to students by the department and/or program, and this same information should be shared with your institutional career services office. Students should be encouraged to take advantage of professional networks that have student chapters (e.g. American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG), National Association of Black Geoscientists (NABG**),** Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), the American Water Resources Association (AWRA), etc.). Departments and programs should encourage and financially support undergraduate attendees and/or presenters at regional and national scientific conferences that help to build student self-efficacy as nascent geoscience professionals. Many societies provide scholarships for first time underrepresented minority attendees (AGU, GSA, etc.).

Nurturing a sense of departmental community that provides academic, social, and financial support within the undergraduate program and the classroom as an entrée to the discipline and profession is critical to student success. Departments should accept new students as emerging geoscientists who are part of the field, but starting their learning journey. Field trips are excellent mechanisms to build camaraderie and community that few other disciplines have, though field trip leaders need to be cognizant of issues that may impede participation by underrepresented students.

Effective pedagogy supports retention and student success, especially pedagogies that draw on collaborative and active learning (e.g., Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) High Impact Practices, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), Calculus Communities of Scholars (Asera, 2001)) These pedagogies also support inclusive learning environments (Beane et al., 2019) (see Section 5). Other successful strategies include providing explicit instruction in effective study skills, metacognitive instruction to help students understand the way they learn, and more structured opportunities for assessing what they have learned throughout the semester.

Active learning strategies and undergraduate research experiences help students identify their skills and interests more thoroughly, build strong connections to mentors, and understand what future steps are needed to continue in a desired field (e.g., Lopatto, 2007). These activities or research projects may be as simple as data collection or field and lab assistance on a larger project that creates a sense of belonging. Early authentic research experiences for undergraduate students help with retention (e.g., UT Austin Freshman Research Initiative (FRI)4; Simmons, 2014; Beckham et al., 2015), particularly for underrepresented minorities. These research experiences can be during the school year or summer, and ideally should be paid if participation could cause a financial hardship by keeping students from jobs. Additionally, summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs sponsored by organizations such as the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), UNAVCO, or the Western Alliance to Expand Student Opportunities (WAESO), the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and other NSF sponsored REU programs across the country, are important ways to build student success.

Concern about mental health issues among college and university students has resulted in increased counseling and mentoring resources for all students. Any undergraduate may suffer from feelings of inadequacy, so departments must develop strong mentoring and engagement programs for all students, and especially for underrepresented minority and at-risk students, including students who commute and those living off-campus. Generally, students develop a strong sense of belonging if early in their education they are involved in research, disciplinary projects or contests, and/or student groups or chapters, where they can form working relationships with other students as part of a cohort.

Mental health challenges also impact high-performing high school students who have never had a poor grade. When starting college or the university, they may no longer be the best in the class, or find it difficult to adjust to a new less structured life. If they do poorly on an exam or in a class, they may magnify it out of proportion, be devastated, and unwilling to admit failure to their family. They also are likely to change majors, or because they have never considered the possibility of failure, drop out. They, too, need robust advising and mentoring.

Effective Strategies for Students Underrepresented in the Geosciences

Successful engagement of underrepresented minority students involve several common components: mentoring, active learning, research, and formative experiences. These same components are important for all students as well. Mentoring is a powerful tool that is effective at the peer level, where students already engaged in the geosciences mentor other students; and the faculty level, where students engage with faculty based on aligned interest and skills. Mentoring groups with mixed cohorts of underrepresented and non-underrepresented students have proven to be successful, particularly for freshman. Mentoring is also key in helping individuals interested in geosciences navigate and discover the wide range of careers and opportunities offered.

Another component to underrepresented minority student engagement in the geosciences is a formative field experience. While not true for all underrepresented students, some minorities and other urban students lack formative childhood experiences with outdoor spaces that many geoscientists find intrinsic to the science. For many underrepresented minority students, sponsored field experiences are often the only time they have been introduced to natural science in outdoor spaces (National Park Service (NPS) survey 2008–2009). These experiences can be even more formative for students when they interact with outdoor spaces through the lenses of newly acquired skills and knowledge allowing them to interpret their natural surroundings or an environmental issue. This approach might include connecting underrepresented students to ocean and marine environments through time spent on research vessels and through coastal research opportunities, directly or remotely.

The departments and programs hold the institutional responsibility to provide support networks, safety nets, mentoring, and more (Wolfe and Riggs, 2017) to ensure student success. Success of students underrepresented in geoscience programs is particularly difficult. Departments and programs should continually address the question of why diversity matters, reduce the prevalence of “lonely onlys”, and build student self-efficacy. They need to educate faculty and students (particularly underrepresented students) about topics such as “imposter syndrome” where students feel inadequate despite evident success and “stereotype threat” where students feel at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group (Spencer et al., 2016). These two conditions can have the largest impact on those students who are doing or want to do well, resulting in decreased performance (Santiago and Einarson, 1998). Geoscience departments must be willing to look inward, change departmental culture, and develop, incorporate, and advertise to their students programs that are welcoming and designed to promote success among underrepresented student groups.

Faculty and counselors need to recognize many underrepresented students do not know anyone else who has gone to college and thus are significantly less likely to have a roadmap for their future. Small setbacks can be amplified out of proportion. Many have deep connections to their family and home, but their families cannot provide the advice and guidance the students need. Robust advising and mentoring are required. Faculty and/or counselors may need to do “intrusive advising”, intentionally contacting a student to develop a positive relationship that promotes academic motivation and persistence. Many institutions also have resources to help departments and programs with these issues.

Advisors must consider the home environment of the minority or “first in family” student. A student who commutes to school and does not live on campus leads a different student life than one who lives in a dormitory. A student who is the first in the family or community to attend college does not have a support or information system like that of peers whose families are educated. Students from some cultures must continually manage the expectations of family or community members whose demands can conflict with academic needs. For example, attending a Pow Wow is mandatory and often not scheduled; enthusiasm about school can be viewed as having fun and not being serious about supporting the family; and the lack of understanding of the difference between high school and university work can overwhelm students.

Faculty and staff need professional development on cultural sensitivity and implicit bias, and departments and institutions need to develop robust diversity, equity, and inclusion plans. Many colleges and universities now offer or require such training centrally or through College of Education courses on teaching diverse learners. Some professional societies, including NAGT, offer workshops on these subjects. In the classroom, instructors need to identify and embrace all types of diversity, recognizing there are diverse communities within underrepresented minorities and to learn about the cultures, heritage, skill levels, and learning styles of students you are working with and adjust teaching and mentoring accordingly.

Promising approaches to broadening participation often happen through institutional partnerships among 2YCs, 4-year colleges/universities (4YCs) and minority serving 4YCs (MSI), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), and Tribal Colleges and through leveraging research infrastructures and research opportunities to enhance a student academic training. Universities and four-year colleges (4YC) intending to increase diversity need to develop such relationships and collaborations (Box 8.2).

Partnerships between institutions with clearly articulated and communicated pathways for students can additionally provide opportunities for 2YC, MSI, HIS, HBCU and Tribal College students to participate in programs such as REUs, and mentor students before, during, and after transfers to ensure retention and success of high-risk students. Recruitment scholarships for the underrepresented minorities at two-year colleges can be made portable to 4-year colleges if the students transfer.

Box 8.2: Fort Valley State University **Cooperative Developmental Energy Program (CDEP)**

The Cooperative Developmental Energy Program (CDEP) program[^36], founded in 1983 by its Director, Dr. Isaac Crumbly, focuses on the recruitment and placement of academically talented minorities and females into professional level careers in the energy and other STEM-related industries. It has one of the best track-records in the nation for recruiting minorities and women in science and engineering disciplines.

The CDEP dual degree programs have produced 106 engineers, 40 geoscientists, and 9 health physicists. The program achieves its objectives through scholarships, internships, providing career and job opportunities, and dual-degree programs in engineering, geology, geophysics, and health physics. Industry, government, and other universities participate.

The dual STEM degree has students enroll at Fort Valley State University for the first three years and pursue a major in mathematics, chemistry, or biology. For years 4 and 5, students transfer to one of CDEP’s partnering universities to complete a major in engineering, geology, geophysics, or health physics. At the completion of the five-year program, students earn a B.S. degree from Fort Valley State University and a B.S. or M.S. from one of CDEP’s partnering universities. CDEP’s current partnering institutions consist of Fort Valley State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, University of Arkansas, University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Two female students with data torpedos
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

2YCs Opening the Doors to their Students' Future

A critical gateway to engaging the broader population is through 2YC (community college) institutions (Box 8.3). Community colleges often have a high percentage of underrepresented minority students and as the cost of higher education increases, many non-minority students are enrolling as well. Building community college partnerships to bridge the 2- and 4-year college divide provides multiple opportunities to introduce underrepresented students to geoscience at critical decision points.

Box 8.3: Community College Partnerships

In 2017 there were 941 public community colleges (two-year institutions) in the U.S., serving 5.8 million students making up 34% of the undergraduate population in the U.S. (McFarland et al., National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). As higher education becomes increasingly more expensive, more undergraduate students are attending community college as a means to save money and graduate with their bachelor’s degree on time. With undergraduate introductory courses being the most effective marketing tool to engage undeclared students into majoring in geology, a strong effort must be made to ensure these courses across institution types and modes of delivery are given our utmost attention and support. Community colleges reach a wider market of undergraduate students and therefore should be a key outreach component for departments and institutions as they encourage students to study the geosciences. Many NSF RFPs require that collaborations with 2YCs be incorporated into the scope of work for the proposal and this opportunity should not be overlooked by 4YC or 2YC institutions. The most effective collaborations between 2YC and 4YC are often systematic in their efforts.

Curriculum: Ensure content being taught in a 2YC introductory course prepares students for the higher division courses at the 4YC. Build conversations and formative collaborations between colleagues at each institution which can often lead to research and mentoring projects between institutions that serve to increase 2YC undergraduates' awareness of the 4YC institution. Field research opportunities for faculty and students can be a tremendous incentive for continued collaborations and for matriculation to the 4YC institution after the student graduates or finishes taking 2YC classes.

Degree plans: Many 2YCs have 2-year Associate degrees in Science with some even specific to the Geosciences. Finding out if a 2YC has a degree that is transferable, and ensuring that the courses within the degree are transferable and are equivalent to a student who has the same course work and hours at the 4YC, will help ensure that students do not use up valuable educational resources (financial aid, college credits, time, money, etc.)

Mentoring: Student mentoring stretching between 2YC and 4YC greatly improves the success of students making the transition from the community college system to the university system. Having a faculty mentor at both institutions can help facilitate this transition and the challenges that arise such as larger class sizes and increased cost. Mentors can help students navigate these hurdles and increase the chance a student continues and does not drop out. Mentors can be faculty mentors, departmental advisors, and even departmental undergraduate or graduate students.

Robust communication between advisors and faculty at local 2YCs and 4YCs and joint advising strategies are beneficial for successful student transfers. Advising and mentoring needs to happen before, after and during the transfer process. These relationships lead to increasing 4YC enrollments, potentially increased diversity, and a greater chance of long-term student success as preparation and expectations for transfers will be closely aligned to the target 4YC.

Early and intentional integration of transfer students from 2YC to 4YC settings is important for ensuring their success, retention, and graduation. Students struggle to feel a part of their new program when they transfer in with half of their degree program already completed, particularly in into programs with an established strong community. The 4YC students will have already developed cohorts and friendships. Activities that integrate transfer students into the 4YC community before and after the transfer build community and provide support. Joint mentoring of students by 2YC and 4YC advisors throughout the process helps ensure retention and success of high-risk students. Successful approaches have included joint fieldtrips for freshmen and sophomores at the two institutions, summer research internships, REUs, or field programs for 2YC students at 4YCs, and collaboration with upper classmen at 4YCs (Boxes 8.3, 8.4). Relationships can be strengthened by 4YC faculty inviting 2YC students and faculty to research talks and symposiums, co-advising students, and establishing peer and vertical mentoring programs between the two institutions. These partnerships offer opportunities to a broader segment of the student population at both the 2YC and 4YCs than just the transferring students. Institutions need to be attentive to managing costs, such as those associated with funding to house and support students during REUs.

students resting in the field
Courtesy of Joshua Villalobos

Respondents in the 2014–2015 survey indicated limited interaction between 2YC and 4YC (Fig. 8.2). About 17% of participating Heads and Chairs at the 2016 Summit and subsequent workshops that submitted a progress report said they successfully implemented some of these 2YC–4YC engagement strategies. These included joint fieldtrips, student panels, social events, development of a transfer pathway academic map, and increased interactions between faculty and students at local community colleges and 4-year colleges/universities to ease success of transferring students (Box 8.4).

To prepare students for future success with their educational pathway, 2YC faculty should teach students to be good learners who are open to new ideas, engage them in problem solving, and develop team skills; discover and use any non-traditional skills they already have; and leverage local professional societies for both 2YC students and faculty. Faculty at 2YCs need to be active in the professional community and participating in national 2YC faculty networks, bringing benefits to themselves and their students. Informing administrators about professional activities is important, so publicize good-news stories about engagement with outside stakeholders and professional activities.

Box 8.4: University and Community College Collaboration

The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and El Paso Community College (EPCC) have formed a strong collaborations over many years that incorporates a partnership between their geoscience faculty to ensure that EPCC students interested in the geosciences have a high success in matriculation to, and graduation from, UTEP. Geoscience faculty at both institutions convene regularly to discuss any recent changes or recommendations to either curriculum objectives or degree plans. This ensures EPCC students who major in Geosciences are receiving the required instruction and transferable credit for them to succeed at both at UTEP and EPCC. Collaborations between faculty and students at UTEP and EPCC are often strong components in grant proposals submitted by UTEP and incorporate EPCC students facilitating in various field and laboratory tasks that are often considered routine (assisting if deploying field equipment, running lab equipment, data input, etc.) but in fact can be very formative to a student who has begun to show an interest in the geosciences and who may not have yet been on a university campus. These activities have proven to be highly effective in increasing UTEP’s undergraduate programs and increasing the number of geoscience majors at EPCC. Faculty at both institutions have acquired enough knowledge about each other and their respective institutions that they have begun to serve as successful mentors at both ends to assist students in the challenges many face transitioning between community college and the university.

One effective collaborative project is SLATES (Service Learning Activities Targeting the Earth Sciences) that aims to diversify service learning opportunities for undergraduates at the Hispanic Serving Institution, UTEP, and EPCC. A series of short-term activities (< 10 hrs./semester) were developed to target students in introductory geoscience courses to help increase the number of geoscience majors, as well as long-term (>10 hrs./semester) activities for majors to apply their knowledge and skills outside the classroom. In the first year of SLATES, we focused primarily on short-term activities while laying the groundwork for longer-term activities and encouraged students to assist in designing new activities. EPCC students chose to focus on water and sustainability projects, including serving as tour guides for the El Paso Water Utilities' TecH2O Center and desalination facility, and developing lesson plans on El Paso’s groundwater for 4^th^ grade students. These activities involved over 170 students (K–14), parents, and teachers. Students at UTEP focused on tutoring lower division majors in key classes (e.g., mineralogy, petrology) and K–12 outreach (involving over 40 students). We also organized a variety of field trips that highlighted local geology for students, family, and friends. A total of 242 participants (35% non-science majors) attended or assisted with the local field trips.

Students at 2YCs generally mirror the community demographic and can thrive at 4YCs, especially when appropriate support structures are in place. 4YC Faculty working with transfer students from 2YCs need to overcome any cultural or academic biases — ​attendance at a 2YC or underrepresentation does not mean underprepared. 2YC students are fundamentally the same as 4YC students, and 27% 4YC students completed two years at a 2YC before finishing their last two years at 4YCs (also 26% of M.S. and 17% of Ph.D.’s) (Wilson, 2018).

For success, a clear pathway to degree completion for transfer students must be defined and communicated to local 2YCs to ensure students are on track at the end of their first two years to be prepared for the next two. Faculty at both institutions need to coordinate course objectives, curriculum, and degree plans. They should discuss content, objectives, and any evolution or changes in degree programs. Clear articulation agreements are needed, but that goes beyond course numbers; it is critical in advising students to ensure transfer courses actually transfer as specific courses needed for the degree, not just as credit hours. If 4YCs have transfer students from multiple 2YCs, the 4YC faculty should work with the network of 2YCs. Also, if a student transfers before receiving their Associates degree from the 2YC, it is important for faculty at both institutions to facilitate cross-transfer credits from the 4YC to the 2YC so the students can still be awarded their associates degree. This coordination will ensure that students who do not finish the four-year degree will at least have the Associates degree and increases the likelihood that they complete the four-year degree. Also, 2YCs are evaluated on the number of Associate degrees that are completed.

Broadening Participation and Institutional Change

Changing the culture of academic departments through transformative institutional practices to sustain diversity efforts progresses slowly. Problems and solutions do not lie with the communities we hope to serve but are the responsibility of leadership, who are in position to motivate change and re-think what constitutes a geoscience degree. Building on research and evaluation in best practices, academic programs are beginning to embrace new approaches to increasing the diversity of majors, career options, and training. A snapshot of current geosciences diversity programs funded by the NSF shows innovation in approaches and skill development around topics that are particularly meaningful to students, urban or rural. Researchers should take advantage of the Broader Impact review criterion for federal grants to continue to initiate and test new programs and ideas to address minority and nontraditional student issues in the geosciences.

Role of Professional Societies (GSA, AGU, NABG, SACNAS, AISES, NAGT)

Geoscience and other STEM professional societies have been at the forefront for decades in building strategic approaches for recruiting underrepresented populations into the sciences. These initiatives have largely been structured as competitive scholarships or overarching informational or mentoring initiatives. Efforts by individual programs, often funded by the National Science Foundation and industry, have been key to capturing these newly engaged students. However, this process struggles to scale effectively, as demonstrated by the marginal improvement in participation by underrepresented populations. Additionally, efforts by the National Academy of Engineering and the American Geosciences Institute demonstrated the critical barrier to success has been building sufficient self-efficacy in these recruited populations (Houlton and Keane, 2017). Starting in 2020, a spectrum of major NSF-funded initiatives have been launched with professional societies to develop community-wide networks that foment change to improve the diversity of the geoscience community.


  • Address the public perception of the geosciences by emphasizing societal, economic, and employment relevance

  • Emulate and develop program/department-focused positive recruitment programs for new students, lower division non-majors, transfer students, and students underrepresented in the geosciences, taking advantage of institutional efforts

  • Develop or collaborate with STEM programs for minority students at pre-high school and high school levels, as appropriate for your institution

  • Develop a formal approach for student retention and success that includes mentoring, building a sense of community, and other supportive aspects, particularly focusing on students underrepresented in the geosciences

  • Develop programs that facilitate the success of transfer students from 2YC to 4YC and/or universities before, during, and after transfer

  • Build institutional partnerships among two-year colleges, four-year colleges/universities and minority serving institutions (MSI) and leverage research infrastructures and research opportunities to enhance a student academic training at Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), and Tribal Colleges, leveraging institutional efforts as appropriate

  • Initiate and test new programs to address underrepresented minority and nontraditional student issues in the geosciences

  • Use the Broader Impact review criterion for federal grants to encourage actions to increase underrepresented minority participation, retention, and success

  1. GSA https://www.geosociety.org/gsa/positions/position15.aspx; AGU https://www.agu.org/Learn-About-AGU/About-AGU/Diversity-and-Inclusion ↩︎

  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naMxvhPdi5g ↩︎

  3. https://www.jsg.utexas.edu/geoforce/ ↩︎

  4. https://cns.utexas.edu/news/freshman-research-starts-at-ut-changes-the-world ↩︎