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].