GEODUC and IBIS programs at UW College of the Environment create impact and build community while embracing an evidence-based educational approach to scientific inquiry with nontraditional transfer students.

people sit and stand along a giant piece of driftwood on the beach.
Jane Dolliver/University of Washington
GEODUC participants on a January 2024 trip to the Olympic Peninsula.

GEODUC — which stands for Geoscience Education, Ocean­o­graphic Discovery and Undergraduate Collabor­a­tion — is a place-based, National Science Foundation-funded program spearheaded by faculty and staff in the University of Washington College of the Environment. Created to broaden the depth and breadth of perspectives that inform scientific inquiry in marine science fields. GEODUC actively recruits UW undergraduate transfer students who are interested in STEM fields of any kind.

The size and scope of the UW can be daunting for any new undergraduate, and transfer students face specific challenges that can pose additional obstacles. Many come from nontraditional backgrounds and have financial and caregiving responsibilities outside of school. Most have not had opportunities to take marine and Earth sciences courses elsewhere. Without active, ongoing support from faculty and staff, transfer students can struggle to build community and a sense of belonging.

“[The UW] is such a big campus,” said Maya Rios, an undergraduate in environmental science and resource management. “I was so nervous about not being able to meet people … and having difficulty finding people I had stuff in common with. GEODUC has just completely erased that issue because it introduced me immediately to this pretty big group of people that I can connect with that can be resources for me — and also friends.”

Listen to a podcast episode featuring GEODUC students and instructors

GEODUC begins with a 10-day residency at Friday Harbor Labs each September, where transfer students experience the geosciences through hands-on exploration, fieldwork and research. Back in Seattle, GEODUC students meet for weekly seminars throughout the academic year beginning in autumn quarter, where they build community, learn important academic skills and prepare for successful careers. The seminars feature speakers from a variety of backgrounds who share how they found their way in the sciences, helping students to see that they, too, belong in the research community.

“We talk about how to start doing research, how to knock on doors and ask for research opportunities, how to cope with problems they might have as new transfers,” said José Guzmán, associate teaching professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. “The whole idea is to make them excited about geosciences, but we’re also creating a space for them to stay together and support each other through whatever’s going on with their lives, good or bad.”

The program also provides students with a stipend to compensate for time that might otherwise be spent working for pay.

“It’s a way to be fair and to say that students are part of this — we recognize their work and effort, and we want to reward their commitment,” said Mikelle Nuwer, associate teaching professor of oceanography.

a group of people stand with a sunset and river behind
Jane Dolliver/University of Washington
GEODUC participants on a January 2024 trip to the Olympic Peninsula.

The program is the brainchild of Guzmán, Nuwer and their colleagues LuAnne Thompson, professor of oceanography; Kerry Naish, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences; and Jane Dolliver, executive assistant to the associate dean and GEODUC’s program manager. The team recently was awarded the UW’s Distinguished Teaching Award for Teams, one of the University’s highest teaching recognitions.

GEODUC has prompted the teaching team to think more deeply about nontraditional students and how words and actions matter, explained Dolliver, and it’s important that the entire College reframe to use more inclusive phrases like “first-year students” and “early career scientists.”

“In our intellectual spaces, we can work to publicly acknowledge and welcome the diversity that lived-experience transfer students bring, and their unique lens on the types of science questions we ask,” Dolliver added. “We can remind students they are a valuable component of our brain trust.”

Expanding to help graduate students become skilled mentors

Buoyed by the success of GEODUC, the same team of faculty and staff developed the Identity, Belonging, and Inquiry in Science, or IBIS, program to continue building a pipeline for aspiring researchers from historically excluded groups. Beginning in their sophomore year, geosciences undergraduates and UW Educational Opportunity Program students can apply to develop and implement their own two-quarter independent research project with one-on-one guidance from a graduate student mentor. Like GEODUC, the program provides students with a small stipend to help participants who might otherwise feel like they have to choose between advancing their studies and staying afloat financially.

The pipeline appears to be flowing — many IBIS undergraduates come to the program from GEODUC.

“I don’t think I would have heard about IBIS without GEODUC — or if I had, I wouldn’t have applied because I would have thought, ‘Well, that’s not for me, I’m not good enough,’ Rios said. “Being in GEODUC made me think, ‘No, I am, and I can handle this and my course load.’” In May, Rios presented her IBIS project on landslide-caused dams, flood risks and vulnerability at the UW’s Undergraduate Research Symposium.

“We get to retain this huge talent of the undergrads and we get to train the next generation of mentors. The more our researchers represent humanity’s incredible range of perspectives, the more likely we’ll develop science that can make a real impact on our world.” 

— José Guzmán, UW associate teaching professor

The IBIS program’s graduate student mentors also develop critical skills that make them stronger scientists, teachers, managers and colleagues. After all, it’s one thing to test your own hypothesis; it’s another entirely to help someone else understand how to apply the scientific method to their burning questions.

“Many of us, when we start teaching, have no idea about how to be effective instructors, and that was a reality for me,” Guzmán said.

The principal investigator for IBIS, Guzmán credits the UW Center for Teaching and Learning with developing his knowledge about evidence-based teaching and active learning.

“That was a game-changer for me. I could see how students were engaging better with the material. They were performing better, not only answering more complex questions in the classroom but also asking more complex questions in the classroom,” he said.

IBIS aims to help more early career scientists become skilled teachers, wherever their paths lead after graduate school. IBIS mentors receive eight weeks of formal, evidence-based training before being matched with undergraduates, laying the groundwork for mentor and mentee to gain hands-on experience doing science together.

Current IBIS participants speak positively about their experiences. Now, the program’s leaders want to assess its long-term success in recruiting new students into the geosciences. A collaboration with UW psychology researchers will assess whether undergraduate participants complete their degrees, consider graduate school, and develop a stronger sense of belonging in STEM.

“To feel like you belong, you need to see yourself,” Nuwer said. “And it seems to be much easier for our undergraduates to see themselves in these graduate student mentors.”

The geosciences benefit from a broader range of student perspectives

Guzmán is quick to emphasize that GEODUC and IBIS benefit the College as much as their student participants: Every new student approaches scientific inquiry through a unique lens that research desperately needs to address the world’s increasingly complex environmental challenges.

“We get to retain this huge talent of the undergrads and we get to train the next generation of mentors,” Guzmán said. “The more our researchers represent humanity’s incredible range of perspectives, the more likely we’ll develop science that can make a real impact on our world.”

a group of people walk along a trail in the woods
Jane Dolliver/University of Washington
A group of students walk along a trail to the Elwha River on a recent field trip.

Nuwer agreed, emphasizing that the geosciences need a diversity of thought, backgrounds, identities, opinions and knowledge in order to propose meaningful solutions.

“We want the diversity of interests that comes from recruiting all STEM-interested students, and we’re seeing how GEODUC and IBIS students become more confident asking questions in class, going to conferences and presenting research,” she said. “Their presence and contributions enrich the science we do together.”

And the next generation of scientists is ready to contribute: As GEODUC enters its third year, its alumni are returning to support the new cohort.

“I definitely feel more confident talking to other people and making sure other people are feeling included, because I know how that felt,” said Mollie Ball, an undergraduate student in marine biology who now serves as a student ambassador for the College and a research assistant with aquatic and fishery sciences. “And I know how it feels to have someone reach out their hand and say, ‘No, you do belong here.’ So now I want to be that person for other people.”

Funding for these programs is from the National Science Foundation’s GEOPAths Program, the College of the Environment, the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, the Big Beef Creek Fund, the Marine Biology Program and the School of Oceanography.