Earth science (defined here as excluding oceanic, atmospheric, and space science) plays a key role in the well-being of our nation, and many issues in its purview—including hydrocarbon, mineral, and water resources; the environment; and geological hazards such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions—are expected to grow in importance. Addressing these issues requires an earth science workforce that draws on the talents of all citizens, including women and minorities historically underrepresented in earth science. Federal education programs can help attract students to or retain them on an earth science pathway, but with tight funding, it is imperative for agencies to invest in programs that work. At the request of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Office of Science Quality and Integrity, the National Research Council (NRC) established a committee to carry out a study, organized around a workshop, to address the following tasks:
1. Summarize the legislative authority for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and training granted to federal agencies with substantial programs in earth science (excluding oceanic, atmospheric, and space science).
2. Examine recent earth science education programs with a research or training component, both formal and informal, in these federal agencies.
3. Identify criteria for evaluating the success of earth science education and training programs and, using these criteria and the results of previous federal program evaluations, identify examples of successful programs in federal agencies.
4. Determine what made these example programs successful (e.g., resources, themes, engagement activities, partnerships).
5. Summarize the knowledge and skills identified in recent NRC workforce reports that are needed by earth scientists in their careers.
6. Describe ways that federal agencies can leverage their earth science education and training efforts to improve their recruitment of a diverse population in both high school and college.
Information for these tasks was provided by federal agency managers and drawn from published articles and reports. Federal earth science education programs and efforts to leverage resources were
examined at a 2-day workshop attended by government, academic, and professional society managers of earth science education and outreach programs, and experts knowledgeable about education, the transition to earth science careers, and program evaluation. The committee’s main conclusions about the six tasks are summarized below.
FEDERAL EARTH SCIENCE EDUCATION PROGRAMS
Legislative Authority for STEM Education
The first task of the committee was to summarize the legislative authorities for STEM education granted to federal agencies with substantial programs in earth science. These agencies include the USGS, National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Park Service, and the Smithsonian Institution. All of these agencies have legislative authority for STEM education, although the scope of authority varies widely. For example, NASA and NOAA are authorized to support research-based programs to increase student participation in STEM, and NSF is authorized to strengthen education in all science areas covered by the foundation. A few agencies have specific authorization for earth science education programs. Examples include authorization for the USGS to support education in geologic mapping and field analysis, for DOE to promote education and training in methane hydrate resources, and for NASA to fund museum and planetarium programs related to earth science and other fields. Other earth science education programs are created to support agency missions, to help build a pool of potential recruits, or to fulfill other agency objectives.
Federal Earth Science Education Programs with a Research or Training Component
For Task 2, the committee examined 25 federal earth science education programs identified by their host agencies as having a research or training component (Box S.1). Given the research or training criterion, most agencies identified education programs aimed primarily at high school and college students. Because of time and budget constraints, the committee neither considered other programs that might fit these criteria nor culled the agency-identified programs. Although the set of programs considered in this report is not comprehensive, it covers a wide range of objectives and audiences and led the committee to develop a conceptual framework for thinking about all earth science education programs.
The earth science pathway can be thought of as a system of opportunities and experiences that attract individuals to the field and prepare them for employment. This conceptual framework is illustrated in Figure S.1. In this framework, individuals become aware of earth science, then engage in learning about the Earth and the nature of earth science, and finally prepare for a career by acquiring specialized knowledge, skills, and expertise and by exploring different employment options. The various education and training opportunities are represented by the upward-pointing polygons in Figure S.1. Some programs have multiple objectives and span more than one stage of the framework. The framework is portrayed as a triangle because more individuals will develop an interest in earth science than will become engaged in the discipline, and more will become engaged in the field than will prepare for a career.
The federal earth science education programs identified by the agencies are situated at every stage of the framework. At the awareness stage, formal education and informal learning through museums and after-school programs and clubs bring earth science to the attention of individuals and spark their interest. Examples of such activities include the USDA’s 4-H club, which works
BOX S.1 Federal Earth Science Education and Training Programs Considered in This Report
U.S. Geological Survey
• National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program (EdMap)
• Cooperative Summer Field Training Program (with the National Association of Geoscience Teachers [NAGT])
• Youth Internship Program
• Hydrologic Technician Internship Program
National Science Foundation
• Earth Science Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program
• Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences (OEDG) Program
• Earth Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowships
• Geoscience Education (GeoEd) Program
• Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program (with NOAA and NASA)
• Geoscience Teacher Training (GEO-Teach) Program
Department of Energy
• Office of Science Graduate Fellowship (SCGF) Program
• Summer of Applied Geophysical Experience (SAGE) Program
• Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) Program
• Community College Internships (CCI) Program
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
• Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) programs
U.S. Department of Agriculture
• 4-H Environmental Education/Earth Science programs
• Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) projects
• AFRI National Institute of Food and Agriculture Fellowships Grant Program
Environmental Protection Agency
• Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Undergraduate Fellowship Program
• Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Fellowship Program
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
• Educational Partnership Program (EPP) with Minority-Serving Institutions
National Park Service
• Geoscientists-in-the-Parks Program (with the Geological Society of America)
• Geoscience-Teachers-in-Parks Program (with NAGT)
• National Fossil Day
• Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform (LASER) Program
FIGURE S.1 The committee’s conceptual framework illustrating the types of education opportunities and experiences (tapering polygons) that individuals encounter along a path from awareness of earth science (base of the triangle) toward an earth science career (apex of the triangle). Polygons are not drawn to scale, but their vertical extent is intended to show that some education opportunities span more than one stage of the framework and their relative horizontal extent is intended to show that more individuals participate in awareness activities than in professional preparation activities.
to increase science awareness among youth, and the National Park Service’s National Fossil Day, which promotes public awareness of the scientific and educational value of fossils.
At the engagement stage, students actively engage in learning earth science by choosing earth science-related courses, research, clubs, or community service activities. Federal programs with engagement objectives include the USGS Youth Internship Program, which offers hands-on earth science projects, and NSF’s OEDG Program, which supports projects aimed at expanding the interest of underrepresented groups in earth science.
The transition from engagement to professional preparation occurs when an individual shifts focus from exploring earth science to acquiring job skills, knowledge, and abilities. Federally sponsored research experiences help students build skills and expertise in a specialty area (e.g., NSF’s REU Program, EPA’s GRO program, DOE’s SULI Program). Internships (e.g., USGS Hydrologic Technician Internship Program, DOE’s CCI Program) and postdoctoral positions introduce students and early-career scientists to job opportunities and employers and provide work-related skills.
Although portrayed as a linear progression, the path through the framework may be full of twists and detours, and individuals may enter or leave the path at different points and for different reasons. Research suggests that specific events, commonly called critical incidents, can lead individuals into certain educational and career paths. For example, some individuals discover an interest in earth science before they reach college, commonly through activities such as family trips
to geologically interesting areas. Others discover earth science as an attractive field of study in college or later, commonly through an outstanding introductory course. Understanding these different populations and pathways could help federal agencies design awareness and engagement programs that attract and retain a wide range of individuals in earth science.
Students are responsible for finding education opportunities that move them along a path to the workforce. Federal agencies could help students navigate a path toward an earth science career by improving program visibility and person-to-person connections among their programs. Networks that link people and programs are especially important for attracting and retaining students from underrepresented groups. A connected system of federal, academic, and professional society programs would increase the visibility of a variety of available earth science education opportunities as well as help students move from interest to employment.
Identifying Successful Programs
The committee’s third task was to develop criteria for success and then to use the criteria and the results of previous program evaluations to identify successful examples of federal earth science education programs. Because criteria for success depend on program goals, which range from raising awareness to professional preparation, no single set of criteria can be used to determine the success of all education programs considered in this report. Rather, demonstrating program success requires a comprehensive evaluation approach aimed at understanding program goals, establishing criteria for success, and gathering data to compare program performance to the criteria for success. This approach has been used to demonstrate the success of the OEDG Program, the effectiveness of the selection process for STAR fellows, and progress toward achieving EPP goals. The other federal programs considered in this report have not been formally evaluated and most were not designed to facilitate evaluation. For example, some program goals are too broad to develop criteria for success; the goals and criteria do not always match; and the criteria and data collection emphasize what is easy to measure, not what the program is trying to achieve. Although these programs may be successful, the data were too sparse and uneven in quality for the committee to make an independent determination.
The lack of suitable data for identifying successful programs underscores the importance of incorporating evaluation into program design. Logic models provide a useful mechanism for helping program managers define who the program is trying to reach, what it is trying to achieve, what resources it requires (inputs), and how to translate program resources into near-term results (outputs) and long-term outcomes. Examples of input, output, and outcome measures for programs at the awareness, engagement, and professional preparation stages of the framework are given in the body of the report, although the most useful measures will depend on each program’s particular goals. Periodic evaluations would help managers determine whether activities are aligned with program goals and the extent to which those goals are being met. Enumeration (counting participants or their characteristics), pre- and post-testing, observations of participants or providers, work product analysis, and determination of long-term plans and satisfaction with experiences are all useful tools for evaluation.
A system-level evaluation, encompassing all activities within the framework or at a stage of the framework (e.g., engagement), could be used to identify imbalances in effort and gaps, enabling agencies to determine where future education and training efforts may be useful. In such assessments, information from individual program evaluations could be aggregated and supplemented with targeted program evaluations aimed at understanding how to create effective programs. Network analysis of the programs in the system could reveal which connections among participating
organizations help move individuals through the system, and qualitative studies would help show how individuals find education and training opportunities and what they learn from them.
Why Programs Are Successful
Given the limited information available to identify examples of successful federal earth science education programs, the committee could offer only limited insight on why these programs might be successful (Task 4). The most common factors identified by federal program managers were stable funding, cost sharing, the commitment of agency managers or principal investigators, and partnerships. Agency support, community outreach, and program design (e.g., a good fit between participants and providers, flexibility, institutionalization) were viewed as important for the success of some programs. All of these factors are reasonable and consistent with workshop discussions and the literature.
KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS NEEDED FOR EARTH SCIENCE CAREERS
Task 5 was to summarize the knowledge and skills needed by earth scientists in their careers, as identified in recent NRC workforce reports. Only two NRC reports examine the earth science workforce explicitly and they only touch on the knowledge and skills required for a few subdisciplines. Emerging Workforce Trends in the U.S. Energy and Mining Industries: A Call to Action (NRC, 2013a) examines the oil and gas, mining, and geothermal energy industries. The report does not discuss specific knowledge or skills for these industries, but stresses the importance of a strong foundation in STEM—including applied mathematics, reading for information, and locating information. Future U.S. Workforce for Geospatial Intelligence (NRC, 2013b) contains a discussion of geodesy and geophysics in the context of national intelligence. Important knowledge and skills for geodesy include mathematics, the principles of gravity field theory and orbital mechanics, the propagation of electromagnetic waves, and the theory and operation of observing instruments such as Global Navigation Satellite System receivers. For geophysics, important knowledge and skills include mathematics and the principles of physics, geodesy, seismology, the structure and evolution of the Earth, the theory and measurement of the Earth’s magnetic field, and space physics. Both fields require basic interpersonal skills, effective communication, and creative thinking.
BROADENING PARTICIPATION OF UNDERREPRESENTED GROUPS
Task 6 of the committee was to describe ways federal agencies can leverage their earth science education and training efforts to improve their recruitment of a diverse population in both high school and college. A number of federal programs are aimed at increasing the ethnic, racial, and gender diversity of earth science pathways. Women, who make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, have made substantial gains in earth science over the past several decades and now receive approximately 40 percent of bachelor’s degrees. With attention to mentoring and unconscious biases, it may be possible to further narrow or eliminate the degree gap between women and men.
Increases in the number of minorities receiving earth sciences degrees have been modest. Underrepresented minorities (African American, American Indian, and Hispanic or Latino of any race) compose 30 percent of the U.S. population, but receive only about 7 percent of earth science bachelor’s degrees. Programs that raise awareness of earth science or that increase access to education and training (e.g., social and professional networks, financial assistance for study) may be especially fruitful for federal agencies looking to increase diversity. The importance of connections among programs and between programs and communities underscores the utility of thinking about
federal earth science education and training programs in the context of a system of opportunities that creates clear educational pathways for students.
A system approach would also help federal agencies leverage resources. By mapping their diversity programs onto a common conceptual framework, such as the one illustrated in Figure S.1, agencies could identify potential partners and share effective practices for attracting and retaining minority students. Collaborations with professional societies focused on diversity (e.g., National Association of Black Geoscientists) could help connect minority students to education and training opportunities, providing students with another avenue of information on available positions. Coalitions of partners from federal agencies, private companies, universities, and professional societies would stretch federal dollars and bring a wide range of expertise to bear on training the next generation of earth scientists. Although it takes time to build trust and establish common goals and approaches, such partnerships could both benefit the profession and help federal agencies meet their missions.
The 25 federal earth science education and training programs considered in this report provide a wide range of opportunities that interest students and citizens in earth science, engage students in study of the Earth, and prepare them for earth science careers. Such efforts also contribute toward meeting national goals of developing a robust, diverse earth science workforce. Widening earth science pathways requires both a variety of programs that work and connections between programs that help move students through formal and informal education to the workforce. Although some earth science education programs considered in this report have demonstrated success through rigorous evaluation approaches, others were not designed to facilitate evaluation and have not collected the data needed to determine whether they have succeeded and why. In addition, connections between programs are not yet robust.
A conceptual framework, such as the one illustrated in Figure S.1, shows how the various education opportunities fit together and where connections are needed to move students along earth science pathways. Such connections are particularly important for increasing diversity, but benefit all students as well as earth science employers. Other benefits of a conceptual framework include helping federal agencies determine where to focus effort by identifying gaps, overlaps, and imbalances of effort among programs; where to find potential partners in other agencies or organizations to share work and resources; and supporting evaluation of programs at the various stages of the framework and of the system of opportunities.