COA students translating their rock and mineral identification skills from the classroom to the field, at Camden Hills State Park, ME.COA students translating their rock and mineral identification skills from the classroom to the field, at Camden Hills State Park, ME.A group of College of the Atlantic geoscience students will join their peers from across the country for a field-based research intensive, thanks to a recently awarded grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

A total of $340,733 for the program will be shared by COA, Mt. San Antonio College, and University of San Francisco, said Dr. Sarah Hall, COA’s Anne T. and Robert M. Bass chair of Earth Systems and Geoscience.

Real-world experience

Students from all three institutions will gather in Eastern California for a month-long course with hydrologists, ecologists, geologists, and officials from research centers, Yosemite National Park, and environmental sector groups for the program. Their focus will be on building real-world STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field and professional skills for environmentally-focused students that can translate directly into work experiences, Hall said.

Dr. Sarah Hall, College of the Atlantic.Dr. Sarah Hall, College of the Atlantic.“Similar to other small schools or environmental programs within larger schools, students at COA are studying a wide range of field-based environmental sciences that qualify them for jobs that are traditionally categorized as geoscience jobs,” Hall said.  “Some of these might include: environmental consulting, environmental education, national park personnel, science communication, and resource management. It is for these environmentally-focused STEM students that we have coined the term ‘E-STEM,’ to call attention to the need for specific skill identification and training to help these students transition to the workforce.”

Building a better STEM workforce is a central reason why government officials have given their support to this innovative program, said Dr. Jill Karsten of the NSF.

“What is creative about the collaboration of the USF, COA, and Mt. SAC project is that they are identifying novel ways to provide undergraduates from smaller colleges who are interested in the geosciences with meaningful field experiences, while also innovating some creative approaches for credentialing their learning, so that future employers know what skills they have been able to develop,” Dr. Karsten said.  “With a projected shortfall of 135,000 geoscientists entering the workforce over the coming decade, it is important that we find effective strategies for engaging, training, and retaining all students with a passion for studying our dynamic Earth, as well as preparing them to be successful members of the geoscience workforce.”

Reimagining traditional field courses

The summer intensive will be followed with a professional development seminar at each of the three schools, which also will include local scientists, researchers and others in the environmental field.

Professor Rebecca Walker, Mt. San Antonio College.Professor Rebecca Walker, Mt. San Antonio College.The program reimagines the traditional geology field course as a professional development experience for a wide range of environmental-track students. Six to eight participants from each college will join a diverse group of instructors and professionals to practice key field skills, such as map making, water sampling, and geo-hazard assessment. The students will earn digital badges for each skill set that they master, which will provide documentation of the work and allow potential employers to see direct evidence of experiential learning.

“This program will present great networking, research and learning opportunities for our students. Belief in the power of experiential education is one of the main tenets of COA’s philosophy, and we are proud to join our peers in promoting this ever-so-important facet of E-STEM preparation,” said COA president Darron Collins ’92. “I salute Dr. Hall for the tremendous work she has done to help secure this funding.”

Building skills, building the workforce

Access to field and professional experiences has been recognized by STEM workers as critical to helping students identify as scientists and professionals, form networks, and gain important skills for employment in a variety of public and private sector positions.

Dr. Calla Schmidt, University of San Francisco.Dr. Calla Schmidt, University of San Francisco.There are many skills outside of traditional environmental science training that students will need to succeed in the workplace, Hall said. She believes that COA’s focus on human ecology and transdiciplinary study creates the ideal environment for such well-rounded education.

“While the workforce needs people with hard skills in E-STEM, it also needs people who have various soft skills, such as a being able to communicate through a variety of mediums with diverse groups, who are comfortable navigating multiple disciplines, and who are motivated by problem solving,” Hall said. COA’s transdisciplinary programming provides E-STEM track students with many opportunities to learn these soft skills, which they might not otherwise get within more segregated science programs.

Hall and her colleagues will gather in California during the summer of 2016 to meet with stakeholders and plot out the proposed course. They plan to have students in the area by the summer of 2017, and again in 2018.