A common image of geology is a person or group poised in front of a nice outcrop or panoramic scene of a classic locality. We show pictures like this on our websites and tout opportunities for students to be exposed to the field. However, the last 15 years or so have been a hard time for geology programs in many ways. Enrollments have often been down, many departments have closed or merged with others, budgets have been tight, faculty members are experiencing increasing demands on their time, and universities have become more risk adverse. During this time, field camps have closed, and the number of opportunities students have, especially undergraduates, to get into the field have been significantly reduced. My recent involvement at meetings and in committees suggests that the academic community, professional organizations, and industry, have all noticed the harmful effects of this decline in field experiences. The question is, what and how much are we doing about it?
The quote below is from the 2009 AGI (American Geological Institute) report on the status of the geoscience workforce:
Over the past 10 years, there has been a decrease in the number of departments offering traditional summer field courses. These courses, or field camps, have traditionally served as a central part of undergraduate geoscience curricula. Employers across all sectors of the geosciences continue to either require or desire field camp or comparable field experience in new hires. The overall decline in field opportunities has increased the challenge of identifying fully-qualified new hires.”
There are almost 700 schools listed in the AGI Directory of Geoscience Departments, but the report shows that only 15% of them offer summer field camps, down from 35% in 1985 and 1995. The good news is that the total number of students enrolled in a field camp has been on the rise for the past 10 years. The bad news, I suspect, is that the way this is being accomplished is by increasing student-teacher ratios, which is particularly undesirable in what is considered a capstone course in most curricula.
I believe that there are many opportunities for field experiences besides field camp, and that students are ready and willing to participate. For example, we recently found it was easy to identify 42 students from 12 different universities willing to help with a large seismic experiment in Oregon. Classes, of course, take field trips that are very effective, but we need to do more to encourage this, as money and commitment from administrators and faculty are required. There are also many summer opportunities for internships at organizations like IRIS and UNAVCO, and summer field experiences offered by industry.
The first step in a situation like this is to recognize the problem. Having done this, we now need to do more to make the problem go away. It will require effort, commitment, and resources across the geological community.