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Strategy for Developing a Program for Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences (NSF 01-53)


Statistical data confirm underrepresentation of women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native-Americans/Native-Alaskans and persons with disabilities in science and engineering in general, and in the geosciences in particular. The geoscience community is not availing itself of the talents and skills of a large and increasing segment of society, i.e. individuals from underrepresented groups. There is a need for the Directorate for Geosciences to take leadership in actively addressing the problem.

The Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) has held several workshops examining geoscience education and the lack of diversity in the geosciences community. The most recent of these workshops was held August 14 and 15, 2000. The primary recommendation of the workshop was that the Directorate should proceed with developing a program to specifically address underrepresentation in the geosciences. The workshop's recommendations for the objectives of the proposed program were prioritized and are presented here as a strategy for establishing a new program "Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences."

The workshop identified two goals for the program. The primary goal should be to increase participation in geoscience education and research by members of groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in geoscience disciplines. An important but secondary goal grows out of this primary goal, to enhance the understanding of the geosciences and their contribution to modern society by a broad and diverse segment of the population.

Three objectives stated in the report recognize activities that will lead to an effective program for diversity in the geosciences. These focus on increasing research opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented groups, and enhancing infrastructure for institutions that serve minority populations. Strongly supported is the idea of collaborations between research institutions and minority serving institutions as well as two and four year colleges with large minority populations.

The report and this strategy emphasize the roles of the professional community and professional societies in addressing underrepresentation in the geosciences.


"As with most of the sciences, women and specific ethnic groups continue to be under-represented in geosciences. GEO encourages and supports efforts to engage individuals from these groups in geoscience research and education. GEO will increase its efforts to address the under-representation of women and minorities in the geosciences by encouraging their active participation in its programs."
  — NSF Geosciences Beyond 2000 (NSF 00-27)


The National Science Foundation (NSF) has an express mandate from Congress to promote the full use of human resources in science and engineering. The Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act of 19801 gives NSF broad authority to assist in "full development and use of the science and engineering talents of men and women, equally, of all ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds," as well as those talents of persons with disabilities. NSF has undertaken a number of programs with the aim of bringing members of underrepresented groups2 into science and engineering. Very few of these programs have engaged the geoscience community directly.

That the problem of underrepresentation spans the sciences and has broader implications for the future of the scientific workforce cannot be denied. The Workforce of the Future report examines the projected human resources and the anticipated requirements and argues for a diverse scientific workforce that more closely resembles the U.S. population as a whole. The report states that, "Demographics alone tell us that we live already in a far more diverse society than the 1960s and the population of the United States will be even more diverse in the next 10 or 20 years. If we are going to prosper as a nation in the 21st century we desperately need the talents of all our citizens, especially those groups underrepresented in science and engineering."3

Statistical data confirm underrepresentation in science and engineering in general and in the geosciences in particular, highlighting the need to actively address the problem. Enrollment in undergraduate programs by underrepresented groups has accelerated in the last decade, but only about 7.7 percent of African-Americans and 6.4 percent of Hispanics earn bachelors degrees in science and engineering fields. At the master's degree level, in all science and engineering fields the portion of degrees earned by underrepresented groups has increased over the last two decades. Underrepresented groups earn almost 15 percent of the total bachelor's degrees granted in science and engineering, but they earn only 4.6 percent of all BS degrees in geosciences. At the master's and doctorate levels, the percentages for underrepresented groups earning degrees in geosciences are 3.3 percent and 5 percent respectively of the total earned. This may be measured against the fact that underrepresented groups earn 10.6 percent of all masters' degrees in science and engineering and 8.2 percent of doctorate degrees in the same pool. As a group, African-American, Hispanic-Americans and Native-Americans represent only about 4.9 percent of employed Ph.D. scientists and engineers.4

While the geosciences have pursued several critical efforts directed to underrepresented populations, the need for additional effort is clear. The Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) has funded individual projects, but there has been no program within GEO with the mission of addressing the entire problem of underrepresentation in the geosciences. In a recent strategy document, NSF Geosciences Beyond 2000 (NSF 00-27), GEO affirmed the need to strengthen the presence of women and underrepresented groups in the geosciences community by encouraging their active participation in its programs.5

GEO will substantially increase its support for focused activities designed to provide students from underrepresented groups with opportunities to learn about and participate in geoscience research. It is recognized that some of the most challenging and exciting research topics today are found at the intersections of disciplines and subdisciplines. A diverse workforce enables quality research by bringing a variety of perspectives to bear on given topics. "Only by having the broadest range of views and approaches can we hope to achieve solutions to highly complex problems."6


The Directorate for Geosciences has acknowledged underrepresentation in the geosciences for some time. A 1996 report on education in the geosciences, Geoscience Education: A Recommended Strategy (NSF 97-171) encourages action addressing underrepresentation of minorities and women in the geosciences. The report recommends that,"GEO should continue to recognize the problem of underrepresentation of minorities and women in the geosciences, and should increase its efforts to correct this problem by encouraging participation of people from these groups in all of its programs."7 A second recommendation is that GEO should pursue an initiative with the Education and Human Resources Directorate (EHR) and with geosciences-oriented federal agencies to establish state of the art geosciences programs at a few institutions with large minority student enrollments.8

The Geosciences Diversity Working Group convened at NSF on May 18 and 19, 1999, and examined the status of underrepresented groups in the geosciences. But no targeted programs grew out of the meeting, and funding for diversity programs within the geosciences continued on an ad hoc basis.

Another workshop was held at the National Science Foundation on August 14 and 15, 2000, as the initial step in developing a geosciences program to advance diversity. The workshop report, included here as appendix a, provides the framework for a program to support projects that directly address underrepresentation in the geosciences. Gender issues were not addressed by the workshop since NSF is developing a cross-directorate program, ADVANCE, with a focus on gender equity. It is intended, however, that gender equity be addressed in the future, once the scope of ADVANCE is evident.

The workshop was convened to enlist the participation of leaders in the community who had broad backgrounds in education and research coupled with considerable experience in developing and managing diversity-enhancing activities. The participants considered best practices to incorporate these into planning the next generation of programs. Additional input was requested from the geosciences community via e-mail. There were over 40 responses. Background material for the workshop included a summary of statistical information on participation in the geosciences by underrepresented groups at various educational and professional levels. A review and discussion of diversity-enhancing activities by other funding agencies, professional societies, and the various NSF directorates were also included.

The workshop discussions resulted in a report (appendix a) that identifies goals of a proposed GEO program to address diversity, the attributes of a successful program, and suggests short-term and long-term actions needed to increase the participation of underrepresented groups at all levels in the geoscience community.


The primary goal of the program is:

to increase participation in geosciences education and research by members of groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in geoscience disciplines.

An important but secondary goal arises from the primary goal:

to enhance the understanding of the geosciences and their contribution to modern society by a broad and diverse segment of the population.

This secondary goal acknowledges that most students who are introduced to the geosciences will not choose a career in geosciences. Increasing the numbers of students from underrepresented groups who are exposed to the geosciences will, however, lead to generally broader awareness of the geosciences among the target groups. Students who elect not to continue with a geoscience career will attain a fuller understanding of the importance and the excitement of the geosciences, and will carry that knowledge with them through life and into other professions.


Three separate but interrelated objectives for the program grew out of the workshop discussions. It is likely that a successful project funded by the program may include all three. The objectives are listed below in priority order. Activities under each objective are directed to creating an interest in the geosciences in underrepresented groups, retaining students from underrepresented groups in the geosciences, encouraging greater participation in geoscience careers, and, in general, broadening geoscience literacy among underrepresented groups.

Objective No. 1.
  • Increase opportunities for geosciences research experiences for students, undergraduate and graduate, from underrepresented groups.

Research opportunities stimulate interest in geosciences as a career and assist in maintaining and extending that interest while cultivating relevant skills. This objective calls for developing research opportunities in geosciences for underrepresented groups at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Programs should include bona fide research projects that include the key elements of hypothesis development, experimental design, execution and analysis of project, technical writing and presentation of results. There should be an emphasis on critical thinking and creativity in all activities. Programs should offer multiple-year participation by undergraduate students and should include effective use of role models, mentors, and near-peer mentors.

Graduate level participation in research prior to formal enrollment in a graduate program would allow students to strengthen research skills and would allow students with degrees in related fields to become more familiar with the geosciences as a potential career.

Objective Number 2.
  • Facilitate the establishment, development and enhancement of geosciences educational and research capabilities in minority serving institutions (MSIs).

Infrastructure support is often lacking at MSIs. Establishing independent research capabilities will allow for more geosciences research opportunities for students. In addition, assistance in enhancing math and physics preparation will further development of the tools necessary to geosciences. This objective could include faculty or student exchanges between partnering institutions, as well as assisting curriculum development at MSIs at the core curriculum or advanced curricula levels.

Objective Number 3.
  • Foster educational and research partnerships/collaborations/exchanges between and among the following: minority serving institutions, traditional majority serving institutions (i.e. two and four-year colleges, universities) research centers, professional and industrial organizations.

This objective emphasizes partnerships between research institutions, including universities, and minority-serving institutions, as well as colleges and universities located in areas with large minority populations. Programs should take advantage of existing networks among minority scientists, but should also emphasize creative partnerships in which each institution contributes. Activities could include research opportunities at major research institutions; research collaborations between two-year institutions or MSIs with research intensive institutions; undergraduate research support at MSIs and two-year institutions; enhancement of the pre-service geosciences curriculum for teachers; and encouraging the involvement of geoscience researchers at MSIs as visiting faculty. An activity that merits exploration is 2+2+2 partnerships that focus on geosciences education collaborations among high schools, two year colleges and four year colleges and universities.

Developing geosciences teaching opportunities that increase exposure, interest, choice, preparation, and performance of students, faculty, and research scientists will also further this objective. Examples include adjunct or visiting professorships, distance learning opportunities and lecture series, and development of geoscience collaborations that link programs, students, and mentors both horizontally and vertically.


The following activities were identified as having the potential to increase the likelihood of success for the program.

  • The Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences program must be a long-term effort requiring prolonged commitment to achieve success. There is a base at present from which to begin, but Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences must be developed through establishing new and innovative activities, as well as improving and refining existing ones.

  • Projects undertaken by this program should be firmly grounded in geosciences research. The excitement of the study of the earth and its components must be communicated to students in a meaningful and impressive manner. Geoscience research provides stimulating scientific research opportunities and outstanding facilities - ships, radars and planes - to attract and retain students from all groups.

  • Students must be given information about how the study of the geosciences translates into real world opportunities, and on the careers that rely on knowledge of the environment and the processes that govern it. Students, especially students from underrepresented groups, often do not have information about the careers that may be available to them based on their major. Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences must aim for retention of underrepresented groups in the geosciences, and much of that effort will rely on the reality of workplace opportunities.

  • To be successful over the long term, progress must be made in building and rewarding leadership. An anticipated long-term and highly positive effect of the program will be the development of a community of geoscientists/educators who will be dedicated to improving diversity in the geosciences. This community must be extremely broad, including faculty, students, administrators, professional organizations, and private foundations, other government agencies and industry partners. Programs that succeed are characteristically built around the commitment, dedication, and personal energy of key individuals. Recognition and rewards for leaders will be significant components in maintaining this commitment over time. Recruiting and apprenticing new leaders will ensure that the community persists and becomes broader.

  • An obligation of the Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences program is to foster projects and environments that increase cultural competencies for all. Cultural competence is the ability to relate and communicate effectively with individuals who do not share the same culture, ethnicity, language or other salient variables. This quality is essential to fostering the long-term institutional change that will sustain diversity in the future.

  • Institutions should demonstrate that they value and place priority on policies that enhance diversity. Progress in enhancing diversity will call for institutional change. There must be substantial commitment of institutional funds, facilities and personnel. Professional staff should value diversity as a positive contribution to better decision-making and research. Diversity-enhancing activities should be considered in promotion, tenure, and hiring decisions. Full institutional support of diversity will allow for creation of opportunities for programs and projects to be led by an individual who has a full-time commitment and who is rewarded professionally for support of development of diversity.

  • The geosciences should learn more from social science about how members of underrepresented groups choose careers. As part of this diversity program, GEO should consider funding research on why students from underrepresented groups do not participate in the geosciences. Such a study could potentially benefit from examining what attracted the small number of geoscientists from underrepresented groups presently in the field. Knowledge derived from this research would be employed in future strategic decisions for the Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences program.


The GEO diversity program must be broad enough to encompass projects that range from individual principal investigator efforts, to individual organizations, to multi-institutional or to multi-state efforts. The Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences program should request proposals that emphasize the following characteristics.

Collaborations are viewed as a significant means of leveraging limited funds and having the greatest impact. Efforts should be made to partner with other NSF Directorates, other federal agencies, professional societies, nonprofits and industry in activities to facilitate common interests in enhancing diversity.

Effectively Identifying Target Audiences
Action is needed at all educational levels to increase the likelihood that students from underrepresented groups will choose the geosciences as a career. Given the goals of the program and the three objectives stated above, however, first priority must be given to activities that focus on the undergraduate level and the transition from undergraduate to graduate school. There are activities, however, for all groups that may contribute to goals of the program.

Undergraduate Level - Activities at this level encourage greater participation by underrepresented groups in geosciences while promoting retention. This is also the level at which broadening geoscience literacy is appropriate, and introductory courses for non-majors should be viewed as recruiting opportunities. A presently untapped source for potential students from underrepresented groups at this level are community colleges.

Undergraduate recruitment should reach outside the traditional geosciences courses to other related departments such as physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering and geography. Basic science courses at MSIs are potential recruiting grounds. Activities should include multi-year research experiences and mentoring. In addition to research experiences, emphasis should be placed on math and physics preparation.

Attendance at professional conferences by students and participation at the appropriate level should be stressed. There must be guidance provided for students who attend the conference in order that they can take full advantage of the opportunity. In order to maintain momentum and continuity, it is important that programs have year round aspects and connect to other research and education activities.

Graduate Level - The objective for activities at this level is to build a community in the geosciences of well-networked students from underrepresented groups. Examples of potential activities include professional society sponsorship of networking conferences for minority geoscience students. Developing new types of research and employment opportunities for students from underrepresented groups will enable them to have a first-rate research experience prior to graduate school. At this level, training that prioritizes the development of a publication record, experience in proposal development, and involvement in cutting edge research should be explicitly encouraged.

Including both undergraduate and graduate students as participants in research and planning workshops in the geosciences will more strongly connect them to the scientific community.

Pre-college - At this level, the objective is principally to broaden exposure to the geosciences for students and their communities. Target audiences include students, teachers (e.g. in-service professional development in geosciences), and administrators to explain the value of the geosciences curriculum. Projects directed to establishing K-12 teacher pre-service and in-service training in geosciences afford opportunities to leverage impact beyond the group trained.

Summer science camps and bridging programs for selected students from middle school through high school are effective means of expanding participation by underrepresented groups. The geosciences promote interdisciplinary work, which enhances many pre-college science education objectives. At this level, there should be an emphasis on developing quantitative skills as well as knowledge of geosciences, since math skills are a strong predictor of later success in obtaining a college degree.

Persons with Disabilities - The geosciences should take advantage of a mix of real world experiences (field trips and research cruises) and virtual experiences via web-based learning. This could be a very effective means to encourage participation by persons with disabilities. GEO should assist in developing tools for persons with disabilities to study the geosciences. An example of this activity would be working with professional groups to develop sign language symbols for geosciences terms. Access by persons with disabilities should be considered when geoscience facilities are being enhanced or are under development.

Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences is an important new undertaking for the geosciences. At the highest level, success will be judged by whether there is an increased pool of geoscientists from minority groups in the future. Projects funded under this program require ongoing evaluation to permit flexibility and responsiveness to changing needs.

In order to know whether the program is accomplishing its goals, assessment and evaluation are essential, both over the long-term and in shorter time scales. Present statistical databases are inadequate to assess progress in this program because they don't measure what the geosciences need to know. They do not accurately reflect geoscience participation in the educational process. Geoscientists may obtain degrees across many of the sciences as well as in engineering. Methods to assess program effectiveness must be included in individual proposal descriptions and budgets. These should include at a minimum obtaining and maintaining information on individuals participating in the program; documenting the number/type/quality of research experiences; evaluation by participants and mentors; and follow-up/tracking of participants. Scholarly productivity (papers by students/grants to students) could be a key metric in the assessment of this program.

Long-term assessment of the impact of diversity-enhancing activities will be more difficult and will require consistent gathering of statistical information over decades-long intervals, and the longitudinal tracking of the alumni from diversity-enhancing activities to mid-career.

Outreach to underrepresented groups is an extremely important activity in this program. Plans to increase public awareness of geosciences should be developed in collaboration with individuals in target groups. Results of individual diversity-enhancing projects should be shared with the geosciences community through articles, posters, and presentations at society meetings. The development and distribution of media that portray persons from underrepresented communities in geosciences related fields would be an effective means to communicate the opportunities available in the field.

Informal science education offers the opportunity to capitalize on the resources of museums, aquaria and other such institutions as tools for outreach into minority communities. Activities using facilities have the potential to provide experiences not only for students - but also for their families and indeed entire communities. Creating ties to the communities from which the students come is helpful. There are often advantages in identifying, exploring, and linking cultural heritage contributions to science. In addition, informal science education is one effective means by which teachers from underrepresented groups may be introduced to the geosciences.

NSF supported researchers should be encouraged to participate in one or more outreach activities each year. This is particularly important for minority scientists who may serve as role models. Outreach could be as simple as personal visits to local schools. Efforts could be made to involve geoscience employers, state and federal governments, tribal organizations, foundations, and industry in internships and mentoring relationships.

The professional community must actively address minority participation in geosciences. Activities that could further this goal include mentor training, promulgation of successful models, and workshops for geosciences faculty to help them work with diverse populations

Professional societies are seen as an effective means to advance diversity in the geosciences, since they attract large segments of the community and offer opportunities that cross boundaries. Attendance at professional society meetings is acknowledged as an important means of reinforcing student involvement and commitment to a career in science. For students from underrepresented groups, guided attendance at national conferences can create a feeling of inclusion and involvement that leads to retention in the geosciences. Professional society meetings can provide positive experiences, especially through student participation, and offer opportunities for networking.

appendix a.: Report of the Geosciences Diversity Workshop (August 2000)


1 42 U.S.C. 1885, et seq.
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2 Underrepresented groups are designated as such due to their presence in a lesser proportion than in the general population. In the geosciences, traditionally underrepresented groups are women, minorities (African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native-Americans/Native-Alaskans) and persons with disabilities.
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3 Workforce of the Future, National Science and Technology Council Committee on Science, 1998, page 4.
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4 National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resource Studies, Characteristics of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers in the United States: 1997 (NSF 00-308)
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5 National Science Foundation, Directorate for Geosciences, NSF Geosciences Beyond 2000, (NSF 00-27), page 41.
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6 Workforce of the Future, National Science and Technology Council Committee on Science, 1998, page v.
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7 National Science Foundation, Directorate for Geosciences, Geoscience Education: A Recommended Strategy, (NSF 97-171), page 14
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8 Ibid, page 14.
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