Abstract

New York City College of Technology has created a year-round geoscience workforce preparation and geoscience career mentoring program for nongeoscience, minority science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students beginning at the critical juncture of their junior year. The overall goal of the program is to create a viable pathway to the geoscience workforce by tapping into a nontraditional pool of students. Each year 12 students are recruited to participate in a structured geoscience workforce model program that consists of geoscience exposure, preparation, apprenticeship, and experience. The students not only receive support with cohort-building activities, but they also participate in two geoscience internship programs that equip them with geoscience knowledge; geoscience workforce skills; summer internships at a federal, local, or private geoscience facilities; mentoring by geoscience practitioners; and networking opportunities with geoscience companies and geoscience professional societies. The expectation through this unique initiative is that many students who would otherwise not pursue a geoscience career may now choose to follow a geoscience corridor that could lead to lucrative geoscience careers. This paper focuses on the 4-day geoscience workforce skills training and enrichment component of the program. This important enrichment component pivots students from the geoscience theory taught in class to geoscience applications and workforce preparedness. The 4-day program may serve as a model and best practice for preparing nongeoscience STEM students with the skills needed for the geoscience workforce. Preliminary results show that the nongeoscience STEM student participants increased their geoscience awareness, knowledge, and skills competencies and their interest in the geosciences was heightened.

This paper presents the skills training and enrichment component of a geoscience workforce program that is designed to prepare nongeoscience, underrepresented, minority science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students for the geoscience workforce.

There is a preponderance of well-constructed, evidentiary reports in the recent literature about the current and predicted future state of the nation’s minority science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) landscape. In general, reports like the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2012), National Research Council (2010, 2011, 2012), and National Science and Technology Council (2013) highlight 1) the importance of STEM to the nation’s well-being, security, and global competitiveness; 2) the need for equity, access, increased enrollment, and diversity in STEM disciplines; and 3) the current and projected increase in the STEM workforce shortage. Whether or not there is a STEM workforce shortage across all the STEM disciplines [as disputed by Zeigler and Camarota (2014)], there is copious evidence from Wilson (2014), Mascarelli (2013), Perkins (2011), and the National Research Council (2013a,b) that at current rates, the geosciences workforce is being depleted and its future shortfall is approaching a state of crisis. A recent study, “Geoscience: Ups and Downs” (Gewin 2016), raises grave concerns about academia’s ability to produce the geoscientists that industry, government, and nonprofit sectors will need in the decades to come, for geoscience skills will remain in high demand. In a recent report on “Expanding and Improving Geoscience in Higher Education” (Geological Society of America 2016), the Geological Society of America stressed the interdisciplinary and thereby far-reaching and critical importance of the geosciences. The report emphasized the need to prepare the next generation of skilled geoscience workers to not only tackle the serious challenges in natural resource development and management, natural hazards mitigation, environmental protection, and ecosystem restoration, but also to apply integrative geoscience skills and knowledge to a host of related (civil and environmental engineering, environmental studies, agricultural sciences, atmospheric and ocean sciences, and life sciences) and seemingly unrelated (materials research, homeland security and emergency services, medicine, law, public administration, public health, and economics) fields. The good news is that because of high college enrollment in the geosciences, greater geoscience industry efficiency, and lower expectations for workforce demands in the energy sector, the American Geosciences Institute (AGI; AGI 2016) has now downgraded the shortfall in the geoscience workforce through 2024 from 135,000 to about 90,000. However, this news is tempered by the somber reality that the geoscience workforce still needs rapid reinforcement over the next few years. Many traditional geoscience pipeline initiatives that are rooted in best-practice methodologies exist. Levine et al. (2007) note that such successful initiatives provided students with outdoor activities and experiences, field trips, research experiences, place-based learning, and a departmental culture that is inviting and supportive. Riggs and Alexander (2007) highlight a plethora of traditional successful strategies for diversifying the geosciences. Pandya et al. (2007) outlined the following eight design principles for successfully recruiting and retaining students within STEM in general and within the geosciences in particular: 1) institutional leadership, 2) targeted recruitment, 3) engaged faculty, 4) personal attention, 5) peer support, 6) enriched research experience, 7) bridging to the next level, and 8) continuous evaluation. However, as successful as these geoscience initiatives are, there are simply not enough new geoscience personnel entering the geoscience workforce to replace the current retiring geoscience employees—hence, the gap, and a gap that is yet too wide. It is clear that innovative, “outside-the-box” thinking is needed to find solutions to this dire national geoscience problem. A proposed geoscience workforce model like the one described herein may, therefore, yield fruitful, ameliorative results.

GEOSCIENCE WORKFORCE PATHWAY PROGRAM.

Although the New York City College of Technology (City Tech) of the City University of New York (CUNY) does not currently have a geoscience department (one is in planning) and therefore does not offer a terminal geoscience degree, this minority-serving institution (with its limited set of geoscience offerings) aids in the amelioration of the geoscience workforce plight by creating and sustaining a year-round geoscience workforce preparation and geoscience career mentoring program for nongeoscience, minority STEM students beginning at the critical juncture of their junior year.

PARTICIPANTS.

The participants of the Geoscience Workforce Pathway program included undergraduates who were recruited from a pool of STEM majors in their junior year at City Tech. A total of 12 students were selected for the program because of their interest in the geosciences, their performance (having received a grade of B or better) in the program’s geoscience course described below, and their maintenance of a STEM grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 out of 4.0. Unfortunately, however, because of personal and financial reasons, four students dropped out of the program. Therefore, a total of eight undergraduate STEM students continued with the program. The cohort of eight student interns consisted of one African-American, two Hispanics, three Asian-Americans, and two Caucasian (non-Hispanic) students. Genderwise the distribution was three females and five males. Their academic majors encompassed the STEM disciplines of applied mathematics, computer information technology, computer systems technology, and construction management and civil engineering technology. Concerning the students’ work and internship experiences, one student had previously participated in a summer research internship, two students were returning students with nongeoscience work experience, and the other five students did not have any internship experiences in their majors or in the geosciences.

THE PREPARATION COMPONENT.

The full program consists of the implementation of its four geoscience components of exposure, preparation, apprenticeship, and experience (EPA-E), the project’s model. The program was designed with the following two primary goals: 1) to create a geoscience workforce pathway for nongeoscience minority STEM majors and 2) to develop geoscience career-aligned collaboration via mentoring. The entire program—its goals, its objectives, its expected outcomes, and its activities—are all in concert with geoscience community recognized best practices for successful geoscience initiatives, particularly for underrepresented minorities in STEM. The research-based best practices that have been adopted, adapted, and infused into this project are 1) authentic research and laboratory experience in the geoscience classroom, 2) exposure trips and field experiences, 3) mentoring and coaching, 4) internship experiences, and 5) networking. This paper focuses on the 4-day preparation component of the model: the geoscience workforce skills training and enrichment component. This winter semester preparation component was selected for highlighting because it represents the program’s bridge between the geoscience theory that the students learned in the fall semester and the geoscience workforce that they will join as interns in the summer. For the students, this workforce preparation application component represents a transition and a formal switch from a student-centered attitude to students envisioning and equipping themselves to actually participate in the geoscience workforce. This component of the program helps them to see themselves not only as students, but also now as geoscience employees. Understanding, embracing, and coming to terms with the prospects of becoming geoscience employees is a critical phobia-dispelling step to the students’ successful integration into a workforce that is mostly new to them. If the students do not successfully cross the preparation bridge, then the entire program with all its other components will be jeopardized. Additionally, it is within this preparation component that these nongeoscience STEM students truly realize that their already acquired STEM skills are transferrable to geoscience applications.

Geoscience workforce skills training and enrichment.

The following technical and soft skills were emphasized by the project’s partners [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP)] as being critical for successful transitions to the geoscience workforce: computing, mathematics, critical thinking, problem solving, group dynamics/team working, and verbal, and nonverbal communication. To provide students (many of whom come from underrepresented groups in STEM) with these skills, a 4-day bridge training program was conducted [bridge programs are highly recommended for underrepresented minority students to help remediate the needed skills sets (Dao and Velazquez 2013)]. The training program was offered in January during City Tech’s winter intersession after the students have successfully taken a fall, project-related course called “An Introduction to the Physics of Natural Disasters.” This natural disasters course is designed to, among other objectives, whet the geoscience appetite of the students and provide them with a fundamental introduction to a variety of geoscience topics. This geoscience course offers much of the geoscience theory that the students need. The 4-day bridge preparation program then connects the theory learned in the course to the geoscience workforce applications and skills students need to succeed as geoscience employees. The preparation program is designed so that students take minicourses and workshops that introduce them to geographical information systems (GIS)/hydrology; programming with MATLAB; basic statistics; resume, cover letter, and personal statement writing; goal setting and adherence; e-mail etiquette; time management; interviewing; and dress code. They attend workshops on remote sensing applications to the geosciences and workshops on climate change. They also visit the geoscience facilities/offices of the project partners. This 4-day preparation component of the geoscience workforce model also includes sessions on career skills with each student developing and maintaining a workforce career portfolio. Two geoscience exposure trips are also organized to directly connect the minicourses and workshops to the real world. An example of the 2016 winter semester agenda for the training week is shown below in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.

Preparation schedule of the EPA-E program.

Fig. 1.

Preparation schedule of the EPA-E program.

Geoscience workforce exposure trips.

To “hardwire” and directly connect the students to the geoscience workforce, two exposure trips were conducted. One trip was to the U.S. EPA’s Region 2 facility in New York City and the other trip was to the NYC DEP’s facility in Queens, New York. However, to acquaint them with the two agencies and to prepare them for the visits, the students were given two workforce initiation assignments. The case study component of each assignment is designed to test the students’ critical thinking skills. One of the assignments is shown in the section below.

U.S. EPA ASSIGNMENT

Students completed the following assignment:

  1. Summarize (in two paragraphs) the operations of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 2.

  2. Write three detailed, probing questions about the operations of the U.S. EPA Region 2.

  3. Discuss how the responsibilities of this agency apply to your STEM major?

Case study: Thinking outside the box

Create a scenario in which some operations of the U.S. EPA Region 2 have been compromised so badly that many of its functions have become inoperable. In one page, clearly outline the hypothetical problems that have arisen and then provide the U.S. EPA Region 2 with recommended solutions to rectify them.

At the U.S. EPA facility, the students met with and had full, unfettered meetings and panel discussions with the human resources specialist, geophysicists, and an information technology specialist. They discussed 1) careers at U.S. EPA and the career paths of the U.S. EPA employees; 2) enforcement of national hazardous and solid waste laws, particularly for underground storage tanks; 3) geographic informational system–related projects; 4) pollution prevention and climate change–related issues; and 5) environmental cleanup sites (Superfund program), particularly Brownfield sites. At the NYC DEP facility, the students were given presentations on (and engaged geoscientists in discussions that included) careers at NYC DEP, waste water control and treatment, NYC DEP’s green infrastructure program, NYC DEP’s use of electricity and its plans for a more efficient future, New York City’s drinking water, NYC DEP information technology initiatives, and NYC DEP mitigation and adaptation initiatives for climate change.

Geoscience assignments.

Each short course gave both in-class group work and outside-of-class assignments. As an example, for the statistics workshop, to gauge students’ comprehension of the descriptive statistics that were taught, a statistical assignment on hydrology and a statistical assignment on climatology were given. Below is the hydrology assignment from the statistics workshop.

STATISTICS ASSIGNMENT: HYDROLOGY

For this assignment, the students were provided with a table of water year and peak river stage (gauge height) and river discharge for a particular river for a 16-yr period. They were to do the following:

  1. Make the following two separate graphs: 1) a scatterplot of the water year versus gauge height and 2) a scatterplot of water year versus river discharge.

  2. Find the mean, median, mode, and standard deviation for the gauge heights and river discharges.

  3. Calculate the correlation coefficient between gauge height and river discharge. Interpret the result.

  4. Find the linear regression line predicting the river discharge from the gauge height. Graph the linear regression line on the scatterplot. What would be the river discharge if the gauge height is 17.55 ft (5.35 m) in 2016?

  5. Write a comprehensive technical report using all the information that was calculated (include the graphs created). In your report, include your thoughts of what the rainfall regime may have been during this period of analysis for the river.

Performance on assignments from the workshops indicates that concentrated short courses like these may be effective in increasing students’ skills and knowledge.

GEOSCIENCE WORKFORCE SKILLS TRAINING AND ENRICHMENT PROGRAM ASSESSMENT.

A survey was conducted to assess whether or not the 4-day Geoscience Workforce Skills Training and Enrichment pilot program was effective in preparing the students for the geosciences and the geoscience workforce. The results are shown in Tables 1 and 2. The students rated their overall experience of the Geoscience Workforce Skills Training and Enrichment Program (1 is least valuable and 5 is most valuable) with a mean of 4.8 and a standard deviation of 0.5.

Table 1.

Mean and standard deviation of the Geoscience Workforce Skills Training and Enrichment program components.

Mean and standard deviation of the Geoscience Workforce Skills Training and Enrichment program components.
Mean and standard deviation of the Geoscience Workforce Skills Training and Enrichment program components.
Table 2.

Mean and standard deviation responses on climate change, GIS/hydrology, remote sensing applications to the geosciences, and statistics workshop minicourses.

Mean and standard deviation responses on climate change, GIS/hydrology, remote sensing applications to the geosciences, and statistics workshop minicourses.
Mean and standard deviation responses on climate change, GIS/hydrology, remote sensing applications to the geosciences, and statistics workshop minicourses.

The students were asked to rate the value of each programmatic component. Although all the components were rated positively, the students specifically regarded the career skills sessions and the exposure trip to the U.S. EPA Region 2 office to be the most valuable. The statistics session with a real-world application assignment was also highly rated. The results are summarized in Table 1.

The survey also asked the students to consider a variety of possible benefits that they may have gained from each of the workshop minicourses: climate change, GIS/hydrology, remote sensing applications to the geosciences, and statistics. For all the workshop minicourses, the results indicated large gains in better understanding of the geoscience topics, in the interest of the geoscience topics, and in the awareness of each geoscience area. Overall, the students indicated a strong gain in their interest in the geosciences. These results are summarized in Table 2.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS.

The current geoscience workforce needs to be replenished and sustained if extant and future geophysical challenges are to be successfully overcome. Many comprehensive initiatives that are rooted in accepted best-practice modes have yielded positive but limited results, and the geoscience workforce gap (though slowed in growth) yet remains. Unconventional strategies to ameliorate this problem are needed to complement traditional practices. A program like the one described in this paper, although limited by a small sample size, can yet provide useful insights for attempts to replenish the geoscience workforce with nongeoscience majors. Ideas gleaned from this rudimentary, unconventional, trial approach can be used to set forth a model that may be expedient to help in combating the geoscience workforce plight and in reducing the gap between the demand for and the supply of geoscience workforce personnel; these gleaned ideas may also be particularly useful for academic institutions that do not have a terminal geoscience degree. By equipping nongeoscience majors with enough technical geoscience skills and adequate soft skills, this developing program has shown promise for creating a new pathway for students in the geoscience workforce. For example, after completing the summer 2016 workforce internship component of the program, one of the program’s participants (a computer systems technology major) was offered and has accepted a full-time position at the NYC DEP. She started her geoscience career in September 2016, and she is already making valuable contributions to the agency. A second student related to the program has also been hired (January 2017) by the NYC DEP. However, even with these nuggets of success, this fledgling program has much room for improvement. It can be enhanced by more rigorous assessment, by long-term tracking, by a greater sample size, and by more expansive project partners’ inputs as to other desired geoscience workforce skills. In terms of career development, since the students are primarily juniors, the program has a built-in, senior year, capstone geoscience networking component that features students participating in professional geoscience societies and in geoscience networking career development workshops, many of which are conducted by the project’s partners. This component of the overall program can be strengthened to provide a more complete year-long geoscience workforce connection. Additionally, the program is preparing to expand by assisting its second-year participants (now seniors) with graduate school admission. One of these students just applied to the doctoral program in atmospheric sciences at the University at Albany. These enhancements are being planned for the near future as the program develops. Although in its infancy, the program is yet instructive in providing new and creative pathways to increase the geoscience workforce and geoscience career participants. The program is reproducible, but it needs industry partners to provide the geoscience opportunities, and it needs funding to provide the students with paid geoscience industry internships.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The Geoscience Workforce Skills Training and Enrichment Program is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Pathways into Geoscience (NSF IUSE GEOPATHS Grant 1540721). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The authors would also like to acknowledge Dr. Valerie Sloan for her valuable support and evaluation of the project.

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Footnotes

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