Undergraduate Programs

Barbara Tewksbury, Hamilton College

What happens in geoscience departments at the undergraduate level has a direct bearing on two of the primary goals of the AGI Associates Program, namely development of a sufficient stream of well-trained geoscientists to support industry and government, and development of a more effective public presence for the geosciences. Geoscience departments can and should play a four-fold role: 1) to provide those who have career aspirations in the geosciences with adequate background in the subdiscipline content areas of the geosciences, 2) to offer introductory geoscience courses that provide relevant, hands-on experience in science to improve both attitude toward science and scientific literacy among students who will not major in science, 3) to provide an education that emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving, teamwork, oral and written communication skills, and self-teaching skills, and 4) to encourage students who have career aspirations outside the geosciences to major in geology and obtain a rigorous background in science as a springboard for 21st century careers demanding multiple skill sets.

These four roles have received different levels of attention in recent years. Considerable attention has been paid to the curriculum for geoscience majors and to introductory level courses. Although some attention has been paid to development of courses that emphasize critical thinking, problem solving, and non-discipline specific skills, many courses are still taught in traditional fashion emphasizing transmission of information. Very little attention has been given to the issue of whom we
recruit as geoscience majors and why, and whether we ought to broaden our horizons in terms of whom we encourage to major in geoscience.

If we wish to offer industry and government well-trained geoscientists, we need to continue to require rigorous preparation of our undergraduate majors and to design courses that go beyond transmitting the content information of the discipline and give students experience in thinking independently in the discipline, solving problems, working in teams, and communicating the results of their science.

If we wish to develop a more effective public presence for the geosciences, we need to do two things at the undergraduate level. First, we need to offer more courses at the introductory level that do more than transmit content information about the geosciences to students who may never take another science course again in their lives. These courses need to aim to transform student attitudes toward science, give students first-hand, personal experience in science, and help students realize that understanding geoscience is not only relevant to their lives but also crucially important to decisions that they will have to make in the future. Second, and more importantly, undergraduate geoscience departments need to recruit students with a variety of career aspirations to major in geoscience even though they will never be practicing geoscientists. If more corporate executives, lawyers, small business owners, government officials, and ordinary citizens had undergraduate majors in geoscience, not only would environmental decisions be made with better understanding but the public profile of the geosciences would be significantly higher than it is today. After all, how many undergraduate philosophy majors intended to become philosophers??

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