Geoscience education

There have been a number of disturbing reports recently about the reduction or elimination of various geoscience organizations, including the University of Wyoming Geological Museum and now (possibly) the Department of Geological Sciences at Michigan State University. I’ve heard other stories from various colleagues at numerous academic institutions about the loss (or feared loss) of personnel, that seems to go beyond the general economic hard times.

In parallel, there has also been a general decline in geoscience student enrollments over the last 25 years (although the drop has plateaued over the last five years or so, and was actually up this year). This persistent low enrollment means that a large number of professional geoscientists will be reaching retirement age in the next 10 years, and there are not enough up-and-coming students to replace them.

Why are geoscience enrollments relatively static or dropping, and what can we do to increase them? The demise of geoscience departments like the one at MSU will not help the situation (although it can be argued that geosciences are vulnerable to such cuts precisely because of their flat or declining enrollment).

There has been a particular long-term situation that I believe has always put geosciences at a disadvantage in recruiting students. Very few incoming college students have ever taken a dedicated geoscience class. According to AGI (pdf report), in 2005 only 23% of graduating high school students had taken a geoscience course, compared to 92% biology, 66% chemistry, and 33% physics. The rate of increase in this percentage from 1982 to 2005 was lower for geosciences than for any other field. Moreover, I expect that nearly all of these geoscience courses were 9th grade Earth Science. This is a very generalized course that crams geology, oceanography, meteorology, and astronomy into a single year or semester, and thus manages to cover all of them exceptionally poorly.

This is not a new trend. When I was in high school, Earth Science was only taken by students who had no intention of going to college. If you were college-bound, you were actively encouraged to not “waste your time” with Earth Science, and when I began my freshman year at Carleton College I had never taken a geoscience class and planned to major in Physics. I switched to Geology my first semester, while taking an introductory geology class. (Brett’s experience was similar, and she switched from Spanish to Geology during her freshman year as well).

There are also obstacles even at the college level. Geology is not typically a support department, by which I mean that other departments usually don’t require any geology for their majors. Lots of majors require you to take biology or chemistry, but not often geology, so students are usually not encouraged by their advisors to take geology. Sometimes this discouragement is due to outright misinformation. One geology instructor at a community college explained to me how the school’s advisors told her they would not recommend geology to their students because four-year colleges would not accept it as a science transfer credit, even though this was demonstrably incorrect.

For all these reasons geoscience departments are starting out at a substantial disadvantage relative to the other sciences. Geoscience departments are fairly adept at getting students to switch majors, but only if you can get them to take those first few classes. So how do you attract students to take a geology class, when they may have never had a formal geoscience course in their lives?

I think that most people get their exposure to geosciences from the media. When we look at geoscience in the news, we pretty much see two things: geologic hazards (volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, and landslides), and paleontology. I postulate that for most students these are the gateways that get them to take their first geology class. Once geohazards or paleontology have pulled students into geosciences, many (probably most) of them end up in other geologic fields. I doubt many students take their first geology class because they plan to be a hydrologist or a mining geologist, but that’s where most of them end up. (I should note that AGI has reported an uptick in geoscience undergraduate enrollments in 2009, which they attribute to increased interest in environmental issues; we’ll have to see if this trend continues).

Unfortunately, if geosciences have fallen on somewhat hard times, paleontology has borne a disproportionate amount of the pain within the geosciences. I think there are several possible reasons for this, which are not mutually exclusive. For one thing, paleontology is relatively derivative within geology. While it’s very important in relative dating and paleoenvironmental reconstruction, one could make a good argument that mineralogy, stratigraphy, geochemistry, and geophysics are more broadly applicable. Paleontology used to be critically important to resource (oil and coal) exploration, but remote sensing technologies are now much more important. It’s even less applicable to today’s hot geology topic, hydrology. If you are running a geology department that’s facing cuts, it’s hard to argue that you should keep a paleontologist over a mineralogist or a hydrologist. In fact, very few paleontologists who work in geology departments were hired as paleontologists; they mostly teach sedimentology and stratigraphy, and their ability to teach paleontology is just a bonus (but not the thing that keeps them employed).

Another, possibly intertwined, factor is a change in paleontology itself. The field has become much more biology-oriented in recent decades. The increase in biological backgrounds has been, in my opinion, a net plus for paleontology (as long as it doesn’t swing too far in that direction). But these biological paleontologists don’t usually end up teaching in geology departments. They end up in biology departments or, increasingly, medical schools. This is not necessarily bad for paleontology, but it’s a drain on geology departments. One of the major gateways to a geology major is lost, as the incoming students with an interest in paleontology are steered to biology instead.

We often talk about paleontology as being the topic that sparks an interest in science in young children. But the same may be true of college freshmen and community college students. Geoscience departments may be doing themselves a disservice by letting paleontology become exclusively the purview of biology (or much worse, disappear entirely). Geology is a wondrous field in all its iterations, but you’ve got to get students to come in and take a look before they realize that; paleontology is one of the most effective ways to get them to walk through the door.


Obviously, I’ve returned from Carmel Church; we successfully removed one large jacket and various other bones. I hope to spend a lot of this winter doing prep wok and cataloging, so I should be able to post lots of pictures over various critters in the coming weeks.

This entry was posted in Science, education, and philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Geoscience education

  1. paleontology has borne a disproportionate amount of the pain within the geosciences. I think there are several possible reasons for this

    …not the least of which is that paleontology supports that evil conspiracy to relieve religious leaders of power called “evolution”…

  2. Alton Dooley says:

    I don’t definitely know is that has been a factor within university departments, but it is certainly a point of contention within some natural history museums. There is sometimes a fear (to a certain extent, justified), among museum administrators that being too open about evolution will result in adverse publicity and the loss of donors (and, for public museums, loss of political support).

    I don’t agree with that point of view, but some people that hold that view really are thinking about the interests of the museum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s