Geoscience Ambassadors - A change-making program that is reinventing what it means to be a geoscientist

KATHERINE K. ELLINS (kellins@jsg.utexas.edu) is the Program Director for Geoscience Education at the Jackson School of Geoscience at The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX. ADAM PAPENDIECK (apapendieck@jsg.utexas.edu) is a Lecturer and Writer in Residence for the Department of Geological Sciences at Jackson School of Geoscience at The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX. JULIA A. CLARKE (julia_clarke@jsg.utexas.edu) is a Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the Jackson School of Geoscience at The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

Introduction

Despite decades of discourse and action in pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion in the geosciences (Gillette, 1972; Williams, 2018), there has been limited change for under-represented groups in our discipline (Callahan et al., 2017). Listening more closely to the stories and ideas of a younger and more diverse cohort of prospective changemakers in the geosciences may offer the opportunity to develop radically new solutions. Launched in fall 2018, as part of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Science Education grant to Jackson School of Geosciences Professor Julia Clarke, the Geoscience Ambassadors program amplifies the voices of undergraduate and graduate student geoscientists, helping them craft transformational personal narratives and creative interventions that challenge traditional assumptions about what it means to be a geoscientist.

Who are Geoscience Ambassadors and what do they do?

The Geoscience Ambassadors are undergraduate and graduate students from the Jackson School of Geosciences who come from diverse backgrounds, identities and communities. Diversity and community are both defined inclusively, encompassing what students themselves identify with these terms. They have been armed forces veterans, first generation and international students, and LGBTQIA-identifying students. Each cohort of Ambassadors is supported in the development of their own change-making goals, identities and skills. Over the course of a year, Ambassadors reflect upon who they are and where they come from, identify barriers, pivotal experiences and tensions they have experienced, and ultimately craft authentic, video-based "pathway stories" that narrate their personal journey into the geosciences in a way that speaks effectively to an identity group or home community with which they feel connected.

Ambassadors begin by conducting interviews with at least three different community representatives to gather information about how the geosciences are perceived as a science and profession, gain insight into meaningful ways to connect communities to the geosciences, and learn how community members could be better supported while pursuing an education or career in geosciences. Each Ambassador creates a detailed interview script with questions for each of their interviewees. Questions are grouped in three categories as shown in Table 1. Community interviewing provides context for a year-long process of personal reflection and storytelling about their own pathway into the geosciences, and informs Ambassadors in the design and implementation of a targeted outreach, education or engagement activity.They then share their stories and carry out their activities at the end of the year, documenting their work on the program website. Ambassadors track the number of individuals interviewed and the size and type of audiences reached through their community outreach. Ambassador-led outreach activities have taken place in schools, social and church groups, at extended family gatherings, science cafes, organizations for students with disabilities, teacher professional development programs, and online pre-college summer enrichment STEM programs.

The program is distinctive in its highly personalized approach. Ambassadors are committed volunteers who recognize the positive impact that they can have on others with similar backgrounds or aspirations. Most are from underserved communities, and their deeply personal stories are tailored to the specific needs of their chosen community.

Preparing to be a Geoscience Ambassador: Approach

Meetups. Over two years, we conducted regularly scheduled two-hour meetups throughout the academic year to prepare two student cohorts for their Geoscience Ambassador roles (2018 – 2019,n = 10 and 2019 – 2020,n = 11). Meetups were held at the end of the day in a casual setting, with pizza and refreshments provided to student participants. The goal was to establish a safe, comfortable and supportive environment in which to explore their unique pathways into the geosciences. A combination of meetup activities and pre-meetup assignments were used (1) to guide student interactions with each other; (2) to prepare students to conduct their interviews with community members; (3) to provide a framework for developing personal stories; and (4) to organize resources that communicate the societal value of the geosciences and the opportunities for a career in the field.

Storytelling for change. Storytelling is at the heart of the program. Ambassadors learned how to craft a memorable story that uses a pivotal incident or tension to engage with their audience. They are the protagonists in these authentic stories of change. In sharing their stories beyond the university setting, these personal narratives allow Ambassadors to emotionally connect with and inspire audiences. Ambassadors and the communities with which they engage use these stories to learn to make sense of as well as change personal and local perceptions of what the geosciences are, who gets to become a geoscientist, and what geoscientists can and should do in the world.

Designing for change. The Geoscience Ambassadors Program is exceptional in that it goes beyond involving Ambassadors solely as volunteers or interns in existing university outreach programs. Instead of following the direction of outreach program administrators, we ask them to harness their imagination to design their own outreach activities. This is a departure from the model in place at many higher education institutions. Ambassadors are encouraged to be creative in their choice of outreach and how they do it. By identifying a community, learning about the needs of that community, and creatively designing their own activities, Ambassadors internalize outreach as a core practice that defines the identity of a geoscientist.

Impact and Value

To evaluate how the Geoscience Ambassador community is creating value for the Ambassadors, their communities, and the broader geoscience community, we are employing the value assessment framework of Wenger, Trayner & de Laat (2011). We track the number of individuals interviewed by Ambassadors, and the size and type of audiences reached through their community outreach. We review the Ambassadors' experience in the program through their reports and journal entries, which record pathway stories and perceptions of their audiences' responses to their presentations; Ambassadors' history of learning (in the program), which is assessed through observations during meetups and the quality of their outreach products; and through watching their video narratives and personal profiles. Using semi-structured interviews, we evaluate the effectiveness of the meetups and the materials provided, Ambassadors' self-efficacy, geoscience identity, leadership identity, sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with the impact of the outreach activities.

Community Impact. The first and second cohorts of twenty-one Geoscience Ambassadors interviewed more than 60 community representatives who were former teachers, mentors, youth leaders, friends, and family members. They directly impacted about 1,238 individuals through outreach to schools, youth organizations, and religious and environmental groups. Although their community outreach was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Ambassadors in the 2019-2020 cohort have found ways to connect with audiences. Ambassadors from both cohorts have reached more than 1,500 community members. Figures 1, 2 and 3 show three Geoscience Ambassadors. An example of community impact is shown in Figure 4. Jump down to links to these Ambassadors' Stories

Personal Growth. Geoscience Ambassadors describe an increased appreciation for how community work can be a part of their core or growing identity as a scientist. Empowered as leaders, they appreciate being able to connect to new people and reconnect with past mentors, the opportunity for self-reflection, and a program structure that supports community engagement. They feel inspired to use their personal stories to connect with others. Ambassadors felt well-received and appreciated by audiences and were gratified by the interest and curiosity they expressed. They identified specific ways in which communities benefited. Ambassadors self-reported that they learned more about their home communities, practiced skills (e.g., public speaking), became more confident, and felt inspired, reinvigorated and empowered (self-efficacy). Several of the military veterans emphasized the satisfaction they experience through being in a field in which they can continue to serve society. Others cited examples of how they transferred what they learned in the program to other professional and social settings.

What we are Learning from Geoscience Ambassadors. We are learning about how students can make aspects of their diverse personal identities a core part of their geoscientific identities through the process of crafting and sharing their narratives. Each Geoscience Ambassador has a unique and compelling story about their pathway into the field, and these stories can help other students, especially pre-college students, see themselves as geoscientists. They also provided us with insights into attracting, retaining and mentoring more diverse students.

Concluding Thoughts

The Geoscience Ambassadors' video stories and profiles demonstrate the program's success and progress towards its intended objectives. Their stories help dispel the false notion that there is a single, linear path towards a geoscience degree or career (NAS, 2011). Ambassadors shared examples of transitioning from the military and the arts into the sciences, of blending the study of law and policy with the geosciences, and describing how their religious values fit into the context of science. Some described how their involvement in the arts fuels the creativity that they draw upon to solve scientific problems, and of the multifaceted opportunities that the geosciences offer to serve humanity. Ambassadors' perceptions of the program's benefits to their personal and professional growth have enhanced their university experience and identity as a geoscientist. Ambassadors give voice to geoscience students with diverse identities and positively influence others who relate to their personal pathway stories. Working within and beyond the Jackson School of Geosciences, Ambassadors are taking a leading role in reimagining and rebuilding the geosciences as a community comprised of a broad spectrum of identities, practices and careers.

Acknowledgements

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor Program supports the project, HHMI Ambassadors: Understanding, Communicating and Strengthening Diverse Pathways into the Geosciences, through Grant #GT10473 to Julia Clarke. We express our sincere gratitude to the Geoscience Ambassadors who willing gave their time and effort to inspire others to follow their lead and make a difference in their communities.

References

American Geosciences Institute (AGI), 2019, 2018 Median Salaries for Geoscience‑related Occupations, Geoscience Currents, available at https://www.americangeosciences.org/geoscience-currents/2018-median-salaries-geoscience-related-occupations

Callahan, Caitlin N., LaDue, N.D., Barber, L.D., Sexton, J., van der Hoeven Kraft, K.V., and Zamini-Gallagher, E.M., 2017, Theoretical Perspectives on Increasing Recruitment and Retention of Underrepresented Students in the Geosciences, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 65, no. 4, pp. 563 – 576.

Gillette, Robert, 1972, Minorities in the Geosciences: Beyond the Open Door, Science, v. 177, no. 4044, pp. 148-151, DOI: 10.1126/science.177.4044.148

National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2011,  Expanding underrepresented minority participation: America's science and technology talent at the crossroads. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press,  DOI: 10.17226/12984.

Wenger, E., Trayner, B., and de Laat, M, 2011, Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework. Rapport 18, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands, available at https://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/11-04-Wenger_Trayner_DeLaat_Value_creation.pdf, accessed 28 August 2018.

Williams, Billy M., 2018, Updated Diversity and Inclusion Plan Open for Member Comment, EOS AGU News, available at https://eos.org/agu-news/updated-diversity-and-inclusion-plan-open-for-member-comment, accessed 10 October 2018.

Resources

Sixteen Geoscience Ambassador stories are available on the program web page at https://www.geoscienceambassadors.net

The three Geoscience Ambassadors featured in this article's Figures can be found here:


Table 1: Community Interviewing. Selected examples of from Geoscience Ambassadors' interview scripts

GoalsIntervieweeExample Questions And PromptsExample Target Information
LEARN ABOUT COMMUNITYMember of U.S. Armed Forces (active or separated)
  • Tell me about your service. Do you plan to go to college/university upon separating from the armed forces?
  • How did the Transition Assistance Program (TAPS) help you in your pursuit of your education?
  • What career resources would you have liked?
  • Perceptions regarding separation from military and ideas of future work/career
  • Pathways and support for socioeconomically disadvantaged students and military veterans
H.S. Teacher
  • How do students view geosciences at this school?
  • How do you (teacher) view geosciences?
  • How does the community view geoscience?
  • What are the values of the community?
  • How geoscience is taught and perceived in schools.
  • Student career plans and how they are formed
FEEDBACK FOR DESIGNMember of the U.S. Armed Forces (active or separated)
  • I am considering talking to some influencers at Fort about the geosciences as a career pathway. Who would you recommend as an influencer?
  • What are the greatest career concerns of veterans and active-duty service personnel?
  • Input to plan and customize community outreach
  • Type of outreach that can be implemented and delivery platforms/ approaches
  • Activity restrictions
  • Ideas for activities that can change how students perceive the geosciences as a career
  • Best meeting places and times
H.S. Teacher
  • How can I best engage students when talking about STEM/the Geosciences?
  • How should this be conducted (e.g., virtual presentation, classroom presentation, student meetups and/or fieldtrip)?
  • Are there restrictions for local field trips?
SHARE INFORMATIONAll
  • Geoscientists work in a broad array of different professional occupations and career fields.
  • Employers pay geoscientists competitive salaries. AGI (2019) reports that geoscientists had a median annual salary of $91,000 in 2018.
  • There are State and Federal educational benefits and scholarship opportunities specifically for Veterans.
  • The U.S. Army Pathfinder Program helps separating service members make contacts and progress down post-service paths they want to follow.
  • There is still very little diversity in the geosciences. The number of African Americans in the Geosciences is low.
  • Geosciences, as a degree, can be applied to real world jobs in urban areas.
  • Geoscience careers, job opportunities, and salaries
  • Address predictable misconceptions held by interviewees and key career influencers

 



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