You're Not Alone: Building Diversity into the Geoscience Pipeline

  • Matthew Schrenk, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
  • College of Natural Science

Project Overview

  • GeoCaFES is a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) that gives Latinx students from all over the country an opportunity to explore education and career possibilities through a mentored research project exploring the intersection of science and community-engaged research, with the goal of creating a bridge into graduate studies, and ultimately, into the workforce.

Products/Outcomes

  • Students receive mentored experience conducting research in their field
  • Students have the opportunity to become part of a supportive community
  • Students are connected with a network of resources and expertise
  • Program can be adapted to work within other team-based frameworks
  • Students are supported in their goals to pursue advanced geoscience education and careers, diversifying the geosciences workforce

Partners

  • Julie Libarkin, Professor and Interim Associate Dean, College of Natural Science
  • Faculty mentors at MSU, including Dalton Hardisty, Earth and Environmental Sciences
  • Rocío Caballero-Gill, GeoLatinas and Assistant Research Professor, George Mason University
  • Carmen McCallum, Associate Professor, Eastern Michigan University
  • Andrea Saavedra, MSU doctoral student
  • Patricia Jaimes, MSU doctoral alumna (former partner)
  • Kenneth Voglesonger, Associate Professor, Northeastern Illinois University
  • Shreya Patel, STEM Advisor, Northeastern Illinois University

Form(s) of Engagement

  • Community-Engaged Teaching and Learning
Professor Dalton Hardisty and University of Rochester student, Corina Osorio, utilized the Science On a Sphere® at the MSU Museum for Osorio's GeoCaFES project. Hardisty gives a shout-out to the Science On a Sphere® manager at the MSU Museum, Nick VanAcker, for his help plotting the ocean data on the Sphere.

Professor Dalton Hardisty and University of Rochester student, Corina Osorio, utilized the Science On a Sphere® at the MSU Museum for Osorio's GeoCaFES project. Hardisty gives a shout-out to the Science On a Sphere® manager at the MSU Museum, Nick VanAcker, for his help plotting the ocean data on the Sphere.

Many people may not be aware of the diverse array of disciplines that comprise the geoscience field.

"I think many undergrads in general don't understand that geoscience is sort of a nexus of all these areas of science—there's chemistry, biology, engineering, and physics, all within geosciences," said Matt Schrenk, associate professor in MSU's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES). "It's not just rocks—there's environmental health issues; there's climate issues; there's natural hazards. These are not only scientific concerns, but real issues that impact communities across the globe."

But while the field may be diverse, the student body and workforce are not.

"There's the problem of lack of diversity in STEM, in general. But geosciences, in particular, has really struggled with diversifying its student base, as well as diversifying its workforce," said Schrenk—a situation Schrenk and EES colleague, Professor Julie Libarkin, are hoping to address with a National Science Foundation funded project called GeoCaFES (Communities and Future Earth Scientists), an equal partnership between Michigan State University, GeoLatinas (Latinas in Earth and Planetary Sciences), and Northeastern Illinois University, a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI).

"We're really trying to address that directly by developing a summer bridge program to provide students with research opportunities, to get them to understand what it is like to be in graduate school, what it is to do research, and think about some of the different career pathways that could emerge from that," said Schrenk. "Because, at the same time that we're struggling with diversity, there are many good-paying job opportunities and fulfilling careers within the geosciences that maybe people aren't aware of."

The GeoCaFES Project

GeoCaFES is a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) that gives Latinx students from all over the country an opportunity to explore education and career possibilities through a mentored research project exploring the intersection of science and community-engaged research, with the goal of creating a bridge into graduate studies, and ultimately, into the workforce. The program pairs an undergraduate student with a faculty mentor from one of the geoscience-related departments at MSU. Students in the program's first cohort in summer 2021 researched topics from geophysics to chemistry to biology, virtually.

Corina Osorio, a student studying geological sciences at the University of Rochester in New York, was interested in getting hands-on experience and began to look for research opportunities. She came across information about the GeoCaFES project on the GeoLatinas Instagram platform and applied to the program.

She worked with Dalton Hardisty, assistant professor of global change processes in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, on a project involving the Science On a Sphere® at the MSU Museum.

"My work was like an outreach type of project, where I took the data and created a spreadsheet and worked together with Science On a Sphere® to apply these colored maps onto the globes," said Osorio.

She worked with Hardisty to gather raw data and develop maps that can be plotted onto the Sphere in an appealing, easily understood, and explainable way.

"The Science On a Sphere® is awesome because you can visualize patterns of ocean chemistry today," said Hardisty. "And it can make you think about mechanisms that drive those things, and how the ocean chemistry is related to atmospheric circulation properties, ocean circulation properties, biological cycling, and you can make connections between what are really their own distinct subfields, but together, they drive these observations you see. So, you can use it to teach that, but also at museums it's great to allow for outreach outside of classrooms."

However, according to Hardisty, much readily available data about ocean chemistry, such as nutrients, temperature, salinity, and chemical parameters, were only available on the Sphere in a single depth, limiting the ability to visualize important aspects of the ocean in any given area.

"We want to create a format that allows us to add a much larger database of images that shows profiles and patterns of ocean chemistry across the world's oceans," explained Hardisty. "So what we did over the summer was a preliminary investigation to see what was possible."

Osorio enjoyed her experience with GeoCaFES and would eventually like to pursue a graduate degree.

"I really enjoyed my experience with GeoCaFES," she said. "Since everything was remote, it did feel a little different. But it encouraged us to connect a bit more and create a bond with each other. We met every week for about an hour to talk about our research, or just about personal things, or ways to motivate us or get inspired about the field."

Creating a Great Community Take a Great Team

A critical aspect of GeoCaFES is a sense of community where Latinx students feel connected to a network of peers, resources, and opportunities. This would not be possible without a strong collaboration of organizations deeply committed to, connected to, and immersed in, Latinx communities.

GeoCaFES team members (clockwise from top left): Matt Schrenk, Julie Libarkin, Shreya Patel, Rocío Caballero-Gill, Ken Voglesonger.

GeoCaFES team members (clockwise from top left): Matt Schrenk, Julie Libarkin, Shreya Patel, Rocío Caballero-Gill, Ken Voglesonger.

Ken Voglesonger is the director of the Student Center for Science Engagement at Northeastern Illinois University, where he has offered a Summer Research and Professional Training Program for 13 years, giving him extensive expertise and strategies in student collaboration, professional development, and programming that he can share with the GeoCaFES team.

"The student body at NEIU represents much of what we are looking for in our target audience—first-generation, non-traditional, students from historically excluded groups, and students that may have responsibilities and priorities that lie outside of their academics, such as families, work, and care-giving," said Voglesonger. "Given that, there are many faculty at NEIU that have experience working with these students on research-based projects with tremendous results."

He hopes GeoCaFES will help students realize their full potential.

"I hope that they build their self-efficacy surrounding what they can accomplish—truly realize what they are capable of," said Voglesonger. "I hope that they realize that they are not in this alone, that they have supports. I hope that they realize that in this environment, they can bring their entire selves to their academics and pursuit of STEM - their culture, their identities, their families, their successes, and their challenges. STEM and academia are often places where students, faculty, and staff feel like they need to leave parts of their identities at the door, so to say. I hope that our students learn how to use all of these aspects of who they are to their benefit and learn strategies on how to do this in the other spaces they occupy."

Rocío Paola Caballero-Gill is the co-founder and chairwoman of GeoLatinas, an international network of scientists and professionals dedicated to embracing, empowering, and inspiring Latinas to pursue and thrive in careers in Earth and Planetary Sciences.

A Perú native and first-generation college graduate, Dr. Caballero-Gill is currently a paleoceanographer and paleoclimatologist at George Mason University. Throughout her educational journey, she knew very few other Latinas in the geosciences.

"It took about 12-15 years for me to know more than a handful of Latinas in my field, which was sad," she said.

She and GeoLatinas co-founders, Dr. Clara Rodríguez Rondón and Adriana Crisóstomo-Figueroa, built GeoLatinas from its beginnings on Twitter, through its spread to other social media platforms, to its (soon) establishment as a non-profit with teams around the world.

"GeoLatinas was born at the end of 2018 out of different needs—the need to see other Latinas thriving in our field, in geoscience; the need of just connecting with others and be with people who actually know some of our struggles; and also so that we can share and just be who we are...this GeoLatinas dream may have started as the dream of a few, but the incredible work we do and the amazing community we have cultivated would not be possible without the work and participation of every single member of our organization" said Caballero-Gill.

GeoLatinas, amongst other things, brings strong virtual facilitation, programming, and networking assets to the program, enabling GeoCaFES to reach a broad audience and draw in well-known Latinx speakers.

The GeoCaFES team also includes three important members: Shreya Patel, a STEM advisor working with Ken Voglesonger at NEIU and who has been essential in creating and refining the content shared in GeoCaFES, as the team met weekly since the beginning of the program; Dr. Carmen McCallum, an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University, as well as a project evaluator and mentoring trainer for GeoCaFES who has worked closely with Dr. Julie Libarkin to deliver mentoring training for the team advisors; and Andrea Saavedra, an MSU graduate student also working with Dr. Libarkin and providing project management support to GeoCaFES.

"I think it's amazing how everyone brings something to the table," said Caballero-Gill. "GeoCaFES is almost like the poster child for teamwork. It's a great dynamic—it's really, really good."

Expanding in Year Two and Beyond

Moving forward, the GeoCaFES partners see potential in expanding in virtual and hybrid formats.

"I'm very excited to explore the possibility of continuing parts of the program virtually," said Voglesonger. "Many more traditional programs inherently have barriers related to travel, relocation for a period of time, and the conflict with priorities outside of academia. I'd like to think that we can use these two years to build a virtual/hybrid program that is accessible to wider range of students."

Caballero-Gill would like to find ways to adapt the GeoCaFES model to work with GeoLatinas' in-person local teams and virtual global teams.

"In terms of this virtual world, it was never a limitation or a concern for us. That's how we started and grew," she said. "It opens the door for many other voices and people who wouldn't be included otherwise. But we also have people in specific locations where they want to form their own groups or don't have access to the virtual world as we do in the USA. They have their own regional needs, and at the same time, have the potential for more physical contact. So how do I make sure that I open the door enough to have them in the GeoCaFES development in the second year, so that through these local teams, and through even the global organization, we can recreate it in our own way for our own needs? From all the work that Matt's been leading, there's already good stuff that I know we can take and shape in our own way for GeoLatinas."

Schrenk would like to expand the program, both in format and programming so that GeoCaFES is sustainable beyond two years.

"We want to keep this going as a hybrid program into the future, because the idea here is to develop a sustainable pathway into the geosciences," he said. "One of the things we want to do is have the students work together as a group on a geoscience-related project that has some community engagement aspect to it. I think part of that is developing stronger bonds with community-engaged scholars at MSU to begin with. But in terms of getting students to develop that social network with each other, that bond and that cohort sort of feeling, we feel that's really important moving forward."

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Nick VanAcker and Matt Schrenk

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