Offering Career-Focused Courses to Increase Geoscience Participation: Lessons from Five Years of Experience
PATRICK SHABRAM (Patrick.Shabram@frontrange.edu) is a geography professor at Front Range Community College Larimer Campus, Fort Collins, Colorado.
Courses designed to introduce undergraduate students to careers within an area of study encourage interest in and preparation for these careers in the related fields (Pawloski and Shabram, 2019; Freeman, 2012). Such a course was created at Front Range Community College (FRCC) as one part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) GEOPAths grant to increase pathways for students into geoscience-related fields. GEO 210: Careers & Research in the Geosciences, offered in the spring semester, is currently in its fifth year at FRCC. A one-credit seminar course, the course focuses on internships, careers, research, and transfer opportunities in the geosciences. The course was created as part of the Geo-Launchpad project in collaboration with UNAVCO, the NSF Geodetic Facility to Advance Geosciences (GAGE facility). While the course has a successful impact on preparing students for transfer and eventual careers, the difficulties in creating and running such a course can be hard to anticipate. Following I describe some of the challenges and successes of the course.
Academic Resistance to the Course
GEO 210 was designed as an interdisciplinary course, mirroring the modern geoscience workforce. This design did not come without some controversy. Initial discussion focused on which disciplinary prefix should offer the course. In a state where cross-listing courses at the two-year level is discouraged, the question of prefix can dictate whether a faculty member qualifies to teach the course through possession of an advanced degree in the major or has to establish qualification for the course through some other review process, often at the discretion of subject-matter experts. Further, while the course was created in consultation with colleagues at FRCC in different geoscience-related fields, approval for entry into the state's course numbering system required input from faculty outside the institution, individuals not necessarily privy to the design and implementation of the course.
Some concern also existed over calling this a science course. Although the course offers an introduction to research and student research opportunities, a few individuals felt a course focused on careers was not a pertinent general education course. This objection existed within the two-year college system despite a tradition of running similar courses for Career and Technical Education (CTE) fields. A few members of the college's curriculum committee suggested that rather than run the course as a class, the same lessons could be offered as a seminar for students. Unless the college was willing to agree to fund such a program for the long term, this program would have been limited to the lifespan of the grant. The point of creating a credit-bearing class was to create a tuition-supported course that would be sustained indefinitely. Fortunately, we had written the course into the sustainability plan of the grant proposal. Explanations of the grant and grant proposal allowed the proposed course to move forward.
The course has never enrolled more than five students in a single semester, in large part because it is not one of the courses that are guaranteed to transfer to the state's public four-year colleges, although it typically fulfills an elective requirement. Because of the low enrollment, rather than fitting the course into a standard course load, the course runs as an overload for the professor on a per-student compensation basis. While the small number of students might seem a detriment to the class, a seminar format allows for better interaction between students and the professor and for more information to be covered.
Plenty of Material
One initial concern was whether or not a full course could be dedicated to the topic of careers exploration in geoscience-related fields. After year one of running the course, this concern all but disappeared. Since the course was created as a credit-bearing course supported by tuition, a conscious decision was made to limit it to one-credit to reduce the cost, especially considering that the credit might not transfer. At FRCC, that translates into 15 contact hours, which is not nearly enough time to cover the content. A common response from students has been that they wish the course was longer. Students in particular request more information on graduate school, which is difficult to fit into the time allowed, but these comments are encouraging considering that the students are all freshmen or sophomores. In retrospect, a two-credit course would have offered a better balance between cost and time allocation, but a three-credit course could easily be filled with information important to students.
The course typically starts with a discussion of internship and undergraduate research (REU) positions, with an emphasis on encouraging students to apply for these opportunities. The course then moves into an introduction of four-year transfer opportunities, a discussion of the difference between résumés and CVs, a review of academic journals, self-guided exploration of research, and finally a rundown of careers. The course has included presentations by students who have completed internships, a field trip to UNAVCO, interviews with current or recently retired professionals, and visits from faculty at nearby four-year colleges.
The success of the course is evident from the students. The small number of students who have taken the course makes quantitative analysis difficult (N=20), but formal survey results demonstrate strong improvements in career knowledge, professional preparation, and the basics of writing a scientific paper (Pawloski and Shabram, 2019). Feedback from students was also very positive, with students wanting more time in the classroom, not less. "Make it longer" was a common phrase used by students on feedback forms when offering areas for improvement. Most students found the course to be extremely valuable. As one student put it (as reported by the grant's external evaluator):
The most important thing I learned in the class was how interconnected the entire Geoscience world was in Colorado and how to get plugged into that world.
Perhaps the greatest success of the course is its effectiveness in recruiting students to participate in internships and undergraduate research experiences. Any faculty member who has worked on REU and internships programs knows that recruiting students to these programs can be difficult, whether for the legitimate challenges commonly faced by two-year college students (employment, family commitments, etc.) or the lack of confidence and imposter syndrome inherent among many students, especially first-generation college students (Cabrera and La Nasa, 2000). Of the students who have completed the GEO 210 course, over half have applied for an internship and/or an REU during or within a year of taking the course. Some of the success in encouraging internship/REU applications may be attributed to the course appealing to those students most motivated to achieve a career in the geosciences. Yet several students who took the course and were ultimately accepted into an internship reported that they had not intended to apply for internships prior to taking the course. The course offered chances, both from professor-to-student interactions and from peer-to-peer influences, to stress the importance of these kinds of opportunities. To date, one third of the students completing the course received offers for at least one REU or internship in the summer following the course, with some receiving multiple offers. We have also seen strong success with transfers, as nearly every student has gone onto a four-year college (and some beyond) after completing their associate's degree.
A careers course like GEO 210, designed for first- and second-year students, offers an individualized and personal opportunity to explore what the geosciences have to offer. Although hard to fully analyze its effectiveness based on the low numbers of students enrolled, empirical indications suggest the course has been invaluable to the students who have taken it. Adaption of more courses like GEO 210 at two-year colleges might offer an opportunity to increase participation and diversify the geoscience workforce, even if it means working with just a few students at a time.
Email Patrick Shabram (email@example.com) for a copy of the course syllabus.
GEO 210: Careers & Research in the Geosciences course was developed for Colorado community colleges as part of a grant from the National Science Foundation (Grant No. 1540588 and Grant No. 1540524). Views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not intended to reflect the views of Front Range Community College or the National Science Foundation.
Cabrera, A. F., and La Nasa, S. M., 2000, Understanding the college-choice process: New Directions for Institutional Research, v. 2000, no. 107, p. 5-22.
Freeman, E., 2012, The design and implementation of a career orientation course for undergraduate majors: College Teaching, v. 60, no. 2, p. 154-163.
Pawloski, J. and Shabram, P., 2019, Building engagement in STEM through career courses at two-year institutions: Journal of College Science Teaching,
v. 49, no. 2, p. 9-15.