Feature Stories

STEMSEAS

Growing diversity in the geosciences workforce
  • UMass Professor Mark Leckie and graduate student Raquel Bryant and the STEMSEAS team aboard ship.

These types of experiences are life-changing. I think it’s safe to say [the students] have gained new insights into Earth sciences and the value of our ocean and its ecosystems.

--Mark Leckie

Nine undergraduate STEM students from across the country took to the seas this spring on a 10-day oceanography voyage from San Diego to Hawaii as part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) STEM Student Experiences Aboard Ships (STEMSEAS) program.

Led  by professor Mark Leckie and graduate student Raquel Bryant, geosciences, STEMSEAS takes advantage of extra berths available to students aboard federally funded research vessels as the ships transit between U.S. ports in preparation for their next scientific expeditions. Faced with poor retention rates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and noting particularly that the geosciences workforce lacks diversity, NSF created the one-year initiative to try to increase the number and diversity of students pursuing degrees and careers in geosciences, Leckie says.

The seven- to 10-day ocean voyages offer a mobile classroom setting where small groups of undergraduate non-STEM, undecided-STEM and geoscience majors can spend time with geoscience professionals, says Leckie. While at sea, students take part in a variety of hands-on activities that incorporate geoscience content, lab exercises, data collection and analysis, career exploration and group discussion and reflection. As their voyages end, each completes a post-transit project that they present at their home institution. They also write a short article about their experiences and participate in teleconferences with others in their cohort.

Leckie says it took a day or so for some of the students to get over seasickness, but soon they were all fully functioning and taking part in collecting a gravity core from the seafloor. “Our first core was in the California borderlands in 1,300 meters of water,” he notes. “This sediment is an olive gray mud that is a stark contrast with the abyssal red clay we collected in a second gravity core from a depth of 4,400 meters a few days later. We also deployed a conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) instrument at both stations for a water column profile of temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen.”

“The nine students were fantastic,” he adds. “All were eager to engage with each other and to learn about the ocean first-hand. These types of experiences are life-changing, so even if they don’t end up pursuing a geoscience or other STEM career, I think it’s safe to say that they have gained new insights into the Earth sciences and the value of our ocean and its ecosystems. There were so many great initial positive outcomes, we hope that NSF will continue to fund such amazing opportunities for young people to experience what it is like to conduct science at sea, as well as learn about our collective impact on the vast ocean and its resources.”

Bryant’s participation was funded by the Randolph and Cecile Bromery Graduate Fellowship. Randolph “Bill” Bromery was the first African-American chancellor at UMass Amherst and a geology professor who served with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, as did Bryant’s grandfather. Bromery came to the campus in 1969 and was a key figure in the creation of the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black Students. He also helped secure the archives of W.E.B. Du Bois and Horace Mann Bond for the campus.

The STEMSEAS voyage ended in Hawaii on May 19. With STEMSEAS, NSF hopes to prepare students for possible career trajectories in the geosciences and to contribute to the evidence base for effective student engagement, learning and retention in STEM.

UMass Amherst News Office