Over the past decade, reports developed by the National Science Board, the National Academies, and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) have documented the substantial role played by the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines as drivers of American innovation, prosperity, and global competitiveness [References 4 - 8]. These reports have also noted that the “need for STEM knowledge extends to all Americans,” due to the growing role of STEM products in the lives of citizens and the need for our democratic society to make informed decisions on the basis of scientific evidence. Yet, in spite of continually growing demand for STEM expertise and literacy, fewer students are pursuing advanced degrees and careers in STEM disciplines and insufficient progress is made in engaging the full diversity of the Nation’s potential talent pool in those fields.
The Status of the Geoscience Workforce 2018 report (published by the American Geosciences Institute - AGI) and related efforts [References 9 & 10] assess the educational and employment landscape within the geosciences [References 10-18] and have documented clear evidence of this downward trend. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a higher than average growth rate for the future geoscience workforce (growing at higher-than-average rates and projected turnover resulting from retirements) while AGI predicts that production of new geoscientists at current rates will not be sufficient, resulting in a shortfall of ~118,000 geoscientists by the year 2026. Improving efforts to retain individuals from groups who have traditionally been excluded in the geosciences is important since these students will soon be the majority of college age students in undergraduate programs [Reference 19 & 20].
Relatedly, increasing the recruitment and retention of undergraduate students in geoscience courses and programs might lead to more graduates in the discipline, however there are barriers that will need to be addressed. The geosciences differ from many other STEM disciplines in that 1) there often are not well-defined pathways between high school, college education (both two-year and four-year), and graduate education or career options and 2) lack of exposure to existing, well-defined career pathways could be a barrier if students do not enter the path early enough. AGI found that approximately half of the geoscientists surveyed (at all degree levels) had taken a formal Earth science course while in high school, demonstrating the potential importance of early exposure to the geosciences for career preparation. In fact, in 2017 69% of doctoral graduates in the geosciences reported taking a high school geoscience or environmental science course [Reference 21]. High school exposure to the geosciences is an integral part of the recruitment pipeline for engaging students in geosciences pathways. Yet, fewer than 50% of high school graduates take a high school geoscience course (e.g., Earth science, oceanography, or meteorology) and the lack of an Advanced Placement course/exam in geoscience makes it difficult to elevate the reputation of the discipline, further continuing the lack of exposure and awareness of the geosciences as a career option. Given this lack of visibility in (or even before) high school, geoscience continues to primarily be a discovery major at the undergraduate level, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., meteorology).
The increasing importance of two-year colleges (2YCs) in the higher education landscape [Reference 22] poses a unique challenge for the geoscience’s community, given that only ~24% of the nearly 1725 2YC’s nationwide offer a geoscience program or course. The greater diversity of students found at 2YCs offers an important, largely untapped opportunity for broadening participation in the geosciences. Degree program opportunities at many minority-serving institutions (MSIs), and especially at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), also are quite limited [Reference 23].
The geosciences are inherently strengthened by the multiple entry points into the field, either as an undergraduate major or as a graduate student from other STEM fields such as chemistry, engineering, computer science, physics, biology, geography, or mathematics. The interdisciplinary nature of the geosciences offers the potential for undertaking more innovative approaches to recruitment and retention of students. The increasing focus of geoscience work on societally relevant issues such as climate, natural hazards, energy resources, etc. also opens the door to engaging a variety of additional students, including those pursuing undergraduate degrees in the social and behavioral sciences. The challenge arises when searching for or developing effective strategies to increase the awareness and access to the geosciences for these students and supporting them at the critical junctures where they might otherwise exit the discipline. An overarching framework that could help in this regard is to encourage the development of geoscience learning ecosystems (GLEs) that would unite various stakeholders to develop, enhance or sustain learning opportunities in STEM and the geosciences in particular.
To address these and related matters, the Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) supports the IUSE:GEOPAths program to create and support innovative and inclusive projects to build the future geoscience workforce. This program is one component in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) initiative, which is a comprehensive, Foundation-wide effort to enhance the quality and effectiveness of the education of undergraduates in all of the STEM fields. Several key reports and documents describe the importance of the undergraduate experience as pivotal for preparing both a diverse STEM workforce that is ready and equipped for innovation, and a STEM-aware public ready to support and benefit from the progress of science [e.g., References 5, 7, 24, 25 and 26].
Collectively, projects in the IUSE portfolio are intended to: improve STEM learning and learning environments, broaden participation and institutional capacity for STEM learning, and build the professional STEM workforce for today. IUSE: GEOPAths is not primarily about curricular improvement or research on learning but relates to the IUSE goals of connecting education research to practice, building institutional capacity for preparing the professional geoscience workforce, and broadening participation in the geosciences. More information on the IUSE initiative is available in the core IUSE activity offered by the Education and Human Resources (EHR) directorate: the EHR Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE: EHR) program [https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp? pims_id=505082].
Scientist at Sea: Pathways to the Geosciences
The goal of this proposed project to the GEOPAths: Undergraduate Preparation (UP) track at Eckerd College (EC), a small (~1800 students), undergraduate liberal arts college in St. Petersburg, FL, is to increase the number and diversity of students entering the geosciences workforce by increasing awareness, accessibility and enhancing pathways into the geosciences. The primary objective is to integrate ongoing research with new and unique undergraduate courses, to build core geoscience competencies, and by developing those competencies, enhance pathways for diverse cohorts of undergraduates to thrive in geoscience careers. This is executed through two new applied research courses offered at EC entitled “Scientist at Sea” (S-A-S), which consist of on-campus and off-campus (research cruise) components, as well as peer mentorship, professional productivity, and networking opportunities. This program will be integrated with a new college initiative “Diversifying the Marine Science Pipeline” which will facilitate the recruitment and retention of a more diverse student population to geoscience careers. Expected outcomes include increased recruitment, retention, and diversity in the geosciences, as well as a more qualified, next generation geoscience workforce who will have to address future environmental challenges.
Over the past few decades there have been an increasing number of geoscience-related issues including energy resources and marine system contaminant input. There has also been a significant decrease in geoscience training at the undergraduate level, and very little diversity. Consequently, there are few pathways for students to enter the geosciences at critical junctures. The intellectual merits of this project are multifold. First, this project will provide opportunities and prepare a more diverse group of undergraduate students to pursue geoscience careers. It is well documented that culturally-relevant, problem-based research experiences, such as the Deepwater Horizon (DwH) oil spill, which serves as the foundation of this project, are successful recruitment tools. Second, the scientific project used for geoscience training of undergraduate students for this program is an on-going (>10 years) investigation of the evolution of the DwH oil spill recorded in seafloor sediments. Specifically, we will be continuing an annual time series of sediment cores, which is virtually unheard of in the geosciences. Future oil spills will occur, considering increasing global energy consumption and increasing water depth of petroleum extraction, and it will be the next generation of scientists (targeted here) who will address these issues. The interdisciplinary nature of the geosciences allows for more innovative approaches for tackling these issues, so proper training of undergraduate students in appropriate techniques, especially associated with culturally-relevant problems will help motivate, recruit, retain, and provide pathways for students into the geosciences.
The societal impacts are twofold: 1) increased recruitment, training of geoscience professionals, and 2) addressing the need for geoscience long-term hypothesis-driven research projects. The S-A-S program will directly train more than 50 undergraduate students in essential oceanographic/geoscience skills through field, laboratory, classroom and professional development experiences. There are multiple outreach components included in the S-A-S program focused on training students in science communication with multiple audiences and formats. The undergraduate students involved in the S-A-S program will work closely with the Public Relations and Admissions offices at EC to produce blogs and video products of their experiences during the program. These products will be used to expand recruitment of incoming EC students into geoscience majors, which benefits recruitment beyond the funded project and addresses the need for sustainability. While students are on the research expedition, they will also utilize ship-to-shore communication and blogs to communicate their experiences with local K-12 summer programs. Marine benthic systems provide multiple ecosystem services (waste removal, carbon sequestration, etc.) and the variability of these systems is poorly documented. In addition to student training, the S-A-S program directly addresses this need by supporting a long-term hypothesis driven research project assessing the variability of the marine benthic system in the Gulf of Mexico, which will ultimately benefit residents, policymakers, resource managers, and other stakeholders.