Geosciences Spotlight: Students GO FoRWARD to up diversity

Students in UWM’s new GO FoRWARD program analyze a rock outcrop where they have been examining fossils at a quarry in Racine, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Dyanna Czeck.

It’s no secret that STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – have problems with racial diversity. Of those areas, geosciences are the least diverse of all, with over 77 percent of Bachelor’s degrees in earth sciences going to white students, according to the National Science Foundation.

UWM Geosciences professors Dyanna Czeck and Margaret Fraiser are hoping to

Dyanna Czeck

change those numbers. This year marked the beginning of GO FoRWARD – a UWM program designed to introduce and encourage underrepresented minorities in the geosciences field. The acronym stands for Geosciences Opportunities with Fossils, Rocks, & Water to Attract underRepresented Discoverers.

“Science is better when there are more diverse people involved in the process. The more backgrounds, the more experience people bring to the table, and the better the process is,” Czeck said. “There is a projected shortage in the geosciences workforce in the near future, and this problem is exacerbated if we’re only recruiting from one group of people.”

GO FoRWARD is funded by a three-year National Science Foundation grant meant to foster diversity in geosciences. Czeck and Fraiser applied for the funds with help from Scott Schaefer, a lecturer at UWM and MATC, in order to broaden the participation of UWM and MATC students in geosciences. Current UWM geosciences undergraduate and graduate students act as facilitators and mentors.

The highlight of GO FoRWARD is the four-week summer program. Running from late June into July, this mini-camp hosted 12 minority students from UWM and MATC, chosen from more than 30 applicants. Participants received a stipend to help them afford working fewer hours in order to attend the sessions.

And sessions were busy. On any given day, students were leading discussions about diversity in STEM, doing field work, talking with UWM geosciences alumni about their careers, taking fieldtrips to GZA Geo Environmental Inc. in Waukesha or the Milwaukee office of the Department of Natural Resources, or putting together research presentations.

The field research was especially involved; students could choose from three projects, including measuring fractures in rock quarries, researching fossils unearthed in a quarry in Racine, or gauging output of the Fox River in Waukesha.

“We’ve been amazed at how enthusiastic the participants have been,” said Czeck.

The first cohort of the summer GO FoRWARD program smiles together on the steps of Lapham Hall. Photo courtesy of Dyanna Czeck.

“They all jumped in. The students have been great and that’s made it fun for all of us.”

One of those students is Everett Eaton, a rising junior and a Conservation and Environmental Science major. He’s interested in hydrogeology, and so chose the Fox River research project.

“It was a lot of hands-on data collection, which was really cool,” Eaton said.“We were measuring stream output on different days and points in the river – how deep it is, its speed. It’s useful because hydrogeologists have to be able to calculate pipe output from dams and water sources to homes.”

The summer program culminated in a poster presentation, just like those at scientific conferences. The students learned how to use Adobe Illustrator to create large posters explaining their research. The groups presented their work in a mini-symposium on July 12. They had an audience of current Department of Geosciences faculty, staff, and students; members of the Office of Undergraduate Research; and Daad Saffarini, Associate Dean of Natural Sciences in the College of Letters & Science.

Eaton found the experience invaluable. “Obviously geoscience is not very diverse, which can be pretty intimidating for minorities, but it doesn’t seem to have deterred anyone here,” he said. “This was a really good opportunity to try something new. It’s a really great environment to learn in too.”

The summer session has ended, but GO FoRWARD is just getting started. The program continues this academic year with meetings and conversations meant to introduce underrepresented students to each other and the field. This year’s summer cohort and any other interested students are welcome to attend these events. Next summer Czeck looks forward to hosting an even bigger cohort of students for the summer program.

“I love geosciences,” she said. “I want these students to see that geosciences is potentially a career, rather than a science class they take to fulfill a college credit.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science