GeoPaths mentor and students study out in the field

GeoPaths Field Program Exposes Minority Students to the Geosciences

The Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences (EES) at Rutgers University–Newark has long championed inclusion in the geosciences with an array of programs recruiting underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. This summer is no exception, as the department spearheads three such programs during the warmest months of the year.

The first of these, the GeoPaths Field Experience, recently took place in central Pennsylvania at the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory, near Penn State University, and was led by EES Associate Professor Kristina Keating.

For two weeks in mid-May and early June, Keating and her staff of five decamped to an area near Rothrock State Forest with first- and second-year undergraduates from a handful of universities and community colleges in the region, including RU-N. There the group of mostly minority students gained exposure to introductory geophysics techniques, using various geophysical tools to see underground without digging and then characterizing the different areas they studied.

Two of the 16 participants came from RU-N. Selena Caguana, a rising sophomore from Newark, is a member of the Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC). Destinie Molenaar, who is transferring from Passaic County Community College and starting at RU-N as a junior in the fall, also will be part of HLLC. The rest of the cohort came from Temple University, Dickenson College and Penn State Brandywine, along with Passaic County Community College and the County College of Morris.

By and large, the students had no prior exposure to geology or geoscience courses. Some hadn’t declared a major, while others are majoring in biology, economics, and engineering, along with environmental sciences and geology.

“They were exposed to stuff they’ve never seen, concepts not taught usually until junior or senior year of college,” says Keating. “Yet these students were so immersed and engaged. It was a pleasure to work with them.”

These students were so immersed and engaged. It was a pleasure to work with them.

Keating ran the program with one other faculty advisor plus four peer mentors: graduate students and upper-level undergraduates from Temple and RU-N. Professors from Temple and Penn State also joined them for part of the fortnight.

During that time, the students worked together to explore the shallow subsurface of the earth’s Critical Zone, the thin veneer of its continental surface that spans from the top of the vegetation canopy through soil to subsurface depths at which fresh groundwater freely circulates.

According to Keating, this zone has important implications regarding natural resources, agriculture, food-safety, and the general impact we have on the environment.

“It’s the part of earth we interact with and the region in which water moves as water vapor, surface water and water in soil,” she says. “That’s what makes it ‘critical’.”

The group went out into the field for six hours a day to learn theory and work with ground penetrating radar, electrical resistivity tomography, and seismic refraction equipment to “see” underground.

With the latter, they set up a line of 24 spike-shaped geophone sensors pushed into the ground at 2-meter intervals, connected them to a computer, and then hammered an 8-by-8-inch metal plate at various points along the line, sending soundwaves into the ground to be recorded by the geophones and picked up by the computer. They did this to determine the location and depth of bedrock.

Using the ground penetrating radar, they sent waves into the subsurface that reflected upward and were picked up by antennae. The students then saw the radar signals on tablet screens they toted while surveying the forest floor to monitor changes in the soil’s water content over time and space.

After returning from the field, they attended visualization sessions, where they examined and interpreted the data. And when they weren’t out in the field studying, the students spoke with critical-zone scientists about careers in the geosciences. They also bonded through team-building exercises in a nearby High Ropes Challenge Course, which was a key part of the program.

GeoPaths students examine data from the field“I gained great research experience in the field, along with more confidence and better communication and teamwork skills,” says Molenaar. “This was an amazing experience because not only did I learn about geosciences, but I also had amazing mentors who were passionate about their work, had a great sense of humor and got me through the two weeks.”

The GeoPaths Field Experience Program is supported by a 3-year $380K grant from the National Science Foundation and is a collaboration between RU-N, Penn State University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and Dickinson College. This was the first year of the grant.

“We had a really diverse group bringing diverse perspectives into the intensive. But beyond that program goal, and our desire to build confidence in these students, we wanted to impress upon them that we not only value ideas from all participants but that everyone brings strengths to the group, and promoting and listening to those is vital,” says Keating. “By all measures it was a success, and it was great to see them work together so well.”