What experiences bring minority students into the geosciences - and what ones drive them away?

DN Lee of Urban Science Adventures is hosting this month's Diversity in Science carnival, on the topic of pipeline programs that can increase the diversity of science. Two years ago, there was a special issue of the Journal of Geoscience Education devoted to that very topic. JGE is now open-access, so you can browse the articles for yourself. (Especially if you are thinking about submitting a proposal to NSF's Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences program, which was just brought to my attention by Anne Jefferson's blog post.)

Before designing a program to increase the diversity of the geosciences (or, for that matter, any discipline), it's worth figuring out what factors tend to attract or drive away members of various groups. That's what the first article in the issue discusses: "critical incidents" in the lives of people who became professional geoscientists. After analyzing the critical incidents, the authors identified several factors that play a role in drawing students into the geosciences, which include:


  • Outdoor experiences (at all levels)
  • Geoscience departmental culture (more social and cooperative than other sciences)
  • Field trips
  • Early research experiences (including science fair participation, Research Experiences for Undergraduates)
  • Place-based teaching (using geology to explain the local landscape)


  • Peer pressure (the belief that geoscience students aren't as talented as other science majors)
  • High school course choices (especially math - students leave geoscience majors because of required college math courses)
  • Lack of high school geoscience courses (= minimal pre-college exposure to geosciences)
  • Encounters with racism

Many of the factors affect both Anglo and minority students - to some extent, enhancing the diversity of the geosciences is a matter of making sure that minority communities have access to math and science and the outdoors at an early age. (That's why I'm so happy that the geoscientists stepped up and helped with Donors Choose - many of the programs we funded did exactly that. That's also why I love the work that Rue Mapp is doing with Outdoor Afro.) The one big thing that doesn't affect both minorities and Anglos, though, is "encounters with racism." I'm going to quote one of the incidents from the article, because I think it's important for Anglos to understand how much the things that we say and do can affect minority students:

In our own CI study, we collected an incident of an underrepresented minority student receiving negative comments from classmates concerning an internship. One of her classmates said the student received the internship because of her minority status. The student heard similar "cheap shots" from other students as well; these comments made the student struggle even more with her own confidence about her ability in the field.

Because of the highly social nature of geoscience departments, these kinds of comments can be especially devastating. Little comments from students or professors can turn the close-knit communities in geoscience programs from something that attracts students to the science into something that drives them away. (So don't make comments like that, ok? Just don't.)

One way to reduce the damage done by racism is to build up a critical mass of minority students. As an example: the student body at my institution is about 20% Native American. About 20% of our geology majors are Native American, as well, despite a lack of any kind of deliberate recruitment program from the department. What we have, however, is a lot of geology majors - somewhere around 80 of them. That means that, whenever students gather, whether in class or on a field trip or in a spontaneous study session, there are usually several Native American students in the group. They don't feel isolated. And now that we've got a critical mass of Native American students, the presence of the juniors and seniors shows the new freshmen that the department welcomes them, as well as Anglo students.

As for how to do that in other places? I don't know. One possibility is to try to support and build up geoscience programs at institutions that serve large minority populations: Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and Tribal Colleges, and others that serve minority populations without fitting into one of those designations. (Industry could help fund these programs, too - if the geoscience-related industries are worried about the future workforce, their support is critical to make sure that geoscience departments continue to exist in these days of budget cuts.) Other approaches could involve bringing students together (in a summer program, or in a group of graduate students) to create a critical mass.

But regardless of the approach, the geosciences need to do something.

Reference: Levine, R., Gonzalez, R., Cole, S., Fuhrman, M., and CarlsonLe Floch, K., 2007, The geoscience pipeline: a conceptual framework: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 55, n. 6., p. 248-468.

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I often mention the subject head-on in my introductory courses (which at the community college means all of them) by pointing out the less than stellar record that geology has had in minority and gender equality and fairness. I am also quick to point out the damage that stereotypes and bias do to any scientific discipline (when I ask them to think in their minds of a "scientist", they nearly all see an old white guy in a lab coat). At least on our local level, our students feel they are are on common ground because very few have any background at all in science (a real problem in our local schools). By bringing up the subject early, I hope that they can at least envision the possibility of picking a major in geology.

It may be worth pointing out that "encounters with racism" do not have to be limited to the department. For example, how many white American geologists have had the cops called every time they went to their (privately held) field area, despite calling ahead to get clearance from the land owners?

At my own university many students did drop out of the geology program or did not even try because they were afraid of the math. Often they switched to Geography or GIS, which are both good fields but I felt like often they really wanted to be geoscientists but were too scared to try. Then there were other students who were not talented at math but stuck with it. It became a tradition at the a university for many students to fail at least one of their calculus courses at least once (grade D or lower). One guy came back semester after semester for a year to only take his last calculus course to finish his degree. Mr. Persistence finally passed it and became a geologist. I myself struggled as an undergraduate with some math courses but I hired a tutor. Maybe offering tutoring to students to help them over the hump would make the task seem less impossible and instill confidence. Once you pass multivariable calculus you think you cna do anything.