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Political Scene

Diversity in the Geosciences — We Can Do Better
Margaret Anne Baker

The geosciences are facing a real recruitment predicament. Although students are increasingly pursuing college degrees, a decreasing proportion of those students enter the geosciences (see Geotimes, October 2006). Even fewer of these students earn a Ph.D. in the discipline. Adding to the problem is that as a whole, in terms of diversity, the geosciences lag behind all other fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — collectively called STEM. To help meet a rising demand for earth scientists, the community needs to look at the changing demographics of higher education and fully develop and use the talents of this diverse cross section of society.

The geosciences are one of the smallest STEM fields, with the lowest number of doctorates awarded from 1920 to 1999. A recent report by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century, points out that a smaller percentage of minority students enter the geosciences than do white students, but the percentage of white students earning geoscience doctorates is still significantly less than their representation in the total doctorate population.

White students earn close to 86 percent of all STEM doctorates, but less than 2 percent of this population earns doctorates in the geosciences. In comparison, African-American students make up just over 5 percent of the doctorate population, but less than 0.5 percent of this population earns geoscience doctorates. Both American Indian/Alaskan Native and Hispanic student groups are earning geoscience doctorates at just over 1 percent of their doctorate-earning populations, but both of these underrepresented groups are significantly smaller than the white population, producing small numbers of minority doctorates in the geosciences.

The need to improve the inclusion of minority students is not a unique issue for the geosciences, but it is more pronounced in earth science than in other STEM fields. Part of the reason is that many underrepresented minorities are not exposed to earth science classes in high school or to geoscience career options. This lack of exposure is compounded by the fact that, as research has shown, family opinion is a strong influence on career decisions for underrepresented minorities. Despite the increasing relevancy of the earth sciences to society, if minority families and the general public are unfamiliar with the options available with a geoscience degree, then those students are less likely to consider a career pathway that is unfamiliar.

According to the National Science Foundation’s 2006 Science and Engineering Indicators, ethnic minorities — American Indians/Alaskan Natives, blacks and Hispanics — earned 4 percent of the associate’s degrees, 7 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, 6 percent of the master’s degrees, and 4 percent of the doctorate degrees awarded in the geosciences in 2002. Currently, foreign students earn more graduate degrees in the geosciences than do U.S. citizen minority students. In contrast to the geosciences, underrepresented minorities earned 27 percent of the associate’s degrees, 23 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, 18 percent of the master’s degrees, and 11 percent of the doctorate degrees awarded in all STEM fields combined in 2002.

To effectively increase the diversity of students earning degrees, the geoscience community must understand the changing higher education system. Most of the current professional geoscientists earned their geoscience degrees in a traditional pathway of entering a four-year college directly after high school and then continuing to graduate school shortly after completing a baccalaureate. While a majority of students still attend college as full-time students at traditional four-year colleges, an increasing number of women, ethnic minorities and older students are beginning their educations at two-year community colleges. They are taking classes part-time before transferring to four-year colleges to complete their bachelor’s degrees.

Indeed, in the 2003 to 2004 academic year, 7.6 million students attended community colleges — close to 40 percent of the college population. A disproportionate number of underrepresented minority students start their postsecondary education at community colleges, with underrepresented minorities making up 40.1 percent of students at two-year colleges, compared to 30.7 percent at traditional four-year institutions.

These demographics suggest that the geosciences need to look at how to fully integrate community colleges and part-time scholars into any recruiting efforts if the community is to successfully engage these students in geoscience careers. Fortunately, several programs used in other STEM fields have been successful in attracting students from “nontraditional” educational pathways into the sciences.

One model for such a program is the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP), which has been successful in increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities by creating regional alliances of two-year and four-year colleges along with nonprofit and industry partners. Partially sponsored by the National Science Foundation, these state, regional and local partnerships use academic, career-development, and community-building activities to identify high-achieving minority students and provide support for them as they reach key decision points in their academic training — with the ultimate goal to recruit more students into the sciences. LSAMP programs have increased the enrollment of minority students in STEM fields from 35,670 in 1991 to more than 205,000 in 2003.

While the LSAMP programs have proven to be effective in the combined STEM fields, limited connections have been made between these programs and geoscience diversity programs. There are surely some issues pertaining to recruitment and retention of minority students in the geosciences that are specific to the field, but a collaborative approach among different sectors of the geoscience community will likely provide the best results.

At many junctions in the geoscience pipeline, students must decide to continue in the geosciences or to pursue other fields. Programs such as LSAMP that follow students through these critical junctures and that integrate underrepresented minority students more fully into the greater science community seem to be the most successful strategies.

College-level recruitment programs cannot work alone, and should be combined with discipline-specific retention programs. As minorities become the majority of the population, the inability to tap these communities is a severe handicap to actually tapping the bulk of the best and brightest students and including them in the geoscience community. The geosciences need to involve these students in a successful program to enhance participation of all groups in the field.


Baker is with the Geoscience Workforce department at the American Geological Institute in Alexandria, Va. E-mail: geotimes@agiweb.org.

Links:
"Congress Weighs in on Geoscience Training," Geotimes, October 2006

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