Photo by Wayne Johnson
The multiple roles of community college geology programs

Community college geology programs offer lower division (Freshman/Sophomore) courses in geology to serve the needs of three principal populations in the community.

The first group includes geology majors and minors, as well as future and in-service K-12 science teachers.  In this capacity, we are essentially serving as surrogates for our colleagues at the universities.  Indeed, for many geologists, our courses in Physical and Historical Geology are the first steps in their career paths.  We work closely with our university colleagues to ensure that the students that they accept in transfer are as well trained and qualified as their own.  We are proud of the fact that our alumni include geologists in Arizona's Departments of Environmental Quality and Water Resources, geologists in the petroleum and mining industries, professors in universities and community colleges, and K-12 teachers.

Yavapai College:  The View from A Rural Community College  (photo by Sean Hagan)
Some of the advantages that geoscience programs at the community colleges offer are smaller class sizes than at the universities and access to instructors for both lectures and laboratories, unlike at the universities, where labs are typically taught by TA’s (teaching assistants) who may lack the expertise which comes with teaching experience.  Owing to both their smaller classes and locations which allow students to get “into the field” quickly, some of the community colleges are able to offer – and even require – field trips for all of their geology classes.  This is the case at Yavapai College, in Prescott, where a  well-exposed stack of multiple lava flows or a textbook example of spheroidal weathering with accompanying liesegang banding are located just minutes from the main campus.
Geology classes at the community colleges also tend to attract a much wider student demographic than those at the universities, which typically makes for much livelier and informed student discussions, since older students often bring life experiences with earth processes that younger students may not have. “My typical class has an age range of about 50 years, give or take a few”, says.  These students bring stories of earthquakes survived, floods experienced or wells gone dry that make the science come alive for those students for whom this class is their first introduction to geologic processes. 
And there is no shortage of popular issues in the media to bring our science alive to students in this state:  aquifer depletion, groundwater overdraft and the connection between surface water flow and groundwater supplies is an ever-recurring theme which we in the geosciences strive to demystify in even our most basic classes.  Small classes in which questions regarding the students’ own (local) source of water and possible threats to its supply or purity can be addressed are one of the true tangible benefits of community college geosciences programs.
Beth Nichols Boyd, Professor of Geoscience
Yavapai College, Prescott, Arizona

Another group of students consists of members of the community simply interested in geology.  A typical student in this group might live in one of Arizona’s many retirement communities and now has the time to pursue that longstanding curiosity about geology.  Such students take not only our core courses, but also find great appeal in our field courses or special topics courses. Click on the following links to see some short videos of one of GCC’s recent field courses called "Fire and Ice"! Fire and Ice - Part I, Fire and Ice - Part II, Fire and Ice - Part III

The overwhelming majority of our students, in both CCs and universities, are simply taking our lower division classes to satisfy the science requirements of the Arizona General Education Curriculum (AGEC) for nearly all Associate or Baccalaureate degree programs offered by the State’s public colleges and universities.  Geology is merely one discipline among many from which these students may choose.  I, like many of my colleagues, survey my students on the first day of classes to find out why they are taking a science course and, in particular, geology.  The most common answer to the former is “because I have to” with no real knowledge of why the requirement has been “forced upon them”.  As to why they chose geology, the most popular answers tend toward the notion that geology is perceived to be “easier” than say, physics or chemistry, and less “gross” than biology (at least in lab).  Some are not really even sure what geology is about except that it has something to do with rocks.  And for many students, a rock’s definition would fall under what most geologists would call cobble-sized clasts.

Yet this vast population of students is critically important to us for it represents not only great minds that we sometimes inspire to become geologists, but also a great number of current and future consumers and voters.  Our classes may be their only formal introduction to the topics of rock and mineral resources, energy, surface and groundwater processes, climate change, and geologic hazards.  Indeed, our courses may also be their only encounter with the philosophy and methods of science itself.  We take this responsibility quite seriously and welcome the opportunities and challenges that come with it. 

A common theme that we develop in many of our courses is the practical application of geology in our lives.  For example, many of our “Natural Disasters & the Environment” courses utilize “Hazard City”, a set of practical exercises in applied geology, as a significant lab component.  A full treatment of all of the tools CC geology instructors employ to “turn on” our general education students to the impact of geology in their lives is beyond the scope of this article.  Nonetheless, we offer a few examples with anecdotal evidence that we are indeed having a constructive influence.

We take advantage of Arizona's spectacular geologic setting to provide the opportunity for real-time field observation of many geological features.  Click here for a short MCCTV documentary of one recent field excursion.  Other field excursions explore metal and industrial material production (the Ray Copper Mine and the Clarkdale Cement Plant), surface and groundwater resources, as well as energy production (the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station and the Kayenta Coal Mine).  We received the following communication from former student, Josh Kirckof:

“I went on a field trip to Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (PVNGS) with the geology class and I thought it was so cool and such a great experience. I’m currently enrolled at Arizona State University finishing up my degree in Construction Management.  We are required to have two internships before we graduate.  Last summer, I interned with DBA construction and was on the grounds of Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station (PVNGS) all summer.  It was a very rewarding experience.  A couple of times, I got to go in a sump pump hole 80 ft. underground to investigate a leak. … That [GCC] field trip was a great opportunity for me to become interested in nuclear power generation, gain an understanding of how PVNGS works, and see firsthand the (simulated) control room.  These factors have played a beneficial roll to me already and will continue to benefit me.  This summer, I have been invited to be an intern with APS at PVNGS.  I’m so excited and this is such a great experience for me.  When I went with the geology class, I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would ever be an employee of PVNGS.”

Many CC geology instructors often participate in community outreach efforts. A recent presentation at Barry Goldwater High School in Phoenix included the evidence for global climate change, segueing into global oil reserves and consumption with a special focus on domestic reserves and consumption.  Our impact here is perhaps best illustrated by a few representative student comments.

… I very much enjoyed the objective nature of the presentation.  You provided us with all of the knowledge and then allowed us to make our own decisions instead of drastically and egregiously skewing the presentation with bias…

…Primarily, most of what I learned is that geology is much more than the study of dirt and rocks, which was my preconceived notion of your craft…

…Although I’m still not convinced how they can predict the end of gasoline or oil… it does scare me that it would happen in my lifetime.  Really weird to think.  Anyway, a wonderful lecture, really sparked my interest in global warming…

I routinely challenge my students to actually drop their electricity and/or water bill during the semester while researching the societal consequences of doing so.   Occasionally, these projects have more obvious individual impact than societal.  One student turned in his water bills showing usage before and after implementing water conservation techniques.  Whereas the “after” usage was clearly less than the “before”, both were absurdly high for two guys renting a small house.  I instructed them to go home and turn off all the water and check the meter.  As I suspected, there was a rather substantial plumbing leak.

Our student course evaluations at the end of each semester provide critical feedback on the success of our efforts.  Thus far the results have been quite encouraging.  Data from my Spring 2009 Physical Geology courses indicate that just over 89% of 120 students who responded agreed or strongly agreed (the majority) with the statement, “I have learned the basic concepts from this course, which I will be able to relate to other situations.”  More interesting, however, are some of their comments.  Although most of these are anonymous, but we occasionally get communications such as the following from Anais Shepard:

I took geology because it fit the most easily into my schedule. I had no idea what geology was, or if there was a difference between geology and geography.  I thought it would be an easy class that I could coast through and not have to learn anything.  However, to my surprise it was challenging and very interesting!  I learned so many important things that had never even crossed my mind.  It opened up a whole new world for me and taught me things that I have incorporated in my everyday life, such as sources of energy, the effects of weather, geologic hazards, and what high clay content can do to your house.  I have learned so much from this course and had a lot of fun in the process.  I would encourage anyone I know to enroll, it might change your perception of geology too!


Gary Calderone
Physical Sciences Department

Glendale Community College
Tempe, AZ

See Gary's Website

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