August 23, 2007

Minority students find that Mexico’s geology rocks

Dr. Jorge Aranda Gomez explains rock formations to Sacramento State students during their field trip to study geology of Mexico. Gomez is a professor of geology in the Center for Geosciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico at Queretaro. Sacramento State photo by Professor Lisa Hammersley Dr. Jorge Aranda Gomez explains rock formations to Sacramento State students during their field trip to study geology of Mexico. Gomez is a professor of geology in the Center for Geosciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico at Queretaro.
Sacramento State photo by Professor Lisa Hammersley

Two of the more interesting classes in Sacramento State’s catalogue involve a pick, a hammer, a volcano, Mexico and an instructor with a distinct British accent.

The courses, Geology of Mexico and Geology of Mexico Field Trip, are new and popular classes. Both were offered for the first time this spring, and both classes filled up quickly. Geology of Mexico is offered again in the fall and it is already full. Who knew science could be so much fun?  Apparently, Professor Lisa Hammersley and some of her colleagues did.

“We wanted to put together a course that looked interesting, was useful and showed that geology is fun,” says Hammersley, a geologist raised in London, who researches volcanoes in Mexico and tends to see fun where others see only rocks. “They got to go out in the field in Mexico and see big, beautiful geology like an active volcano.”

Although the courses are open to all students, Hammersley, along with Professors Brian Hausback and Kevin Cornwell, designed the classes with the hope of attracting at least a few minority students to geology.

“Minorities are extremely underrepresented in the geosciences, so we produced a new intro-level course we thought might be of more interest to Hispanic students than our current intro-level courses,” says Hammersley. “Then we talked to people in the College Assistance Migrant Program and our Educational Opportunity Program to help promote the courses.”

Their efforts were successful and each class had 100 percent Hispanic enrollment.
“Many of the students were from the area we visited in central Mexico. They went back and could see their surroundings through a geologist’s eyes,” Hammersley says. “They didn’t just see a bunch of little hills; they saw that there are volcanoes everywhere there.  They saw that the basilica in Mexico City is sinking because too much water is being taken from the aquifer, and the ground is sinking.”

Hammersley says students were amazed by the geology, but added, “We didn’t want to flatten them with science, so we kept a balance between work and the cultural experience.”

The courses were funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Opportunity for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences program. With funding, the cost for the field trip was only $350 per student, far below the $2,000 it would normally cost.

“If the trip is too expensive it works against our students, and we want to make it accessible for anyone who wants to go,” Hammersley says.

Because of NSF funding policies—NSF will not fund recurring programs—the field trip will most likely have to rely on private funding in the future. “We may have to make it an every-other-year trip,” Hammersley says.

Hammersley says there is a nationwide push to help increase racial diversity in the geosciences, but added now is a great time for any student to get involved with geosciences. 

“A lot of students don’t know they can get a geology degree, walk straight into a job and earn a good wage,” she says. “Opportunities in hydrogeology, engineering geology and mining are huge. Companies are always looking for qualified graduates. We have something like a 99 percent placement rate for our graduates.”

But most of all, Hammersley says, “the work is really fun.”

For more information about the Geology Department’s diversity program, contact Hammersley at (916) 278-7200. For media assistance, contact the Sacramento State Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156.