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Digging It: Science academy inspires underrepresented students and next generation of earth scientists

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After attending a two-day field course on the geology of the Texas Gulf Coast this summer, a ninth-grader from rural southwest Texas sent Doug Ratcliff an e-mail thanking him for the trip and saying he wanted to be the first person in his family to attend college.

Messages like this are almost regular occurrences for Ratcliff, who helped organize the field trip as part of GeoFORCE Texas, the college preparatory program he manages for The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences.

GeoFORCE is designed to inspire a new generation of college students and the next generation of earth scientists. The program targets high schools with comparatively low statistics for college attendance—21 school districts in the predominantly Hispanic region of southwest Texas and, as of 2008, high schools in the Houston Independent School District.

Students admitted to the competitive program receive free field courses lasting from two days to one week, learning science in spectacular and geologically significant locations from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Oregon and Washington, D.C. They can attend for all four years of high school, with the Jackson School and GeoFORCE’s industry sponsors picking up the tab.

Science Shortfall

GeoFORCE was started to address two issues facing the United States: the low percentage of minorities working in the sciences, and in the geosciences in particular, and the dwindling number of young professionals entering the geoscience workforce. According to statistics from the United States Congress, African Americans and Hispanics represent 20 percent of the overall U.S. workforce but less than seven percent of the science, engineering and technology workforce. They are particularly underrepresented in the geosciences, earning about four percent of geoscience degrees. Women, another target audience for GeoFORCE, are similarly underrepresented, with about half as many women working in science and technology as are in the workforce overall.

The geoscience sector faces an even more dire situation. The profession—whose members look for energy, steward environmental resources, and forecast climate change and natural disasters—anticipates a major wave of retirements over the next decade. The retirements take place even as the U.S. is experiencing a nationwide decline in academic performance and student interest in math and science.

In Their Own Words: Students on GeoFORCE

Siobhain Alvarado“I thought this trip was awesome! Even though we had to take quizzes, they really taught me a lot and prepared me for the final exam. It was amazing when we would go to the enormous rock formations at the different canyons. I can’t wait until next year’s trip.”

—Siobhain Alvarado, Cotulla High School, Cotulla, Texas

Raquel Espinoza“I liked that we had a lot of ‘hands on’ experience because I think geology is one of those subjects that is difficult to understand just reading out of a book. You have to get out there and touch those cross-beds! The instructors were friendly and very helpful. I liked that Christie [Rogers from ExxonMobil] always had to make sure everyone in the group understood what was being taught and she’d confirm that by asking everyone to point things out.”

—Raquel Espinoza, Eagle Pass High School, Eagle Pass, Texas

Ratcliff frames the last issue with a personal request: “I don’t want to be in a nursing home when the lights go off.”

“The goal is to try to get more students into that math-science pipeline that the nation is really thin on,” says Stephen Hammond, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who meets with GeoFORCE students on their field trips to Washington, D.C. A “huge bubble” of job vacancies will affect almost all federal government jobs, from research to service, as baby boomers prepare to retire, Hammond says.

The shortage is particularly acute in the energy sector, which geologists and engineers enter after years of advanced training.

“There is a substantial consensus that we need to train more students in math and science,” says Ratcliff. “And there is no doubt that young students are naturally interested in the earth sciences. Providing learning experiences that involve dinosaurs, earthquakes and volcanoes is a slam dunk for getting their attention.”

Long-Term Investment

Once you have their interest, the trick is keeping them on track for their four-year high school career. GeoFORCE accomplishes this by investing in students for the long term and keeping in near-constant touch with them throughout high school.

The program admits students as they are preparing to enter ninth grade, “when they are starting to decide what their interests are, to decide for themselves what they like and don’t like,” says Ratcliff.

Students enter into one of two components: week-long academies that involve nationwide travel or two-day field trips around the state, to accommodate interested students who can’t take part in the academies. Professional geologists join Jackson School faculty and staff conducting the trips.

Students connect with the experiential approach.

“To be taught by expert geologists is inspiring,” says Sabrina Cervantez, an 11th grader at Del Rio High School in Del Rio, Texas, who joined the program as an entering ninth grader in 2005. Cervantez had not traveled outside of Texas before GeoFORCE. She has since seen the coastal geology of Oregon, rafted down the Colorado River below Glen Canyon dam and learned about differential erosion in perhaps the world’s greatest living laboratory on the subject—the Grand Canyon.

“To see, first hand, the places I have only read about in textbooks is beyond what I can explain in words,” she says.

“Being in a small border town, I always believed that if I was to go anywhere I would have to do it on my own,” says Cervantez. “To be supported by those who see potential in me is a wonderful feeling and makes me work harder. I want to prove that I have the capability to be a great geologist someday.”

Sabrina Cervantez
Sabrina Cervantez, an 11th grader from Del Rio High School in Del Rio, Texas, visited Crater Lake in Oregon as part of the 2007 GeoFORCE 11th grade summer academy.

While the field trips are the centerpiece of GeoFORCE, the program takes a comprehensive approach to encouraging academic success. GeoFORCE stays in touch with Cervantez and her peers throughout the academic year through counselors, teachers and parents, encouraging students to take challenging courses, remain high academic achievers and begin thinking about life after high school. Academic success is a requirement to stay in the program—to come back each year, students must maintain B averages in math and science and overall.

Traveling in cohesive groups each summer, GeoFORCE students also build strong relationships with each other. The program gives them the chance, unique for many of them, to make friends through shared interests in academics and science.

“A lot of people in my school are very laid back—they don’t care about learning,” says Andy San Miguel, an 11th grader at Hondo High School in Hondo, Texas. He cites his friendships from GeoFORCE as one of the outstanding qualities of the program, along with the “awe-inspiring” geological sites and the chance to learn about the Earth.

The GeoFORCE approach appears to be working well. In three years, only three students have chosen to leave the academy programs, and none for academic reasons—an extraordinary record for any summer program, let alone one centered on academic performance.

“The retention rate is extraordinary for a pre-college summer program,” says Eric Barron, dean of the Jackson School. “It shows the great potential of these high-achieving students and the excitement of the GeoFORCE approach to learning science from professionals in spectacular locations.”

In Their Own Words: Students on GeoFORCE

Ashley Bragg“I never thought about how the land and vegetation, and foreshore dunes could really help when a natural disaster happens. It’s interesting. Knowing that the beach has so many different parts and so many ways that it helps the environment around it is so exciting. I love the Port Aransas trip.”

—Ashley Bragg, Hondo High School, Hondo, Texas

Joseph Arrevalos“It’s a wonderful breathtaking experience that leaves the student wanting more! I really enjoyed the trip, it helps me learn things better. It helps us in that we study something that’s right there in front of us and not in a classroom through a textbook. It makes learning fun and interesting. GeoFORCE sharpens my learning skills. To tell you the truth I never knew what geology was really about. I now like what geology is, how it works, and how it impacts our world.”

—Joseph Arrevalos, Rocksprings High School, Rock Springs, Texas

How many GeoFORCE students will pursue geoscience careers or attend The University of Texas at Austin? Ratcliff says he cannot predict, but seeing a student pursue an advanced degree at the Jackson School is at the top of the “success pyramid” he envisions for GeoFORCE.

“We think it will be a success if all the kids in GeoFORCE graduate from high school,” says Ratcliff, noting that only 47 percent of students graduate in GeoFORCE’s target region of southwest Texas. “It will be a phenomenal success if they go to college, even better if they major in math and science, and of course, the ultimate if they major in geology.”

Houston, We Have A Solution

Since the Jackson School started GeoFORCE in 2005, the program has become the largest geoscience pipeline initiative in the country and one of the largest summer science academies. More than 240 students from three grade levels in southwest Texas attended GeoFORCE programs in 2007.

GeoFORCE’s original southwest Texas contingent is starting to near a major milestone, applying to college.

“Our initial group, who as eighth graders cried when they left their parents for the first time and screamed when the wheels went up on their first airplane ride, are now in the 11th grade taking the SAT exam and preparing to make college applications,” says Ratcliff.

With the addition of Houston, the seventh largest school district in the nation, GeoFORCE is set to double in size. Houston students will participate in the same field program as the southwest Texas kids.

The Houston demographics are not the same as the southwest region. The public school population of southwest Texas is rural and 85 percent Hispanic, with very few African Americans. The Houston public school population is urban, 53 percent Hispanic, 28 percent African American and eight percent white, with a sizeable Asian population and some Native Americans.

While the demographics differ, “we believe the GeoFORCE approach will achieve similar results,” says Ratcliff.

“Houston is a natural fit for a progam like GeoFORCE,” says Mike Loudin, manager of global geoscience recruiting and new hire development for ExxonMobil, one of the largest employers in the greater Houston area (and the country’s second largest corporation). “It has a very large underrepresented population. It also probably has more employers of geoscientists than any other city in the world, with the oil and gas industry, environmental consultants, numerous service industries, two world class universities and NASA, too. This means we have an abundance of potential sponsors for the program and also an abundance of role models for the students.”

GeoFORCE Sponsors

GeoFORCE TexasShell

Minerals Management Service

Alcoa Foundation
AT&T Foundation
Dominion Exploration
Swift Energy
Vulcan Materials Foundation

The program’s sponsors have funded its first three years and committed professionals to teach and serve with GeoFORCE in the field. The success of the partnership led ExxonMobil to ask the Jackson School if it could take on the challenge of adding Houston students. The school said yes, with support. Fundraising is in a quiet but very promising phase, says Ratcliff.

Recruiting students for the program starts with teachers. Two teachers from the Houston Independent School District went on this summer’s GeoFORCE ninth-grade academy. The Jackson School will host 25 more Houston teachers for a workshop in November. The workshop will offer professional development training for Texas’ new capstone course on Earth & Space Science, while introducing Houston teachers to colleagues from southwest Texas and keeping them informed about GeoFORCE. Teachers in turn will help identify promising students and encourage them to apply.

Applications for the Houston program will be due in January and selections made in February. In June, the new program will start, exposing another population of Texas students to the potential for exciting careers in the geosciences.

That’s a good thing for those of us, like Ratcliff, who want to retire knowing the U.S. will have enough earth scientists to keep our environment clean, our energy flowing and our nursing homes well lit.

By J.B. Bird

Banner photo and inside photos: GeoFORCE Texas

On the banner: Students from GeoFORCE Texas survey the
drought conditions above Lake Powell near the Arizona-Utah border.

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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