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Published October 13, 2020
Typically, when one thinks of a geoscientist, visions of an outdoorsy person come to mind. If you type in “geoscientist” photos on Google, a series of images pops up of students and researchers hiking in a canyon collecting rocks.
“This is mostly a stereotype, but it creates an implicit bias that limits recruitment of scientists with disabilities, as well as students who are not very outdoorsy, even though there are many branches of geoscience that focus on computational work,” says Dario Grana, an associate professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Geology and Geophysics.
As a result, the geosciences have suffered from a lack of diversity in the classroom, both among faculty members and students, according to Grana.
Grana has provided an opportunity to explore the topic in a new one-credit course, titled “Diversity and Inclusion in Geoscience,” that began this fall. Students have the chance to interact with a diverse group of scientists; learn about the challenges that underrepresented minorities have to face in academia, their career paths and research projects; and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that they promoted.
“The primary goal of the class is to raise awareness that lack of diversity, equity and inclusivity is a problem in our scientific community and in academia in general,” Grana says. “The lectures aim to make students think about implicit bias that we often have and don’t recognize whereas, in the discussion panels, students have the chance to learn from life experiences of scientists from underrepresented groups.”
Currently, the class, taught online through Zoom, has 20 students -- 13 of whom are graduate students, with the other seven being undergraduates. Half of the class members are female, but there are only three students who identify themselves as being from underrepresented minority groups, which reflects the student population of the department as well as the entire university, Grana says.
“The majority of the students are from geology and geophysics, but this is partially because I created the class in August and did not advertise it much on campus,” Grana explains. “This class is not required. Therefore, it is not surprising that all of the students in the class already valued diversity and inclusion. But many of them pointed out that attending the class makes them feel that they are not alone in fighting for this cause.”
Recent events, such as the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as some of the outcomes of the recent UW Diversity Campus Climate Survey, spurred Grana to create the new course.
“The systemic racism that is present in our society also is present in academia. We tend to think about academia as a bubble where nothing bad can happen, since faculty, students and staff are all educated people,” Grana says. “However, Black, Hispanic, women and LGBTQ scientists are disproportionally underrepresented in the student and faculty population, and students from underrepresented minorities are often the target of microaggressions on campus.”
From his observations, Grana offered some examples of how the geosciences are less diverse.
-- Because the geosciences traditionally are not a diverse environment, people tend to think they are less inclusive. As a result, it is harder to recruit a diverse student population. Grana says that 86 percent of those with earth science doctoral degrees are white and that only 3.8 percent of tenured/tenure-track faculty positions in the top 100 geoscience programs in the United States are held by people of color. Data cited came from a paper written by Kuheli Dutt, assistant director of academic affairs and diversity for Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, that was published in Nature Geoscience in 2016.
-- Geoscientists often travel to collect data, and students from underrepresented minorities often face challenging situations when working in rural areas, where diversity is not valued.
-- Socioeconomic disparity among students of color affects student recruitment. Students from underrepresented minorities are often first-generation college students, which poses a challenge. Grana says his department recently decided to stop using the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) as a metric for graduate student admission, because studies show that GRE scores reinforce racial inequality.
“I am a first-generation high school student, college student and Ph.D. student, which can be a cause of marginalization for many students in a nondiverse environment,” Grana says. “And, if my high school and university didn’t have an excellent mentoring and recruiting program, I would have not been able to follow my career path. The socioeconomical contest creates stereotypes that affect our decisions and aspirations.”
Grana says he will teach the course every fall. Next year, he plans to extend the course to more departments by including other science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.