Sunday, February 21, 2010

Blacks in Geosciences

February is  Black History Month so I thought I'd post something relating to this topic and geology.

I was recently made aware of a paper titled Untapped Talent: The African American Presence in Physics and the Geosciences.  While the paper was published in 2008, and uses data which runs only up to 2004, I'm sure the numbers are still very similar today.

The bottom-line message of the paper is that even though there are many blacks who do well in mathematics in high school, they generally do not go on to study either physics or the geosciences.

The paper had some interesting (and incredibly low) statistics about blacks in the geosciences:

  Bachelor's degrees in geoscience earned by blacks (2004) = 2%
  Master's degrees in geoscience earned by blacks (2004) = 1.2%
  PhD's in geoscience earned by blacks (2004) = 1%

Numbers have been improving although totals are still very low.  For example, between 1975-1980, 0 black women and only 8 black males earned PhDs!  Between 1999-2004, it had increased slightly to 13 females and 29 males.  This is nationally!  Compare this to the total of 686 PhDs in geosciences for 2004.

Obviously, if there are so few PhDs granted to blacks in geosciences, there are not going to be a lot of black geoscience professors as role models either.  These numbers have certainly mirrored my experience in higher education as both a student and professor.

I went to the Census Department's website and obtained the following information:

  Blacks in USA (2008) = 12.8%
  Blacks in New York State (2008) = 17.3%
  Blacks in Ulster County (2008) = 6.5%

Despite this, at the two-year community college where I teach, I have never had, in over 10 years, a black student majoring in Math/Science with an Earth Science concentration.

Why?  I don't know.  What can we do to change this?  I have no idea.  I would like to encourage more minorities to enter the geosciences (everything said here could apply to hispanics as well) but, quite honestly, I have no idea how to do so.  Many of our geology students enter the major after taking an introductory Earth Science 101 course to satisfy their science elective (every student needs to take a science course) and thinking "Hey, I like this!"  I've also had minority students in these 101 courses but, for whatever reason, they have never expressed an interest in learning more about the field.  And it's not just my courses as the national numbers show.

If anyone has any ideas, let me know.

Here's a link which may be of interest: National Association of Black Geologists and Geophysicists.


  1. I and at least 2 other young women I know are currently pursuing graduate degrees in planetary geology. My undergraduate degree was in physics, as was one of the other young lady's. One of the best things that might help would be if more African American geoscientists had research webpages or blogs, like yours, online. When I was an undergrad and had more interest in obtaining a Ph.D. in astrophysics, one thing that was VERY encouraging to me was that I could look online and see African Americans, who were pursuing or already had doctorates in, astronomy, physics, and astrophysics. (It also more than helped that i attended an HBCU, where I saw black physicists every day.) Now, being in geosciences, it is much different. I have seen very few websites of African American geoscientists and even fewer (1 or 2) for African American planetary geologists. This can be discouraging, especially since there are no African American faculty members in geoscience at my graduate institution. Bottom line: MORE WEB PRESENCE!!! The NABGG is proof that African American geoscientists are around, and the next generation needs to see them!

  2. When i was in high school, which by the way was considered an "urban" high school because it was predominantly black in the center of the city, I took an earth science course where the teacher showed us what we could do with a geology career. To do this, he took a break from lecturing and showed us the movie "Dante's Peak", which held our attention pretty well. The lead character was a vulcanologist and his job seemed really cool. A friend and I who had this teacher both ended up in the earth sciences. One reason that more black students might not get into earth science may be because many of us are encouraged by our parents, from an early age, to get a job that we know will give us financial stability. So lots of people I know chose engineering, accounting, etc. because those are seen as "safe" fields that you can earn a good living in. Unfortunately, because many students, including black students, are not exposed to the geosciences, they have no idea that it is a good, stable career and that the money isn't bad either, depending on where you work and your job description. The question is, how can we expose more minorities to geoscience?