Department pushes for new engineering geology major: Western produces high number of licensed geologists - The Western Front: News

Department pushes for new engineering geology major: Western produces high number of licensed geologists

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Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013 7:36 am

A new bachelor’s degree in engineering geology, which uses geologic data when developing infrastructure, was proposed by Western Washington University geology professor Robert Mitchell.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Bernie Housen, chair of the geology department. “It’s something the state should support.”

The proposed curriculum for the major would require students complete 11 major-track courses, nine supporting math and science courses and 12 credits from available elective classes.

Mitchell anticipated the major would require three full-time faculty members and one extra full-time staff person. 

The estimated total cost for the program for the first three years of development is about $604,500. The proposal is small enough on the state resources level that there is a chance the state will approve it, Mitchell said. The major would also fulfill the state push to improve science, technology, engineering and math education.

“I think there’s a possibility, but there’s a long process before that happens,” Mitchell said. “I remain optimistic but I know it’s an uphill battle.”

Western’s geology department already has a state and national reputation, with a strong alumni base in the workforce, including Tony Allen, the top engineering geologist for the Washington State Department of Transportation, Mitchell said. 

“I would claim Western has the best undergraduate geology program in the state, if not the region,” Mitchell said. “We serve a strong market in Washington.”

The major could also bridge with the Resilience Institute, Spatial Institute, the disaster risk reduction minor and the sustainable design minor at Huxley College of the Environment. The major also works hand-in-hand with Western’s sustainability initiatives, Mitchell said.

“When you’re developing a program you want to see how it would weave into other programs on campus and how it would add to the strength of everything,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell presented the proposal at the May 29 University Planning and Resources Council meeting. The proposal will be discussed at next year’s council meetings before being sent to Western’s Faculty Senate for review, Housen said. If Western supports the proposal, it will be sent to the state legislature for approval as an addition to Western’s 2015-17 biennium budget.

Since 2008, Western has produced 31 geologists licensed in Washington. By comparison, the University of Washington produced 16 and Washington State University produced 11, according to a presentation by Mitchell. 

In those five years, 82 geologists were licensed from the eight Washington institutions that offer geosciences degrees, while 88 geologists from out-of-state institutions were licensed in Washington, according to Mitchell’s' presentation.

“What that says is we’re not serving the needs of the state because we’re bringing resources from out-of-state to fill these jobs,” Mitchell said.

To become a licensed geologist, students must first obtain their geology degree, pass the state’s Fundamentals of Geology exam, practice at least five years of professional geology and then pass the state’s Practice of Geology exam.

There are roughly 170 geology majors in the Western's department. Last year, Mitchell conducted a poll in the department and a majority of the students who responded said they would be interested in an engineering geology degree if it was offered.

“There’s an unmet need for professional geologists in the state that nobody is filling,” Housen said. 

Junior Tabor Reedy said he would be interested in pursuing an engineering geology degree if it were offered at Western.

“I think it’s really good for being hirable,” Reedy said of the proposed major. “It’s definitely more of an applied side of geology than any of the other concentrations.” 

Reedy, an environmental geology student, is currently taking Mitchell’s engineering geology course. The 300-level class focuses on the characterization of soil and subsurface materials that must be considered when building infrastructure like roads and bridges. 

“I’ve been really supportive of an applied element to our program because I believe that’s where a lot of the jobs are,” Mitchell said. “I want to see our students get jobs.”

The state needs more engineering geologists now because most geologists in the field are at or nearing retirement, Mitchell said. About 69 percent of those geological engineers are 51 or older. 

“There’s a growing need [for engineering geologists], but there’s going to be a reduction in professional expertise to serve that need,” Mitchell said.

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