The community college students making their mark in the geosciences

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Over the last six years, Professor John Fountain and the Geosciences faculty at North Carolina State University (NC State), have been working with Professor Gretchen Miller and colleagues at Wake Technical Community College (Wake Tech) to provide valuable research experience to students in an attempt to attract more people to the field of geosciences. Their Diversity in Geosciences – Making a Pathway to Success programme, or DIG-MAPS, targets first-year students who without the programme might not have considered a career in this field
Adam Lee Dustin Travels
Adam Lee and Dustin Travels working on a project evaluating the effect of beavers on a local stream.
Students at Wake Technical Community College (Wake Tech), North Carolina, are being encouraged to consider a career in geosciences, thanks to the work of the geosciences faculty at North Carolina State University (NC State). Led by Professor Gretchen Miller at Wake Tech and Professor John Fountain at NC State, the two institutes are working together through their programme DIG-MAPS (Diversity in Geosciences – Making a Pathway to Success). The programme aims to bring a higher number of students from diverse backgrounds into the field by showing them the career potential of geosciences and by getting them involved in undergraduate research. Fountain, Miller and their colleagues hope to pique the interest of students who initially may have only started studying geosciences to satisfy an education requirement through the summer research and providing them with training in research safety and ethics.

Wake Tech is the largest two-year college in North Carolina
and has a highly diverse student bodyQuote_brain

Around 60 students have participated in the programme over the six years it has been running. Many of these students have gone on to have highly successful academic lives with at least one going on to do Masters research and others entering careers in the geosciences. The students seem to truly value the experience, with many realising a passion for the subject.
Hands-on experience
Wake Tech is the largest two-year college in North Carolina and has a highly diverse student body. However, before 2012, students at Wake Tech did not seem interested in pursuing geoscience further, with many taking an introductory course only to satisfy a science education requirement. NC State, on the other hand, found that their geosciences department lacked the diversity that could be seen at Wake Tech. In an attempt to rectify this, Professor Fountain outlined a new programme, DIG-MAPS, to generate interest in previously underrepresented student groups and increase the number of students transferring to NC State to continue their studies in geosciences.
When first approached by Professor Fountain six years ago, some faculty members at NC State were sceptical of the ability of community college students to undertake such research but have since embraced the programme. Over the years more than a dozen faculty members have volunteered project ideas for the students to take up, showcasing the wide range of topics encompassed by geoscience. Projects can include topics from marine sciences, geology and even palaeontology.

Chanelle McArthur using aRaman Spectrometer
student Chanelle McArthur using a Raman Spectrometer to determine the composition of microplastic fibres from a local river (the Neuse River).
Over the six years since the programme began, interest from students has grown dramatically with around ten new students joining the programme each year; a trend that Professors Fountain, Miller and others at NC State and Wake Tech are keen to see continue. By offering a new experience, where students are given responsibility for their own time and work, Fountain, Miller and the other staff involved in the project have seen a rise in the number of geoscience majors transferring to NC State, with over 90% of the students involved in the DIG-MAPS programme indicating they intend to major in geosciences.
A novel approach
DIG-MAPS differs from similar programmes in that it targets students from a community college, rather than students whose research careers are more advanced. The students are given the opportunity to participate in individual research at NC State over the summer. The work can be tailored to their own schedules allowing students to maintain other jobs, which allows participation of those who could not afford a full-time commitment. The programme takes a hands-on approach, encouraging students to go out into the field to conduct their own research outside of the classrooms they are used to. This takes place over the summer, at the end of which they are asked to prepare an abstract for publication and present their work at a poster session at NC State. This session also includes students from the university’s undergraduate student body.

Some faculty members were sceptical of the ability of community college students to undertake such research but have since embraced the programmeQuote_brain

 Amanda Crenshaw DIG-MAPS project.
Student Amanda Crenshaw working on her DIG-MAPS project.
The costs of research supplies are covered by NC State and each student involved is paid a salary based on their hours worked. This is an important consideration to make the programme accessible to students who need to work alongside their studies. Students taking part in DIG-MAPS are also given the opportunity to attend outreach programmes where they can work to communicate science to a range of different people, including professional gatherings of scientists and high school students. In this way the students develop socialisation and communication skills alongside the practical skills they gain from their work; they are equipped with the experience and knowledge they will need to continue a career in scientific research.
A future in geoscience
Those that do move on to major in geosciences at NC State are able to get involved with DIG-MAPS in subsequent years, acting as mentors to new students. This continuing support has allowed students to form their own community which they are using to promote the programme to others. The coordinators of DIG-MAPS have also expanded the programme in a new separate grant that includes paleontological fieldwork through the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
Association Environmental Engineering Geologists (AEG) Wake Tech Student Chapter
The first elected officers of the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists (AEG) Wake Tech Student Chapter: Amber Malik, Amanda Crenshaw, Jeffrey Weis, Dustin Travels (left to right). The Wake Tech chapter was the first to be approved for a two-year college, thanks to the efforts of the students.
A typical community college student is unlikely to have encountered experiences like those offered through DIG-MAPS. Professors Fountain and Miller are providing those taking part with a working knowledge of how research is conducted, written up and presented to a wider audience – skills which are impossible to learn from a textbook. With the continued support and development of DIG-MAPS, students at both Wake Tech and NC State have bright academic futures ahead of them.
What inspired you to start the DIG-MAPS programme?
The programme was developed to increase diversity in the geosciences. I thought that since there were excellent career opportunities in geology, and much of the work was highly relevant to society, if students were made aware of the opportunities and exposed to the excitement of research more students from underrepresented groups would consider a geosciences major.
How does the work the students do prepare them for further study?
The research experience always provides significant improvements in students’ understanding of science, of how to develop a question, how to design a study, and how to interpret data. Students also are given specific training in poster preparation, abstract writing and experience in presenting oral explanations of their work. In addition, almost all work is part of a team as students work with a faculty member and often with graduate students and/or other undergraduates; development of teamwork skills is an important advantage in life.
Is the programme achieving what it first set out to do?
The programme’s objectives were to attract more students to geosciences and specifically more students from underrepresented groups; it has been spectacularly successful in both objectives. Our target was ten students per year, we met that target every year after the first year (there were nine the first year) with many more applying. Nearly every student who completed the summer research plans on majoring in geosciences. The programme included a very diverse group; about 30% of the participants in the last two years were from under-represented groups.

Nearly every student who completed the
summer research plans on majoring in geosciencesmajor geosciences

Why do you think it is important to engage these students in geosciences?
Increasing diversity in geosciences is important for two primary reasons: unemployment is much higher in underrepresented groups so steering them toward a field that offers excellent employment opportunities is of obvious value; secondly, diversity within any field has been shown to be of great value through adding perspective and expanding the field of potential scientists.
What do you hope to achieve next with DIG-MAPS?
DIG-MAPS is in its final year, we (the same Wake Tech/NC State group) applied for a new grant based on the success of DIG-MAPS and were funded by NSF for three more years. The new programme contains the same research opportunities plus some expanded opportunities through the inclusion of the NC Museum of Science.

Research Objectives
The DIG-MAPS (Diversity in Geosciences – Making a Pathway to Success) programme aims to increase diversity in the geosciences.

  • National Science Foundation (NSF)


  • Adrianne Leinbach
  • Stephanie Rollins
  • Sara Rutzky

Professor John FountainProfessor Fountain studied for his MS and PhD in Geology (Geochemistry) at University of California at Santa Barbara before moving to the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1975. Here he was promoted successive times, becoming Chair of department in 1999. He moved to North Carolina State University in 2011 where he is now Professor Emeritus.
Professor Gretchen MillerProfessor Gretchen Miller completed her BA at the State University of New York at Buffalo followed by an MA in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. After several years of commercial experience, she moved to Wake Technical Community College in 2003 where she is now a Professor of Geology. Professor Miller is a North Carolina Licensed Geologist.
John Fountain
Professor Emeritus and Research Professor
Marine Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
NC State University
Campus Box 8208
2150 Jordan Hall
Raleigh, NC 27695
T: +1 919 515 3717

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