Expert Report

Preparing the Next Generation of Earth Scientists: An Examination of Federal Education and Training Programs (2013)

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Federal agencies play a key role in educating the next generation of earth scientists, offering programs that attract students to the field, support them through formal education, or provide training for an earth science career. The report examines 25 federal earth science education programs, describes ways to evaluate the success of these programs, and identifies opportunities for leveraging federal education resources. A centerpiece of the report is a conceptual framework for thinking about these programs as part of a larger system. In this framework, individuals become aware of earth science, then engage in learning about the Earth and the nature of earth science, and finally prepare for a career by acquiring specialized knowledge, skills, and expertise and by exploring different employment options. The framework shows how the various education opportunities fit together and where stronger or more visible connections are needed to move students along earth science pathways to careers. Federal agencies can also use the framework to identify gaps, overlaps, and imbalances in existing programs; to identify potential partners in other agencies or organizations; and to inform program evaluation for individual projects.

Key Messages

  • Federal agencies offer earth science education programs for a variety of purposes, including supporting agency missions and helping to build a pool of potential recruits.
  • The federal earth science education and training programs considered in this report provide a range of opportunities and experiences that engage individuals in the field and prepare them for employment. Although these programs operate independently, they can be thought of as part of a larger system that moves individuals along a path to an earth science career.
  • A conceptual framework was developed to describe this system of education opportunities and experiences. In this framework, individuals become aware of earth science through formal education or informal learning, then actively engage in learning the discipline, and finally acquire knowledge, skills, and expertise needed for a career.
  • The particular pathway individuals will take through the framework depends on their specific interests, the educational and career opportunities available to them, and the needs and expectations of their families. Understanding these different populations and pathways could help federal agencies design awareness and engagement programs that attract and retain a wide range of individuals.
  • Stronger and more visible connections between federal, academic, and professional society programs—for example, through a central listing of available internships—would increase the visibility of earth science education opportunities and help students find a path to an earth science career. Such connections are particularly important for attracting and retaining underrepresented groups in earth science.
  • A systems approach would also help federal agencies leverage resources to recruit a diverse population of students. By mapping their diversity programs onto the conceptual framework, agencies could identify potential partners and share effective practices for attracting and retaining minority students. Collaborations with professional societies focused on diversity, such as the National Association of Black Geoscientists, could help connect minority students to education and training opportunities and available positions. Coalitions of partners from federal agencies, private companies, universities, and professional societies would stretch federal dollars and bring a wide range of expertise to bear on the common goal of increasing diversity.
  • In a time of reduced budgets, it is important for federal agencies to invest in education programs that are effective. Program evaluations provide a means and rationale for determining whether and why a program is succeeding. Such evaluations focus on understanding program goals, establishing criteria for success, and gathering data on program performance.
  • For the evaluation process, logic models provide a useful mechanism for helping program managers define who the program is trying to reach, what it is trying to achieve, what resources it requires, and how to turn program resources into near-term and long-term results.
  • Some programs considered in this report have demonstrated success through formal evaluations. Other programs may also be successful, but have not collected the data necessary to make this determination or to understand how to improve, sustain, or expand the effort.