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Successful Practices: GeoFORCE

Posted on July 1, 2015
GeoFORCE instructors guide students during environmental excursions. Photo credit: GeoFORCE

Experiential Learning Key to GeoFORCE Success

Estevan Encinia and Michelle Cura took buses from their border towns in Texas. Vontigra Gibbs and Warren Henry stuffed their suitcases to depart from inner-city neighborhoods in Houston. Each summer, the teenagers united with about 40 of their peers on environmental excursions where they learned, among many other things, specific body movements that served as memory triggers for scientific terms about the movements of the Earth. Their gyrations were a small, but profoundly innovative, example of how GeoFORCE works to increase the diversity of the nation’s labor pool skilled in geology and related geosciences.

GeoFORCE recruits the best and brightest science and math students from Hispanic and black low-income communities to participate in week-long summer academies, from 9th through 12th grades. On each trip, GeoFORCE participants, university faculty and geoscience researchers visit a new destination with significant geological exploration opportunities, from Mount St. Helens in Washington to the Everglades in Florida. Once accepted into GeoFORCE, all students travel free, with many traveling by plane for the first time. The program’s Summer Academy motivates students to rise early and study hard about the important work of geologists. The motivation shows in the program’s success metrics. GeoFORCE participants have a 100 percent high school graduation rate; 96 percent are admitted to 74 colleges in 20 states; and 64 percent have pursued STEM majors.

Douglas Ratcliff, the former director of GeoFORCE, is a retired geologist. He has seen the excitement of geological study in the eyes of many program participants over the years. “Starting in 8th grade, kids have a natural interest in dinosaurs and volcanoes. And once you get them hooked into that, you can actually try to teach them some math as well,” says Ratcliff. “The program follows them throughout high school, and they must get a ‘B’ or better to remain participants.” 


Wide shot of students on a mountain plateau
Students accepted into GeoFORCE receive an all-expenses paid trip to significant geological locations throughout the United States.
Photo credit: GeoFORCE


Since 2005, GeoFORCE has introduced more than 1,500 students to the possibilities and rewards of career paths in the geosciences.  Operated by the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, GeoFORCE was the only organizational awardee among the 15 PAESMEM winners announced by President Obama this year in March.  


The national spotlight on GeoFORCE is not only well-deserved, but warranted. The need to increase the number and diversity of professionals in the geosciences is evident in American Geosciences Institute and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The Institute reports that over the next decade, the nation will experience a wave of retiring geologists, resulting in a shortfall of 135,000 unfilled geologist positions.


Photo of three students in a boat with river and mountains as a backdrop
Photo Credit: GeoFORCE


Students who perform well enough in math and science to pursue a STEM major often bypass careers in the geosciences over the other scientific fields, such as biology and chemistry, according to Jill Karsten, Program Director for Education and Diversity, Directorate for Geosciences (GEO) at the National Science Foundation. “The biggest hurdle for increasing the pursuit of geoscience careers is at the K-12 level.  Most students only get exposed to Earth science in a middle school class. Talented students don’t really know that study in the geosciences can lead to a sophisticated, well-paying occupation in STEM.” 


The proportion of minorities, predominantly Hispanics and African-Americans, who earn bachelor’s, master’s or doctor of philosophy degrees in the geosciences, has increased over the past decade, but the percentages remain small, with none rising above 5.6 percent. “Among underrepresented groups, the latest statistics show Hispanic Americans appear to be leading a very small cadre of professionals earning undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in the geosciences,” said Karsten.   


 Racial Groups








Asian & Pacific Islander












American Indian & Native Alaskan










Source: Custom Analysis of 2012 Degrees Conferred in Geosciences Fields, provided by Directorate for Geosciences, National Science Foundation, based on National Center for Education, U.S. Department of Education Statistics.


“Programs like GeoFORCE help to raise the visibility of our field earlier in students’ education pathways, which means they can pursue it right out of the gate in college. More exposure would likely raise diversity at all levels,” says Karsten.

Given the success of the program, GeoFORCE Director Samuel Moore says he is exploring its expansion throughout the state of Texas. “The Texas Workforce Commission, which has been a big partner of GeoFORCE, is a potential expansion partner, given its presence in regions across Texas.”  

For many of the students, the GeoFORCE reward has been in knowing that there’s a big world beyond their socioeconomic borders.  And it’s waiting for them to step out and step up their intellectual and academic games to make it a better one.

To learn more about GeoFORCE, visit

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