Expanding job market spurs new environmental geosciences major

The new major fills a niche for students interested in geology-based instead of policy-based environmental studies.

Illustrated by Abby Adamski

Abby Adamski

Illustrated by Abby Adamski

Katie Salai

To meet a rising demand for geoscientists, the University of Minnesota announced a new environmental geosciences major for the fall. 

Using existing courses, the University’s Department of Earth Sciences is carving out a B.S. and B.A. in environmental geosciences. The new program is a response to a projected shortage of geoscientists as the existing workforce enters retirement age in the coming decades. 

“There’s more jobs out there for geoscientists than there are new students graduating,” said Josh Feinberg, director of undergraduate studies in the earth sciences department. “We want to do the best we can to be as competitive as possible for those openings, and so this new major is a part of that effort.”

Students in the new major will have more options to specialize in their career interests than before. Feinberg said students who were previously in the earth sciences major would sample multiple interests, but leave without enough career experience. 

“If they wanted to do hydrology, often you need to demonstrate you’ve taken more than one [hydrology] course,” Feinberg said. “So this helps focus people so that they can be really competitive for those jobs in hydrogeology, environmental consulting and agencies.”

Hands-on experience in the field is key, said Robert Tipping, a hydrology professor who has spent 30 years at the University’s Minnesota Geological Survey. Tipping teaches one of the summer field camps required for earth science majors that gives students a look into the day-to-day of groundwater geoscientists. 

“From the outside looking in, organizations, at least in the state of Minnesota, are looking for students to come out with this degree of training. So, taking this direction really puts them at an advantage that they haven’t had coming into the hiring sphere,” Tipping said. 

Unlike other Big Ten schools, the University’s environmental programs are spread over multiple colleges, which can be confusing for incoming students who are unsure about the differences in environmental terminology, Feinberg said.

“Students who are interested in things like finding clean water and cleaning up contaminated water and developing natural resources in the most sustainable and environmentally responsible way possible, our major is going to be really interesting for them,” Feinberg said. “But if you are interested in trying to formulate new public policy, then maybe it isn’t for you.” 

There are only a handful of programs throughout the Big Ten that are similar to the department’s plans, with Michigan State University housing the most similar program.

“What I liked about environmental geoscience is that it focuses on the earth first and then how the earth impacts other processes,” said Carly Finegan a senior in environmental geosciences at MSU. “Think of the water cycle, how does the geology of an area affect the water or what’s dissolved in the water and how can we approach water quality issues.” 

The department expects to double its number of students over the next five years to a total of 120. Beyond the College of Science and Engineering, the Department of Earth Sciences hopes to attract more College of Liberal Arts students and plan to simplify math and science prerequisites. 

“Very few students come into the University of Minnesota knowing they want to be in earth sciences or an environmental geosciences major,” Feinberg said. “It’s something that they only discover once they get here and happen to take a class to fulfill a elective.”