Science is more than theory and lecture. Science is fun. Science is hands-on. Science is…
By Nicole LaDue, NIU Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences
The outlook for geoscience jobs is promising, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics projecting above-average job growth of 16 percent. That should translate into opportunities for high-paying careers that help society plan for natural hazards and meet needs for clean water and natural resources.
Despite these opportunities, the geosciences field suffers from a major deficit. It is the least ethnically and racially diverse of all the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
This lack of diversity limits the insight and creativity with which geoscientists can approach problems. With pressing global challenges such as climate change and limited natural resources, this untapped human capital cannot continue to be overlooked.
Currently, the majority of people with ethnic and racial backgrounds underrepresented in STEM enter the geosciences from community colleges, which have few designated geosciences programs of their own. Similarly, there are few geosciences programs offered at minority-serving institutions (MSI) of higher education. Despite a substantial investment over the past few decades in high quality geoscience curricula, many community colleges and MSIs are not connected with these resources.
In a recent effort co-led by Northern Illinois University, participants explored the barriers and opportunities for broadening participation in the geosciences through community colleges and MSIs.
The effort, known as the Geo-Needs Project, is funded by the National Science Foundation. I’m a member of the project team, along with former NIU visiting professor Sheldon Turner, NIU graduate student Xai Her in geology and faculty from three other universities.
We convened four stakeholder meetings in August at the NIU Naperville campus. Instructors, administrators, educational resource providers and education researchers met to discuss the gaps that currently exist and an ideal future state for improving diversity in the geosciences. The final report from the working groups is still forthcoming, but four overarching themes emerged.
First, since locally relevant curricula connect geoscience content to students’ everyday lives, community colleges and MSIs would benefit from opportunities to adapt existing resources to their regional geologic setting. For example, Illinois’ geologic history is rich with ancient ocean rocks and glacial deposits, so educational materials can be connected to the significance of these local features.
Second, since most students from underrepresented backgrounds start in community colleges, regional partnerships between community colleges, four-year colleges and local workforce providers could promote pathways into geoscience careers.
Third, research on diversity in the geosciences should learn from current successful efforts in STEM. There are likely undiscovered approaches to improving the sense of community that students experience in our geoscience departments.
Lastly, there have been a few very successful programs across the country. The community would benefit from identifying which specific components were successful and the context in which those strategies might work.
Strategies developed from the overarching themes will hold the potential to broadly benefit the geosciences across our nation, including in our own northern Illinois region, which has a number of community colleges that are classified as Hispanic-serving institutions (HSI) or MSI.
Regional career opportunities also are crucial to community college students who have families or are changing careers. And, in northern Illinois, geoscience job opportunities can be found in water-resource management, geophysics, aggregate mining and other areas.
In fact, at NIU, the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences offers opportunities to participate in an environmental geosciences field camp program as part of the major. This four-week experience provides students with hands-on, job-related training using the tools of the industry.
As we move forward with the Geo-Needs Project, we will be contributing to a conference next summer in Wisconsin to establish stronger geoscience programs at minority-serving institutions. We also hope to generate new ideas and establish an ideal model for increasing diversity in the geosciences. Ultimately, we strongly believe that job growth accompanied by a diverse workforce will be a winning combination for our communities, our world and the future.
For more information, contact Nicole LaDue at firstname.lastname@example.org.