Institutionalizing Undergraduate Research for Geology Majors through Creative Inquiry Experiences

Article excerpt


During a recent restructuring of the geology degree programs at Clemson University, department faculty built an undergraduate research component into the required curriculum for all geology majors (see Table 1). The six-semester sequence requires a one-credit-hour course to be taken in each semester of the sophomore and junior years and an eight-credithour, two-semester capstone course to be taken during the senior year. The overall goal of the new research course initiative is to develop students' problem-solving and criticalthinking skills through involvement with a series of case studies and team activities focused on real-world geologic problems. Along the way, students learn to recognize and deal with the social and ethical contexts of research and the logistical support networks required for successful interdisciplinary projects.

Students also have multiple opportunities to fulfill several of the university's general education competency requirements by practicing oral and written communication skills, mastering data collection and analysis strategies, and reflecting on the impact and implications of their research activities. Students are required to chronicle their research efforts in a digital electronic portfolio, a specialized web journal that contains project data, personal reflections, and monthly progress reports. Results from a concentrated assessment process conducted during the first year of implementation will be used to refine course objectives for, and guide the future development of, the remaining courses in the research sequence.


Student participation in faculty-mentored undergraduate research experiences positively affects retention in the major and also increases the likelihood that these students will pursue graduate education or research-oriented careers following graduation (Hathaway, Nagda, and Gregerman 2002; Nagda et al. 1998). When students "do science" instead of just "learn about science," student attitudes about their academic department tend to improve (Reinen et al. 2006), and the increased integration into campus life bolsters overall student retention rates (Tinto 1993). Historically, such research experiences have been reserved for selected senior-level and/or honors students. Nevertheless, national benchmark studies (National Science Foundation 1996; Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University 1998) have indicated clearly that all students can benefit from the experience and excitement generated through participation in an interdisciplinary research experience.

Although undergraduate-only liberal arts colleges have taken the lead in expanding student participation in research (Reinen et al. 2006; Eves and Davis 2005; Fryer 1996), the Council on Undergraduate Research has cited many recent exemplary models of successful undergraduate research programs at major research universities (Katkin 2004; Stocks, Ramey, and Lazarus 2004; Karukstis and Elgren 2007). A common factor in successful programs is administrative support for faculty who wish to become more active in undergraduate research efforts (Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University 2001).

The Clemson University geology model

Clemson University is a selective, public, land-grant university with an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 17,000 students and a graduate enrollment of approximately 6,000 students. The geology program is housed in the Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences and graduates about 8-10 undergraduate students per year with BS or BA degrees in geology. Concentrations in environmental science and hydrogeology are offered as well as the standard BS track leading to registration as a professional geologist.

One unique feature of the Clemson University geology program structure lies in the way that it institutionalizes the research experience into the required curriculum. …