Research on Access and Success of Under-Represented Groups in the Geosciences

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Authors: Eric Riggs, Texas A & M University; Caitlin Callahan, Grand Valley State University; and Jim Brey, American Meteorological Society

Jump Down To: Grand Challenge 1 | Grand Challenge 2 |


The geosciences as an allied group of fields touch virtually all aspects of the human enterprise: locating and providing water, energy and mineral resources; assuring a safe and resilient environment for civilization; and providing an understanding of how the earth system functions today, in the past and into the future. Given how the geosciences touch the lives of all people, it should also be a field that is representative of all people. But despite some encouraging gains in recent years in overall graduation of underrepresented minorities and women (Wilson, 2016, Figs. 3.13,3.15-17) and strong localized successes (summarized in Wolfe and Riggs, 2017), broad representation has not yet been achieved in the geosciences. Especially with the global importance of the geosciences growing and the geoscience workforce projected to encounter shortfalls of qualified practitioners in the coming decades, it is imperative that the geoscience education research community frame and investigate central questions that can help increase the diversity of the geosciences at all levels. We must find ways to attract all kinds of students, especially those from under-represented groups to our sciences and build programs, experiences and careers in which they thrive. We deliberately embrace the notion of "attract and thrive" after the work of Roberto Ibarra and colleagues (e.g. Ibarra, 2001, 1999b) that rejects the notions of "recruit and retain"—involuntary, or at least passive, actions that happen to under-represented people in the field—and embraces more active and supportive concepts of attraction and thriving. The theory of multicontextuality advanced in their work acknowledges the effect of complex, interwoven identities of under-represented students at they learn in and interact with STEM fields, and the explicit importance of institutional attention and action to identify and lower barriers to success while providing necessary support.

The research challenge boils down to two essential and interdependent perspectives, specifically 1) the point of view of the individual as they manage their own internal balance of identity as they traverse curricula, programs and career pathways, and 2) a view that captures system-wide interactions around an individual, including family, culture, department, university and society. The Grand Challenges focus on these two approaches.

Grand Challenge 1: Supporting the Individual in the Geosciences: How can we recognize and support the individual identities and personal pathways of students and faculty as they are attracted to and thrive in the geosciences?

Rationale: Many of these issues are now well-informed by research from outside the geosciences, and we have the programmatic experience and our community have access to more nuanced theory to make significant steps forward in understanding program design and student pathways.

A fundamental aspect of developing expertise in any discipline is the process of learning the language, normal practices, and habits of thinking specific to that discipline (Posner, 1988). While community college and undergraduate geoscience programs are arguably not producing experts—based on common definitions of expertise (e.g. Ericsson et al., 1993)—such programs do provide a substantial foundation for later training, education, and work experience. Once people have achieved expertise, how do we attract them to stay in the field and thrive as faculty? The geoscience community has articulated a suite of skills and understandings that students should acquire during their undergraduate education in the results of the Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Education (Mosher, 2015). Examples include: strong written and verbal communication skills; integration of observations in the natural world with experimental or modeling data; and solving problems requiring spatial, temporal, and uncertainty interpretations. The level to which students achieve these skills and understandings is one measure of a student's success in developing expertise. This metric for success, however, assumes equivalence of experiences in education; it makes no differentiation for the reality that students not only arrive in the geosciences along different pathways (Sherman-Morris and McNeal, 2016), but also carry with them other identities beyond the shared identity of a geoscientist. Thus, we propose the following question as an area in need of further research in order to improve access and success for members of underrepresented groups in the geosciences: How can we recognize and support individual identities and personal pathways as people are attracted to and thrive in the geosciences? This broad question has two main facets in need of explication.


First, if we wish to recognize and support underrepresented students' identities in the geosciences, we need to have a richer understanding of their lived experiences as members of the community. Callahan et al. (2017) argue for the importance of and suggest multiple theoretical frameworks from the social sciences that may be useful in this effort; for instance, Baber et al., (2010) used the theory of self-efficacy to investigate the success of summer research programs for recruiting minority students to the geosciences. Theoretically-driven research can build our understanding of whether and how students from underrepresented groups develop their geoscience identity alongside existing identities. In what ways are those identities compatible and in what ways are they in conflict?

Second, if our intent is to increase diversity in the discipline, we may also need to ask uncomfortable questions about how the "norms" of the community impose barriers to individuals from underrepresented groups at all points as they flow through programs, curricula or even careers. Figure 1 presents a highly generalized, schematic model showing points of investigation using an Input-Environment-Output model for student experience. For example, photographs on websites for geoscience departments commonly feature outdoor environments, more men than women, and almost everyone is white (Sexton et al., 2014); are websites unintentionally sending a message of who fits the accepted role of an expert geoscientist and who does not? How is privilege implicit in the structure of programs and curricula? How can we integrate culturally-responsive pedagogy into geoscience curricula (e.g. Gay, 2010)? What is the role of faculty in helping students navigate courses and programs, and how can faculty from underrepresented groups also thrive and grow in the geosciences? Ultimately, we recognize that how we define success may not change so readily; we posit, though, that there are ways to broaden our approach to how we move students toward geoscience expertise.

Key researchable questions under this Grand Challenge include:

  • How do we support identity and intersectionality of student and faculty diversity while fostering academic growth as a geoscientists?
  • How does the development of geoscience expertise or the growth of a geoscience identity serve as a barrier to underrepresented groups?
  • How is privilege implicit in the structure of programs or curricula and how can students from out-groups navigate this space?

Grand Challenge 2: Geoscience Community Efforts to Broaden Participation: How can the geoscience community capitalize on evidence from different scale efforts to broaden participation?

Rationale: Solutions and programs must scale appropriately to the situation and communities at hand. Success and solutions in diversity has no singular solution - healthy programs and communities who are diverse and welcoming exhibit sets of characteristics which are repeated

Studies have shown that while overall success in attracting and helping underrepresented minorities thrive and remain in the field has only improved very modestly, research suggests that certain efforts have been more effective that others. Implementations can be divided into large-scale implementations that are national in scope and focus on change within an entire science community and those that are smaller scale and local in scope aiming for change on a particular campus or department. The Macrosystems Framework (Wolfe and Riggs, 2017) below (Figure 2) incorporates the important elements and interactions between the broader "System" and the "Individual."

Ambiguity about where to aim resources derives in part from failure to differentiate what kind of approaches and resources should be afforded to each and using the same measures of success for both broad community-wide and more local campus scales of effort. Research literature examining both approaches illuminate ways to focus efforts toward success and suggest that both can contribute to success in recruiting and retaining underrepresented minority students and it is up to the geoscience community to incorporate what has been learned into what we do.


Efforts to broaden participation that are likely best for large-scale implementations include those that critically examine the way the geosciences are viewed by underrepresented minority students. This is important when students first make decisions about what major to pursue and second as students internalize some sort of personal reconciliation between those elements of geoscience study which appear personally foreign or culturally off-putting and elements of a value proposition that can be accepted. Making our disciplines more relevant and more welcoming to a broader group of students will require a broad national geoscience community effort. Refashioning what is relevant about of our disciplines to the cultures we are trying to reach and discarding those things that keep or drive students away will need to be a grand scale effort with everyone on board.

While implementation will come down to what goes on locally in departments, there is a need for the broad geoscience community to articulate the need for change and suggest goals and a timeline for them to be reached. There is a need for community consensus about how to illustrate career paths so that students (and their families) have some sense that a rational paths exist and that future progress is not haphazard. Templates for how to access and maintain financial support need to be refined and broadly disseminated. Guidelines for and examples of professional mentorship need to be shared. Professional networks for faculty, particularly those working with underrepresented students at community colleges and minority serving institutions, need to be strengthened where they exist and new ones initiated. There must be opportunities for faculty to work together to share student success and engage in student learning focused professional development experiences. Unfortunately, published analyses about what works and what does not in all of these activities is sparse at best, and focused research on geoscience education systems is required at all scales

Both large scale and smaller local efforts must both be valued, funded and facilitated if the grand challenges of providing access and success for underrepresented students in the geosciences are to be met.

Key researchable questions under this Grand Challenge include:

  • What efforts to broaden participation are likely to best for large-scale implementations? What efforts are best kept small and reproduced (with modification) at local setting?
  • How can large and small efforts be best facilitated, valued, funded? The value of both must established and recognized.
  • How can college and university faculty and administrators be properly engaged to generate the required buy-in to attempt and sustain change?

Access and Success -- Discussion  

Excellent summary of the challenges and the current state of research into this critically important topic. There are some strategies that are strongly supported by research already - e.g. involving students in authentic research, bridge programs, well-structured mentoring programs. There is also some research into the more general question of under-represented students' success in STEM, and I would like to see some exploration of how those strategies translate into the geosciences. I am thinking, for example, of the strategies summarized in Claude Steele's Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. In general, I'm wondering what we can learn from DBER in other STEM fields.


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1. I love how your intro starts out: “The geosciences as an allied group of fields touch virtually all aspects of the human enterprise: locating and providing water, energy and mineral resources; assuring a safe and resilient environment for civilization; and providing an understanding of how the earth system functions today, in the past and into the future. Given how the geosciences touch the lives of all people, it should also be a field that is representative of all people.“ It connects your theme to several other themes (esp WG1, WG2, WG4) so nicely. Oftentimes I see the topics of access and success separated out, and here you have it connected which makes it more effective I think.

2. Intro cont’d: “But despite some encouraging gains in recent years…”. Can you cite this and elaborate on what those gains are? Perhaps briefly here so that you can touch on those gains in the GC sections you present below?

3. I like too that you decided to break your CGs into one that focuses on supporting the individual and the other at a broader scale. But it looks like the focus is always on the student. Could improving access and success for a diverse thriving faculty in the geosciences also fit within your GCs? Esp if it affects undergraduate geoscience education? Can you add text to make that part of it? For example how do we train our students to be accepting of an instructor of another culture and where English is a 2nd language? This may be easier to address in upper level majors classes, but I am observing that this is harder to address in gen ed geoscience classes, where students can drop a class and choose to take another gen ed section with an instructor that looks and sounds more liked themselves. It makes me sad and angry that gen ed students do this, and at programmatic level I’m not sure how to best address it.

4. Small thing in formatting but impt for consistency with other WGs: please edit the GCs so that the question itself (e.g., How can the geoscience community capitalize on evidence from different scale efforts to broaden participation?” is actually listed as part of the GC header – not as subset of it.

5. WG#3 included some suggestions for important researchable questions under each of their Grand Challenges, in addition to their recommended strategies. That wasn’t a requirement in the format, but I think it is very effective. Please look at WG3’s draft chapter and see if you think that is a good way to go to help give more concrete examples of important research directions to improve access and success in the geosciences. I think it would be useful esp for your WG theme because of the way your wrote the strategies -they are very dense and having some example important questions (that are small scale/short term to large scale/longer term) that would support each GC might help readers see where their work fits and serve as a good jumping off point for applying the strategies you suggest. Your last sentence in strategies of GC#2 gets at this point too; that “Both large scale and smaller local efforts must both be valued, funded and facilitated if the grand challenges of providing access and success for underrepresented students in the geosciences are to be met.” So if you can provide example valuable research questions at these different scales then I can see it being helpful to many different researchers (and to administrators).

6. See WG#4 GC#1: last strategy because it connects to research on diversity, recruitment, retention in the geosciences.

7. Regarding GC#1: I like that you refer to the Summit documents/findings by referring to Mosher, 2015, but I think it would be good to be explicit and include the phrase “Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Education” in the sentence.

8. Second paragraph of GC#1 strategies: you refer to Figure 1, but the figures don’t have captions. Please add captions and figure numbers.


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This is a strong, straightforward, and compelling set of challenges and strategies.

One reality that relates to both challenges is that many geoscience departments are small - if there are only four or five faculty members, it's hard to avoid unintentional messages about expert geoscientists. It's also hard to implement big changes in demographics, which is why the broader community engagement is important. In both cases, it is worth partnering with other organizations, like professional societies, to understand the impact of programs that do reach across the community and beyond a single institution. I agree with Kristen's comment #5 above that some specific strategies at multiple scales would be useful - and this might be one of the large-scale strategies that could be employed.

I also agree that there are many opportunities here to connect with the societal issues working group.


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I like the way that you break the topic into the two grand challenges focusing on the individual and the broader community at different scales. They are questions of high importance that will provide opportunities for a wealth of research. The two GCs are not mutually exclusive, and there is a dynamic interaction between the self and the community, as your diagrams point out. I am familiar to some extent literature on science identities of under-represented groups often located in urban environments. It would be interesting to examine how geoscience identities may differ from more broadly, science, identities. The literature that I know of focuses on primary and secondary school students. It would be interesting to see how easy (or not) it is to encourage geoscience identities of undergraduate students versus younger students.

I like the use of “attract and thrive” instead of “recruit and retain”, although the latter is so embedded in the college jargon as we try to improve colleges with diminishing funds.
Grand challenge 2 is particularly important in this xenophobic time we live in. We may need to do some deep soul searching to make the discipline more relevant and welcoming (and we are not alone). The types of geoscience research questions, and what defines geoscience as a discipline may become very different, and some people may not like this or feel threatened by the changes. Opportunities to fund this type of research and support professional development for faculty/administration to learn how to be create a welcoming and relevant education/research experience may be difficult, but necessary. So, developing some cost-effective strategies are important.

Anyway, these are a few thoughts after reading your draft. Here are two references that may be useful.

Amy DeFelice, Jennifer D. Adams, Brett Branco, and Pieranna Pieroni (2014) Engaging Underrepresented High School Students in an Urban Environmental and Geoscience Place-Based Curriculum. Journal of Geoscience Education: February 2014, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 49-60.

Adams, J.D., Gupta, P. and Cotumaccio, A., 2014. Long-Term Participants: A Museum Program Enhances Girls' STEM Interest, Motivation, and Persistence. Afterschool Matters, 20, pp.13-20.


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"Could improving access and success for a diverse thriving faculty in the geosciences also fit within your GCs? Esp if it affects undergraduate geoscience education? Can you add text to make that part of it? For example how do we train our students to be accepting of an instructor of another culture and where English is a 2nd language?" (Kristen, above)
I'll second this idea. Perhaps it might be valuable, in the context of that topic, to mention the increasing percentages of faculty and instructors whose T&P or contract reappointments depend significantly upon student ratings of instruction-and the current conversation in the literature about how those instruments' results are frequently biased against instructors based on their identities?

I really appreciate your focus on the community and building consensus in GC2. I wonder if an embedded challenge is testing approaches that generate faculty buy-in and engagement in learning about existing research on why disparities exist in the first place, and how some mechanisms (stereotype threat and the "bandwidth tax" associated with financial insecurity, for example) may undermine student performance but do not in any way amount to "ability?" In my experience, these ideas have been a challenge to communicate quickly, but the motivation to engage/read/learn may be impeded by specific related misconceptions about student success in STEM. (Along the lines of Rebecca's comments about some people feeling threatened by the conversation, above!)


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This post was edited by Rachel Teasdale on Feb, 2018
I like the introduction describing the far reach of geosciences and therefore the potential reach and impact that geoscientists can make. I also like the "attract and thrive" ideas, but see "recruit and retain" references throughout the chapter- maybe alter that phrasing.
GC1 may also incorporate the idea that interdisciplinary approaches to earth sciences may be attractive to diverse students who have broader experiences than I do as their professor. I also don’t look like many students in my classes and don’t have the experiences they have (as culturally diverse or as first generation college students) and neither do my colleagues, so diversifying faculty is also an area worth addressing. While changing the “faces” of faculty is a long term transformation, what resources can faculty access to improve our support for diverse students?
Another consideration of motivations for students to take geoscience courses (and possibly become majors), is the impact of university systems who don’t recognize those courses as college-prep (e.g. the UC system doesn't count ES courses towards science requirements for college admission). I wonder how the reputation of the "easy science" impacts the course choices (and programs/majors) that students make.
GC2 could examine the efficacy of hands-on-teaching experiences such as the CSU, Chico “Hands On Lab” where they take a course to learn and practice teaching NGSS content to elementary students on class fieldtrips to the university.

GC2 could also include examination of program content- for example, geology coursework is legitimately justified by requirements for licensure guidelines, which includes traditional coursework that may not best prepare our students for many geoscience careers (but that we love to teach). Alternative (modernized?) course work merits examination of the idea that coursework must conform to licensure guidelines and the development of broader geoscience degrees that can lead to careers in earth sciences that don’t require licensure. In terms of mentions of marketing materials, field photos may not have universal attraction, as working outside has a different connotation to some students and families. We need to bring the idea of “we’re not teaching mini-me’s” to course offerings and program development.


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