Providing more informal outdoor science activities and reaching out to parents could help reverse historically low numbers of Hispanic students majoring in geosciences, University of Arizona researchers say.
"Students reported that outdoor experiences were important parts of their decision to major in geoscience," said Philip J. Stokes, a doctoral candidate in the UA Department of Geosciences. "Informal outdoor activities pave the way for students to see geoscience as a prospective major and career option. We know from existing literature that Hispanic youth spend less time outdoors than white youth."
Stokes was the lead researcher on a paper published in this month's issue of GSA Today titled "Why are there so few Hispanic students in geoscience?" Stokes' co-authors are Roger Levine of Redwood City, Calif., and UA geosciences professor Karl W. Flessa.
According to the National Science Foundation, geosciences has the least ethnic and racial diversity of all the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Of the 200 undergraduate students majoring in geosciences at the UA, 17 are Hispanic.
To gather data, Stokes and his colleagues used the Critical Incident Technique to interview 29 former UA geosciences undergraduates. This technique elicits reports of "critical incidents" in a person's past that influenced his or her actions, decisions and attitudes. The researchers identified 881 critical incidents from the students' interviews.
The researchers then classified these incidents as positive, supporting the student's decision to major in geoscience, or negative, deterring a student from the major.
Hispanic students had twice as many critical incidents relating to familial factors during college than did white students. Although Hispanic and white students showed no significant difference in the number of positive critical incidents, Hispanic students reported five times more negative familial incidents.
That led the researchers to believe that, for Hispanic students, a family's influence might play a bigger role.
"We can't expect that convincing a student that geoscience is a good choice is enough to get the student into the major. We need to talk to the family too," Stokes said. "We need to let families know that geosciences is a prestigious, well-paying field and employers are recruiting for geologists."
To reverse the under-representation of Hispanic geosciences majors, the research team recommends involving the student's family in the recruiting process.
The research team also recommends advertising existing science outreach events directly to Hispanic families and working with community and school groups to create more informal outdoor science activities for Hispanic students.
"Geosciences is the least diverse of all the science, technology, engineering and math fields. While that's been known for a long time, there's not been much change," Flessa said. "So, instead of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, we've identified an approach that could make a difference: reach out to families too."