Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Looking in the Right Places: Minority-Serving Institutions as Sources of Diverse Earth Science Learners

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Looking in the Right Places: Minority-Serving Institutions as Sources of Diverse Earth Science Learners

Article excerpt


The geoscience student population in the United States today remains the least diverse of any science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field (Czujko and Henley, 2003; Mosher et al., 2014; Wilson, 2014). In addition to a basic inequity of opportunity, this poses a barrier to educating sufficient numbers of students in the geosciences to meet future U.S. workforce needs (Velasco and Velasco, 2010). It also makes it more difficult for the geoscience community to support diverse communities with research and expertise. To be a trusted partner, the geoscience workforce must include scientists from all the parts of society.

Diversity has many facets, but from a racial or ethnic perspective, the demographic trends are clear. By 2050, the U.S. will be a majority minority country (Colby and Ortman, 2015). Over time, an increasing number of students of color will enter college who could enroll in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. Making STEM in general, and geoscience in particular, more welcoming to, and supportive of, students from diverse backgrounds will be necessary to maintain and grow Earthrelated degree programs (e.g., environmental science, water resource management, or mineral engineering) and the geoscience workforce. Meeting this challenge can yield important benefits for STEM departments as diverse students and graduates bring new perspectives and ideas (Wiltham et al., 2015). Finding these students, and fostering their interest in the geosciences, is the subject of much effort (Riggs and Alexander, 2007; National Research Council [NRC], 2013; Tewksbury et al., 2013). Our ability to be successful in meeting this challenge will have implications for the geoscience education community, as well as the workforce, for decades to come.

Despite recognizing the need for greater diversity in geoscience fields, we argue that the geoscience education community adheres to an overly narrow view of Earthrelated education pathways. The main goal of this commentary is to shine a light more broadly on relevant degree programs found at minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and the potential for collaborations to increase diversity in the geoscience workforce. This commentary begins with a description of the basic demographics of geoscience graduates, contrasts these with the student demographics at MSIs, and thus highlights the important position MSIs play in educating a diverse STEM workforce. We then review information about Earth-related programs at MSIs gleaned from institutional websites and the opportunities for potential collaboration and learning that this information affords. Finally, we review some factors understood in the literature to influence underrepresented minority (URM) student persistence in STEM and make the case for further research into both how MSIs support their students programmatically and how knowledge of those activities could be deployed at non-MSIs to support minority students in STEM.


Between 2002 and 2012, undergraduate college enrollment increased by 24%, from 16.6 million to 20.6 million (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2016b). Embedded in that increase, enrollment of URM students increased almost 58%. This represents a growing percentage of the total undergraduate college enrollment. Over that same decade, the URM share of geoscience Bachelor of Sciences (BS) degrees went up by 54%. However, the actual number of students remains small, accounting for only 8.3% of geoscience BS graduates in 2012 (489 out 5,865 graduates). In that same year across all STEM, 19% of bachelor's degrees went to URM students, and these groups made up 30% of the U.S. population overall (NSF and NCSES, 2015; NCES, 2016b). Table I provides additional detail on these demographic changes. While there has been progress and the growth trends are clear in Figs. 1 and 2, the number of minority geoscience graduates is not moving to parity as fast as overall college enrollment. …

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