Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Earth Wind & Fire: A Learning Community Approach to Build Ties between Degree Programs in a Geoscience Department

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Earth Wind & Fire: A Learning Community Approach to Build Ties between Degree Programs in a Geoscience Department

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Geoscience departments in the U.S. have traditionally been small, with an average number of eight faculty in fouryear schools, down from an average of thirteen 20 y ago (Gonzales and Keane, 2011). In the increasingly competitive academic world, where larger is better, programs have merged to create larger departments that can better weather budget cuts and administrative scrutiny. The Department of Geological & Atmospheric Sciences at Iowa State University (ISU) was created when the Department of Geology and Mining Engineering (established in 1898) incorporated in 1965 the meteorology program, which had been housed until then in the Department of Physics; after this merger, the department changed its name to Department of Earth Sciences. In the late 1980s, the name was changed again to recognize both components. Currently, 11 faculty members are geologists, and seven are atmospheric scientists.

To maintain a healthy number of undergraduate majors, geoscience departments offer two or more undergraduate degrees: geology, Earth Science, meteorology, oceanography, geophysics, environmental geology, planetary science, physical geography, and more. At ISU, we offer bachelor of science degrees in geology, Earth Science, and meteorology and a bachelor of arts degree in Earth Science (for secondary education majors). Undergraduate student numbers have been gradually increasing since 2007 (Fig. 1). The increase is driven by growth in geology majors, which offsets the slight decline in meteorology enrollment. Earth Science students remain always a minority. Combined, the geology and Earth Science enrollments are today only slightly lower than the meteorology enrollment, a significant difference from fall 2007, when meteorology majors were almost four times more.

One of the biggest challenges for these hybrid departments is to develop a departmental identity in their students, a key aspect of student retention. Students identify themselves with their degree program (in our case, geology or meteorology) rather than with the department. One of the authors (Cervato) became aware of this issue when she realized that the meteorology majors in her introductory meteorology course did not know that they were in the same department, given that her primary affiliation was with geology. With the programs housed in two different buildings and essentially no overlap in the degree programs, departmental functions like the annual picnic were populated by two different groups of students who did not know each other. With a handful of exceptions, the freshman class is composed of Midwestern students who just graduated from high school. Between one half and two thirds of the students are male. One or two are older than 25, having spent time in the military, pursuing a different career, or having taken time away from college. Over the years, there have been fewer than five non-U.S. students altogether and about the same number of minority students. This is not unusual, and it generally reflects the makeup of the incoming freshman class at ISU, with the majority of students coming from Iowa.

Assuming that it would be easier for students to develop a departmental identity before they identified themselves solely with their degree program, in 2008 we established the Earth Wind & Fire (EW&F) learning community (LC) for all new freshmen and transfer students in the department. ISU has a long tradition of success in LCs. Over more than 15 y, ISU's nationally ranked LC program has involved more than 40,000 students in more than 75 LCs. Over 70% of first-year students are enrolled in an LC. One of the overarching goals for LCs is student retention: 1 y retention for students in an LC is 8% higher than for students who are not; after 6 y, the difference is 11% (Leptien and Gruenewald, pers. comm., 2013). In 2012-2013, some 85% of students in the Colleges of Engineering and Agriculture and Life Science, almost all students (97. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.