In the past, it was common for Bowdoin’s small but solid geology department to attract just a handful of new student majors – three some years, seven other years. But this spring, the department, which has been renamed Earth and Oceanographic Science, had 27 sophomores declare their major in this field.
The surge in new majors has much to do with the recent broadening and refocusing of the academic department. In the past two years, the department’s five faculty members have transformed their curricula. (The department now has six professors with with the addition of tenure-track geologist Emily Peterman, who started in January 2012.) Rather than teach hydrology, geology, oceanography and atmospheric science as separate tracks, they now teach these subjects from a holistic earth-systems approach, explains Associate Professor Collin Roesler, an oceanographer who teaches in and chairs Bowdoin’s EOS department.
Starting in 2010, the EOS faculty – Rachel Beane, Philip Camill, Edward Laine, Peter Lea and Roesler – revised their courses, changed the major requirements and created three new introductory courses in solid-earth geology, surface-process geology and hydrology, and oceanography to act as gateways to the major.
“We’re really proud that as a small liberal arts college we were able to pull this off,” Roesler says, adding that Bowdoin, for a college its size, is ahead of the curve by offering a full education in earth-systems science. “In the last few years, a lot of major university departments are merging to create this integrated earth-systems science approach.”
Much of the increased allure of earth and oceanographic science for students comes from their desire to better understand and address climate change, Roesler says. “Understanding the processes of what’s been happening over hundreds of millions of years is critical to understanding what’s happening today,” she points out. The EOS classes that directly address climate change “are giving students an understanding of the processes happening under our feet and in the ocean in the context of climate change right now.”
She adds, too, that while climate change is often presented with doom-and-gloom projections, Bowdoin’s EOS department is trying to instill its students with a more hopeful perspective. “We say, ‘Here are the challenges, now is the time for innovation. It’s a time to think outside the box, a time for individuals to change the world’,” Roesler says. “It is a time of challenge, but it is not something to be feared.”
Anna Westervelt “˜14 this spring declared an EOS major, saying she was drawn to this field for a number of reasons: she admires the professors, likes the close-knit department, appreciates the chance to do research, and, as a St.Louis, Mo. native, is happy exploring Maine’s coastline as part of her courses. Plus, she adds, “The subject mater is really important, especially now as global warming is becoming a bigger problem. And we’re learning about what we can do so we can have a part in helping.”
Patricia Thibodeau ’13 says she took Introduction to Oceanography 102 her freshman year to get her science credit out of the way. Two years later, the EOS major has a two-year scholarship from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, and this summer will intern at a National Marine Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Wash. to study ocean acidification. “I want to do something about climate change and for that, you need a scientific background,” Thibodeau says.
Roesler says there’s excitement in the air in the EOS department, with a range of students, from those in introductory courses to advanced seminars, engaging in new research. “One of the things we’ve been dedicated to is providing students with authentic research experience at every level. We allow them to do research for which we don’t know the answer,” she says. “They’re making observations, analyzing and interpreting data and coming up with conclusions no one has ever come up with before.
“We’re really trying to prepare students in a scientific realm but also as stewards of the planet,” she says, adding, “There is a tingliness in the department right now. Our students are very engaged and excited, and it’s fun.”