Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Choosing the Geoscience Major: Important Factors, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Choosing the Geoscience Major: Important Factors, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender

Article excerpt


In the long view, geoscientists are in high demand. From 2008 to 2018, it is expected that 60,000 new geoscience jobs will have been created nationwide, representing a growth rate of 23% (AGI, 2011). Yet college and university programs are not prepared to support this expansion, and a shortage of talent is predicted in the geoscience workforce. By 2022, for instance, the workforce shortage is expected to be 135,000 geoscientists (AGI, 2014a). In addressing the role of geoscientists, a National Research Council report declares that ''Earth science plays a key role in the wellbeing of our nation, and many issues in its purview. . .are expected to grow in importance'' (NRC, 2013, 1).

The field of geoscience is mostly homogeneous in terms of race/ethnicity and is among the least diverse of all science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in the U.S. Slight progress has been achieved in this area (Huntoon and Lane, 2007), but nationally, fewer than 7% of undergraduate degrees are awarded to traditionally underrepresented minorities (URMs) (NSF, 2013). Furthermore, while historical gains have been made, only 41% of undergraduate geoscience degrees are awarded to women (Larocque, 1995; Holmes and O'Connell, 2003; NRC, 2013; AGI, 2011, 2014b). In graduate programs, women earn 42% of master's degrees and 44% of doctoral degrees (AGI, 2014b). However, women are still underrepresented in the workforce, where they only hold 30% of geoscience jobs (AGI, 2011; NRC, 2013).

Diversity is essential to the future success of geoscience. A representative mixture of genders and cultures within an undergraduate population improves academic development and critical thinking, provides awareness of cultures and gender issues, and adds depth to the college experience (Holmes et al., 2008; Velasco and Velasco, 2010). Diversity is also a goal of federal government recruiting (NRC, 2013). The ultimate benefit of a diverse undergraduate population is a diverse workforce (Chan, 2013). Geological Society of America Past President George H. Davis, who earned his geology degrees in the 1960s, observed, ''Had I been a woman or an underrepresented minority, I likely would have never found geosciences'' (Davis, 2013, 14). We examine this phenomenon in the larger context of undergraduate recruitment and retention.


Many explanations are offered to explain the low levels of diversity in geoscience: a lack of appropriate mentors, low visibility of URMs and women, subtle biases, discrimination, cultural disconnects, and an unwillingness to acknowledge the problem (Holmes and O'Connell, 2003; Holmes et al., 2008; NRC, 2013). Lewis and Baker's review (2010) proposed that a ''cultural gap'' between geology and the personal lives and identities of students could be responsible for a lack of diversity. Similarly, Semken (1999) commented that ''cultural connectedness'' could improve URM interest in geoscience education. Callahan et al. (2015) discussed how a disparity in ''social capital'' (i.e., the exchange of information among members of the geoscience community) could negatively affect the persistence of underrepresented groups. In their model, students who feel isolated (e.g., through negative experiences or a lack of mentors) may hesitate to trust others in the geoscience community, which subsequently erodes a sense of belonging. Though sociocultural factors are often identified as potential culprits, few studies have successfully identified these as causal barriers (O'Connell and Holmes, 2011).

Four studies closely related to our research objectives informed this work. Using evidence from place-based teaching of Earth Science topics on the Navajo Reservation, Semken concluded that geological ''attributes of the places American Indians and Alaska Natives inhabit become inseparable components of their culture'' (2005, 150). Semken and Freeman subsequently revealed how

''science curricula and methods that dispassionately probe and analyze places that are meaningful to these underrepresented students, or represent them in ways that are culturally inappropriate or offensive-for example, portraying planet earth as a machine or the environment as a repository for wastes-may contribute to cultural discontinuity that deters them from scientific study and careers. …

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