By Published: April 20, 2022

Seminar in geological sciences helps prepare undergrads—particularly low-income and first-generation students—for graduate-level research

To make undergraduate research in geological sciences more approachable for students at the University of Colorado Boulder, Lon Abbott, teaching professor, and Jennifer Stempien, senior instructor, designed the Geology Majors Research Seminar. The multi-semester seminar exposes students to research experiences they usually don’t have until graduate school.

In the seminar, students read and discuss papers from peer-reviewed literature, which gives students practice thinking like a professional scientist, grappling with and critiquing cutting-edge science. Participants are strongly encouraged to pursue individual Undergraduate Research Experiences, which almost all of them do.

Northglenn High School students and current undergraduate students join the Geology Majors Research seminar.

At the top of the page: Now-alumnus Noah McCorkel collects samples for his honor’s thesis in thermochronology on Whiterock Mountain in Colorado’s Elk Range near Crested Butte (Photo by Lon Abbott). Above: For Jennifer Stempien and Lon Abbott, their work isn’t just about engaging current students—it’s also about bringing in the next generation. Here, some of their students to Northglenn High School students in November 2019 (Photo by Jennifer Stempien).

Students who engage in an Undergraduate Research Experience chat informally about their work with their seminar colleagues and present their findings in the seminar, which provides a tangible link between the Geology Majors Research Seminar and Undergraduate Research Experiences.

Providing this opportunity for undergraduate research is a department-wide endeavor. Twelve geology faculty members and professional researchers have served as Undergraduate Research Experiences research mentors for seminar students, as have several graduate students.

The idea for the seminars came about when Stempien and Abbott wanted to provide a support system for students who are interested in research but are hesitant to try, or who might not have considered themselves qualified to consider research.

This seminar is more approachable for students in that they are not expected to immediately know what research topic to pursue. They can explore any number of topics. It’s the initial exposure to research possibilities that’s important, Abbott and Stempien say.

“A lot of research programs that accept undergraduates are only for juniors and seniors,” Stempien says. “For some students who are unsure about whether they want to go into research, waiting to choose a topic can actually leave the decision too long. Our goal is to try to identify interested students as they’re going through the 2000-level (sophomore) classes to minimize that pressure to know what project to do and if they want to do an honor’s thesis.”

As faculty mentors who teach several lower-division classes, Stempien and Abbott can meet potential candidates suitable for the seminar before students begin taking upper-division classes.

Drawing from their own undergraduate experiences and challenges, Abbott and Stempien want to improve access for students in geology.

A photo of students Anna Todd (left) and Spencer Zeigler (right) visit the Paint Mines Interpretive Park in El Paso County near Calhan.

Students Anna Todd (left) and Spencer Zeigler (right) visit the Paint Mines Interpretive Park in El Paso County near Calhan, a town east of Colorado Springs (Photo by Lon Abbott).

“I was not successful in obtaining the formalized summer undergrad research opportunities that were available when I was an undergrad,” Stempien says.

“I tried to approach a faculty member about working for them my senior year, but I was unsuccessful in all of my attempts to get the geoscience faculty at the time to take me on. I am quite sure I would have not gone for my graduate degrees if it were not for the support of my parents, who were working on their graduate degrees.”

“That is one reason why this project has been a highlight for me. I’m passionate about creating a supportive community to let students build their confidence as future scientific researchers,” Stempien adds.

The story is similar for Abbott.

“When I was an undergrad moving into graduate school, I had no real opportunity to do undergraduate research. It wasn’t as critical then as it is now,” Abbott says. “But now a lot of faculty won’t consider a student for graduate school unless they have undergraduate research experience. When we’re selecting students and inviting them to come into the seminar group, it’s more about their engagement with the material and their curiosity than their GPA.”

While not specifically intended exclusively for low-income and first-generation students, many have participated in the seminar and have gone on to graduate school or STEM careers.

And the program is not solely about engaging CU Boulder undergraduates with research opportunities. Abbott and Stempien have taken some of their seminar students to Northglenn High School, which has a large and robust geology program, to give presentations about the seminar, their experience with undergraduate research, scholarship information and perspectives about college in general. The program helps plant the seeds for younger students interested in geology to start pursuing it.

Stempien and Abbott have also received two microgrants, including one from CU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement, to take those high school students out into the field to visit Colorado geologic sites.

“If a student is eager to learn and wants to do this, we’re excited to work with them,” Abbott says.