Over spring break, 13 NOVA students and one instructor traveled to El Paso, Texas, for a week of field geology with counterparts at El Paso Community College (EPCC). The program, called “Border to Beltway,” was the first half of a two-part field exchange program initiated by Callan Bentley, assistant professor of geology at NOVA’s Annandale Campus and Joshua Villalobos, associate professor of geology at EPCC.
Bentley and Villalobos dreamed up the idea for the program a year ago, and then jointly developed a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF). They suggested that a field exchange between community college students could act as a pipeline for recruiting and retaining geoscience majors.
The two instructors were motivated by a persistent lack of diversity in the geosciences. In particular, Bentley and Villalobos sought to recruit students from under-represented racial and ethnic backgrounds, and female students to try geology. The proposal was submitted late in the summer of 2013. Last fall, NSF funded the program with $35,000.
Credit-bearing lab courses were put into the spring schedules at both schools and the logistical planning (led mainly by EPCC adjunct faculty member Rob Rohrbaugh) began. Students were recruited at both schools and the admission was competitive and by application only. All of the planning came to fruition during spring break. The NOVA team flew to El Paso and met their counterparts, and then embarked on a week of spectacular field geology. Armed with a comprehensive field guide authored by Villalobos, the students and three professors visited the site of ancient granitic intrusions in the Franklin Mountains, young volcanoes along the Rio Grande rift system and a 250-million-year-old reef complex which is at the heart of Texas’ extraordinary endowment of petroleum.
Students from both schools made presentations on pre-trip research projects and slowly mastered the art of taking good field notes. The team rode a tramway up a mountain, collected fossils of ancient sea creatures, walked in dinosaur footprints and even descended into the depths of Carlsbad Caverns. Students learned advanced concepts in structural geology, paleontology and stratigraphy, and reiterated foundational concepts in geology. Accommodations included a hotel adjacent to the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso, a remote field station in the Hueco Basin and camping in state parks and commercial campgrounds.
The EPCC and NOVA students integrated well with one another. Many conversations took place comparing cultures, geology and academics. On the flight back to Virginia, the NOVA students reported to Bentley that they were really excited to show off Appalachian geology to their new friends during the program’s second half. In May, the EPCC crew will fly to Northern Virginia and a second week of field work will begin.