Here’s a simple math problem: The demand for workers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) is growing, but the number of students going to college to study these fields is shrinking. On top of this looming workforce shortage, minorities are greatly underrepresented in STEM jobs.
It doesn’t take a math degree to see these trends don’t add up.
So why aren’t more young people going into math and science? A recent survey by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian Magazine found that nearly half of Americans (46 percent) think it’s because science is “too hard.” Another 22 percent say these fields aren’t useful for their careers and 20 percent say these subjects are “too boring.” Ladies and gentlemen, we have an image problem.
GeoFORCE Texas, a four-year program for high school students run by the Jackson School of Geosciences, is showing kids from historically disadvantaged parts of the state that science and math are exciting, societally relevant and rewarding — plus, they offer phenomenal career opportunities.
The program sends honors students from mostly minority-serving high schools on all-expenses-paid geological field trips across the country to educate and excite them about science. And in 2013 — as many members of the first class graduated from college — GeoFORCE Texas has become the largest geosciences K-12 pipeline program in the nation.
Sparking a Passion for Science
The first class of 69 GeoFORCE students was selected in 2005 from small towns in rural Southwest Texas. They had all completed the 8th grade; about 73 percent are Hispanic. For four summers, they visited sites like the Grand Canyon, the Florida Everglades, Zion National Park and Mount St. Helens, learning about energy, water, volcanoes, plate tectonics and how landscapes evolve.
Students also visit the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) headquarters in Washington, D.C. to learn about science careers in government. Trips are led by scientists and engineers from industry and universities.
“We were talking with a woman who was at the top of her corporation,” says Karina Robledo, a student from Pearsall, Texas, who was in the first cohort of GeoFORCE students. “She told me you could be a very successful scientist, too. That was really inspiring to hear as a high school student from Pearsall.”
Robledo just completed a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from St. Edward’s University in Austin. Next year, she plans to start work on a master’s in geochemistry, using chemistry to study the environment — tracking water pollution, for example.
“I probably wouldn’t have put it all together — my love for math, science, the environment and being outdoors — learning about all that in GeoFORCE really put it all together for me,” says Robledo.
Jeff Sitgreaves (B.S. ’13) was part of the second cohort of GeoFORCE students. Thanks to college credits earned in high school, he took only three years to graduate from UT in May with a bachelor’s degree in geology. This fall, he’ll begin work on a master’s degree in geosciences here at the university.
“I wouldn’t be in the geosciences if it weren’t for that program,” he says. “My first year I thought, this is kind of interesting. The second year, this is cool. Then by the third year, yes, this is what I want to do.”
The GeoFORCE program has since expanded to include students from urban Houston, who are predominantly Hispanic (46 percent) and African American (32 percent). With classes from all four grades of high school and both regions, GeoFORCE Texas now serves about 640 students each year.
Of the GeoFORCE students who have already received college degrees, 55 percent received them in STEM fields. According to Eleanour Snow, interim director of outreach and diversity programs in the Jackson School, if you include all GeoFORCE students now in college, 64 percent are majoring in STEM fields, more than double the proportion of U.S. college students who earn bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering fields (31 percent), according to the National Science Foundation.
Building a Foundation for Success
Doug Ratcliff, former director of outreach and international programs at the Jackson School, launched GeoFORCE with support from members of the school’s Advisory Council, industry partners and others. Richard Chuchla (M.S. ’81), a geologist and Jackson School Advisory Council member actively involved with Ratcliff in the early development of GeoFORCE, says everyone was optimistic about the program at the start.
“But we didn’t have even the wildest idea that it would be as successful as it has become,” says Chuchla, who manages Latin American new business development for ExxonMobil Exploration Company.
In March, the National Research Council issued a report on the looming worker shortage in the energy and mining industries. The report highlighted GeoFORCE as one of four educational programs that “have established excellent pathways to address the workforce issues.”
And now GeoFORCE is heading north. With help from industry partners such as Ed Duncan (BS ’79, MA ’87) and Great Bear Petroleum, the University of Alaska Fairbanks launched GeoFORCE Alaska last summer for students from native villages on the North Slope. Students in this region are historically underrepresented in STEM fields and live in rural communities where schools struggle to provide solid science and math education.
“We come from these small towns that no one has heard of, but they believed in us,” says Sabrina Cervantez, a student from Del Rio, Texas, who graduated from the first GeoFORCE class. “I’m very grateful to them for choosing our little area of Texas to hand-select students.”
Cervantez, who received a bachelor’s in history and English from UT in May, will begin a master’s program at Louisiana State University this fall, studying the history of geology.
So if you happen to be visiting a national park this summer, and a bus full of Texas high schoolers wearing the same brightly colored shirts spills out into the parking lot, don’t be alarmed. You’re looking at the next generation of scientists and engineers who will help keep our lights on.