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A thoughtful, data-driven look into the whitest corner of the STEM world

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    Diversity and inclusion:  William & Mary’s geologists are working toward increasing representation in the earth sciences. Among the department’s initiatives, they’re reconceptualized fieldwork and adopted an anti-racist set of principles.  File photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Several years ago, Rowan Lockwood pulled aside a student in her introductory geology class.

Lockwood and other members of William & Mary’s Department of Geology have made a practice to single out promising students, make a personal connection and try to cultivate an interest in studying the earth sciences.

“He was very, very bright, a sophomore. I wasn’t his advisor,” Lockwood said. “But I took him aside and I said, ‘You’re doing great in this class—what are you thinking about majoring in?’”

They met several times over that semester. The student’s interest in environmental science and fieldwork grew to the point that he signed up for a summer internship. He reported back to Lockwood four weeks later.

“I can’t do this,” he said.

“Why not?” Lockwood asked. “I thought this was what you wanted?”

The student explained that the summer experience — hot, sweaty, bug-infested physical work — put him in mind of the hot, sweaty manual labor endured by his enslaved ancestors.

“The whole reason that his family sent him to college was so he wouldn’t have to do work like this,” Lockwood explained.

Lockwood, now the department chair, and Heather Macdonald, Chancellor Professor of Geology, are co-authors on “Uneven increases in racial diversity of US geoscience undergraduates.” The paper in Nature Communications Earth & Environment is a deep dive into 20 years of statistics, logging efforts to achieve racial and ethnic diversity in what stubbornly remains the whitest corner of the STEM world.

“It turns out that the geosciences are the least racially and ethnically diverse of the sciences,” Macdonald said. She added that their paper was inspired by a previous article in Nature Geoscience that revealed that there was no progress in geoscience Ph.D. degrees in racial and ethnic diversity in 40 years.

“That paper had an incredible effect on the geosciences, and it was perhaps not the positive impetus that the authors intended it to be,” Lockwood said. “A lot of people who’ve worked in JEDI — justice, equity, diversity and inclusion — felt it was a crushing blow. It was when many members of the earth science community fully realized that we had fallen behind other STEM fields such as engineering, computer science and physics.”

In comparison to Ph.D. programs, Lockwood, Macdonald, and their coauthors found that the nation’s undergraduate geoscience departments are doing a bit better, but both say there is room for improvement. Their paper notes that the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to students of color and Hispanic/Latinx students tripled from 1998 to 2018.

But the paper points out that the lion’s share of that tripling is represented by one racial/ethnic group. The percentage of geoscience graduates identifying as Hispanic/Latinx went from 3 percent in 1998 to 10 percent in 2018. That growth is greater than Hispanic/Latinx degrees throughout the physical sciences (5 to 12 percent) and even beats the 20-year growth for all bachelor’s degrees combined. A bright spot was among associate degrees, usually offered by community colleges, which marked higher diversity augmented by a similar 3-factor increase for Hispanic/Latinx and students of color over the same period.

Lockwood, Macdonald and their co-authors — Rachel J. Beane, of Bowdoin College; Eric M. D. Baer, of Highline College; John R. McDaris, of Carleton College; Vernon R. Morris, of Arizona State University; I. Joshua Villalobos, of El Paso Community College; and Lisa D. White, of the University of California, Berkeley — unpack various aspects of data they’ve extracted from the Integrated Postsecondary Data System.

For instance, they explain that the Hispanic/Latinx degrees were clustered in institutions that serve areas with higher populations of those groups. Also, native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were included among Asians before 2008, the same year in which a “two or more races” category was introduced. Such changes in classification blur the picture somewhat, but those groups showed minimal or no gain in representation over 20 years.

Their figures also show a bare blip of an increase in Black geoscience bachelor’s degrees. The 20-year period covered by the paper shows Black geoscience bachelor’s degrees went up by a single percentage point, from 2 percent to 3 percent. And, just as was found in the data for Latinx graduates, many of the degrees were clustered among a few institutions.

Two-fifths of geoscience programs fail to graduate more than one student from a marginalized group per year. Macdonald said that students in these programs will likely find that they are the only member of their racial or ethnic group in a class. She added that knowing the number of geoscience students from marginalized racial and ethnic groups who receive degrees at each institution is helpful because this context can contribute to fostering students’ sense of belonging and their persistence in science programs.

William & Mary’s Department of Geology conducts an undergrad-only program, offering no graduate-level degrees. Along with community college departments, such programs function as feeders to various graduate programs as well as the burgeoning job market for geosciences graduates at all levels.

Their paper discusses the need for geoscience educators to up their game in the effort to make the field more inclusive and welcoming.

“We must acknowledge the varied pathways and entry points students take in a geoscience course of study and encourage mentoring that is flexible and adaptable at all career stages,” the paper states in its conclusion. “We will need to attract an inclusive student body, diversify the faculty, create accessible and inclusive learning environments, and ensure that all students feel they belong and are prepared for academic and career success in the geosciences.”

This paper doesn’t focus on specific recommendations for making progress toward more diverse geoscience departments. But Lockwood and Macdonald say there are a number of concrete initiatives that they’re taking to increase diversity at William & Mary, starting with a strategic approach to those “varied pathways and entry points” mentioned in the paper.

“Geology is a ‘discovery’ major at college,” Macdonald explained. “A few students come to William & Mary being interested in geology, but most of our majors learn about it by taking one of our introductory courses.”

Faculty can make the geosciences more appealing to undergraduates by being aware of potential bumpy spots. Lockwood points out that geosciences cover a vast array of disciplines and sub-disciplines. Consequently, “fieldwork” doesn’t necessarily have to resemble “field work,” she said.

“Some geologists spend a fair amount of time digging, but most geologists don’t,” Lockwood said.

Lockwood said that her student who found that fieldwork brought on painful associations didn’t completely abandon the environmental sciences: he’s now in one of the country’s top environmental law programs. But she adds that the student’s reaction illustrates the opportunity for geosciences faculty to identify an easily avoided cultural obstacle by putting fieldwork in its proper perspective.

“I think fieldwork is a barrier that geology departments have not historically been aware of,” she said. The opportunity to go out in the field and do geology is a key selling point for many earth science programs, she added, featured in brochures, web pages and discussed in intro classes.

“What we’ve tried to do at William & Mary is to give it equal time with lab work and demystify camping and hiking skills. Because in reality, we get to go out in the field a few weeks a year, ” Lockwood explained.

She added that students who do remain interested in trying traditional fieldwork sometimes worry about the cost of gear — special pants, boots etc. “But, honestly, you can do geology in tennis shoes and jeans,” Lockwood said. “Some students have this conception that they have to spend all this money — which they don’t have— on equipment.”

While they’re de-mystifying fieldwork, William & Mary geologists are emphasizing awareness of microaggressions. For example, Lockwood explained that innocuous-seeming questions such as “Where are you from?” can put off students of color. She also said that geology faculty put in a fair amount of time rehearsing the pronouns and pronunciation of student names.

“A lot of our students change their names in their time in college; they're exploring and discovering themselves,” Lockwood said. “And so, we want to be paying attention to that and making sure that we're not mispronouncing names or misgendering them. It’s a big way of signaling to students that you value their culture, and you value them as individuals.”

Both Macdonald and Lockwood point out that while their department is still working at increasing racial and ethnic diversity, the William & Mary geologists have made progress in other areas of inclusion, notably diversity of genders and sexuality. The department has been ranked, for several decades, one of the top undergraduate programs for recruiting and retaining students who identify as women in the geosciences.

Macdonald said the department has made a point to incorporate “scientist spotlights” in some introductory courses and to make sure they’re incorporating the work of scientists who are not only from outside William & Mary, and who also represent diverse peoples and backgrounds. The department also works hard to invite speakers from minoritized populations for department seminar series and career panels.

“Diverse in terms of race. And diverse in ethnicity,” she said.