UC professor leads global effort to make geosciences more accessible

The International Association for Geoscience Diversity seeks to break the mold of the stereotypical earth scientist, bring more diverse perspectives to the geosciences

The stereotypical images used to promote the geosciences are common and predictable. They often feature depictions of explorers climbing steep terrain, standing atop mountains and rappelling into the maws of caverns. It’s not just about the science — it’s about conquering obstacles in science’s name

University of Cincinnati geoscience education associate professor Chris Atchison
has embraced the challenge of overcoming barriers — just not those you might expect. He has made breaking the mold of the archetypal geologist his life’s work. His small office on the fifth floor of Teachers-Dyer Complex at UC serves as the world headquarters of the International Association for Geoscience Diversity (IAGD), an organization he founded a decade ago to make the geosciences — widely considered to be the least diverse of the STEM fields — more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.

“The way that we’re promoting the science often marginalizes students who might otherwise be interested,” Atchison says. “If you’re a wheelchair user and you see a picture like that, you’re probably going to think, ‘This is not for me.’ We’re pushing them away just by how we’re promoting the physical expectations of the science.”

Inclusion is an important and key driver of Next Lives Here, UC's strategic direction.

Chris Atchison and Ivan Carabajal pose for a photo in a forested area.

UC geoscience education associate professor, Chris Atchison, left, is the founder and executive director of the International Association for Geoscience Diversity. Atchison's Ph.D student, Ivan Carabajal, right, is working on an in-depth guide to geoscience accessibility for educators and scientists in the field. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

A serendipitous start

The hills of Western Kentucky resemble those of much of the rest of the state. Sycamores and river maples line the shores of the Green River, while red cedars and Virginia pines dominate the higher ground. But beneath the surface is another world, one inhabited by eyeless fish and albino shrimp, adapted to life in the total darkness of a limestone labyrinth. The tendrils of Mammoth Cave’s more than 400 miles of passageways extend beyond even the 53,000-plus acres that constitute the national park that bears its name, making it the largest known cave network in the world.

For American geologists of the mid-19th century, Mammoth Cave had posed an enticing challenge. Its passages range from the cavernous to the constrictive, and the tight crawlways and seemingly bottomless drop-offs sated their craving for thrills. The cave’s visitors often used their lanterns and torches to burn their names into the walls, leaving behind ebon graffiti as monuments to their bravery. Today, Mammoth Cave remains among the world’s top geological attractions, with plenty of mysteries still unsolved and areas unexplored.

Given its geological significance and close proximity to Ohio, Mammoth Cave was an easy choice for Atchison to use for his doctoral research at the Ohio State University. His thesis was on virtual reality and its ability to allow people to experience places of geological significance without having to be physically present, with the goal of eventually rolling it out to K-12 students who weren’t able to make the trip there.

Atchison decided that he wanted to test his immersive VR simulation of Mammoth Cave on people who had never experienced it before, and he figured that student wheelchair users were most likely to fit the bill. “It wasn’t ever really about accessibility,” Atchison says. “It was just about giving people separated by distance the opportunity to experience the cave.”

“The whole experience of giving somebody the opportunity to see something they’d never seen before completely changed my life."

Chris Atchison UC geoscience education professor and IAGD founder

Chris Atchison, a while male wearing a red jacket, inside a cave holding a map.

UC professor Chris Atchison holds up a map for fellow IAGD members to view during a recent field trip to Mammoth Cave. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Of course, to make sure the virtual experience measured up to the real thing, Atchison decided that the six students with mobility disabilities he had recruited to take part in his project had to really experience Mammoth Cave for themselves. Atchison first had to file a request with the U.S. Department of the Interior to take his students into the cave in 2008. While he waited for his request to be approved, he started looking for resources and best practices for making fieldwork accessible to people with disabilities, but he quickly found there were none. Atchison turned to other academics in the geosciences in search of aid. That conversation led to the formation of the National Advisory for Geoscience Diversity (which would later become the IAGD in 2013).

It wasn’t until 2010 that he was finally able to obtain permission to take the students into the cave. “It was a huge logistical effort to make this happen — it was a lot harder than it should have been,” Atchison recalls. “The whole experience of giving somebody the opportunity to see something they’d never seen before completely changed my life. They were just blown away. They were so excited and impressed and grateful for having the opportunity to see this.”

It wasn’t just the positive parts of the trip that affected Atchison, though. He watched the students panic as their motorized wheelchairs lost traction on the sandy cave floor. It was a lesson that would serve him well on future field trips. “I started to see barriers to the environment,” he says. “Taking students out into the field helps me see where our problems are, what the barriers and challenges are that could prevent getting students into the field to experience it just like anyone else.”

A shot of the interior of Mammoth Cave, with field trip attendees on a path to the far right of the frame

Geology educators and students make their way down a wheelchair-accessible path inside of Mammoth Cave during a recent field trip led by Atchison and the IAGD. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

A level playing field

Field work is where people with disabilities encounter the most obvious barriers, but the first barriers to inclusion are often discovered in the classroom. That’s what Atchison’s colleague Anita Marshall discovered when she returned to the University of South Florida to pursue her doctorate in geoscience education and volcanology. Marshall had sustained a debilitating injury to her leg in a car accident while she was pursuing her master’s degree. “I realized when I came back to school that it wasn’t just the terrain that made things difficult. It was the culture,” says Marshall. “It was the way that people with disabilities were looked at in the geosciences as somehow inferior geologists because we couldn’t scramble up a mountain or get there fastest or haul heavy loads.

A woman in a wheelchair takes a photo with her phone inside Mammoth Cave

Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

“I was really discouraged. I was really having a hard time. And then by pure accident, I stumbled upon the IAGD, and it has been the driving force so that I could finish my degree.”

The IAGD had put out an announcement for a multiyear, grant-funded research project. When Marshall saw the announcement, she decided that she wasn’t interested in applying as a student. She picked up the phone and called Atchison to inform him that she wanted to be one of the researchers on the project. “I had never met him before in my life. I had no idea who he was. But I read that project and I contacted him, and said, ‘I need to be your grad student, and here’s why.’ I laid out my case for him.” Atchison was sold by the end of the call. He in turn contacted the National Science Foundation (NSF) and secured funding to bring Marshall aboard for the project.

“Through working with the IAGD, I realized that I wasn’t alone, that there were many people with disabilities who were actively working in the geosciences, and even more people who would if there was a more inclusive environment,” says Marshall.

Atchison and his efforts to make the geosciences more accessible had already turned heads at the NSF early on. Years prior, Atchison had secured NSF funding to develop a workshop to support college instructors who were learning how to make their classes more inclusive to people with disabilities. When Atchison wanted to start offering accessible field trips in 2014, the NSF again provided financial support.

That’s why UC doctoral student Ivan Carabajal — whose fellowship and stipend are fully funded by the NSF — is working with Atchison at UC. A Los Angeles native, Carabajal hasn’t always been excited about the outdoors. As a child, his rock collection was really just little chunks of concrete. But when he was at a two-year college taking every class he could to find his passion, it was geology that grabbed him.

Ivan Carabajal and a park ranger converse.

Ivan Carabajal, right, has a conversation with a ranger at Mammoth Cave National Park. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

After graduating from the University of California, Davis, with a geology degree, Carabajal was hired by the National Parks Service and placed at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. They wanted him to do a hydrology project. He, however, wanted to tell park visitors all about the rocks — the fossils, the gold ore specimens, the tens of millions of years of history beneath the earth. “I always wanted to get people excited about this stuff,” he says.

Carabajal first learned of the IAGD when he saw a post shared on the Geological Society of America’s Facebook page for a geoscience education master’s degree program at UC, one focused on accessibility and inclusion. “Holy smokes,” he recalls thinking. “This is an opportunity to provide exposure to geology to people that may not even think about this as a possibility. It struck a chord. It seemed perfectly in line with what I wanted to do with my long-term goals.”

For his master’s thesis at UC, Carabajal surveyed geology professors throughout the U.S. to find out what they were doing to make their classes more accessible, with the goal of creating guidelines based on best practices. What he found was that though the professors he spoke to were well-meaning, there just weren’t enough “best practices” out there. And then Carabajal realized something.

“We goofed,” Carabajal recalls telling Atchison, his advisor. “We’re talking to the instructors when we should be talking to the students.”

Now Carabajal is doing just that. “The goal is to provide a starting point for instructors so they know what aspects of their classes may be exclusive, what language may be exclusive, what practices may be exclusive for different students, and then use that to create a more accessible field class for their students,” he explains. “It's that idea of Universal Design for Learning — the concept that when you make something accessible for all people, learning is improved for everyone, right? Starting that conversation with the students to figure out what they need from you and what you need from them is really important.

“If you have students with disabilities taking more geoscience classes and have instructors really open up, I think it would be better for the entire field. It's not something that's limiting the science — I think it's something that will truly expand how we understand the earth.”

“If you have students with disabilities taking more geoscience classes and have instructors really open up, I think it would be better for the entire field. It's not something that's limiting the science — I think it's something that will truly expand how we understand the earth.”

Ivan Carabajal UC geoscience education Ph.D student

Diversity as a destination

Once unknown even within most academic circles, the IAGD is emerging as a leader of thought in the geosciences. The organization now claims members in more than 35 countries. Membership is free, and its associates gain access to a vast network of expertise on inclusive class and activity design, fieldwork and student support. The IAGD’s examination of new approaches to accessible fieldwork has led to research trips with destinations that include the Arizona desert and western Ireland, with groups of students chosen to represent a wide range of physical abilit

During a May 2017 trip to Ireland, students with disabilities teamed with nondisabled students to perform fieldwork at sites that include the Cliffs of Kilkee and Renvyle Beach in Connemara. Students were paired across ability type and then separated as teams across inaccessible field areas. Connected by a local Wi-Fi hot spot, students with and without disabilities used iPads and GoPro cameras to share images and videos, and walkie-talkies to communicate with their partners as they observed and interpreted the geology from different perspectives of the field.“Everybody’s engaged in the science,” Atchison says. “It’s frustrating at first, but when you start to get the hang of it, it’s pretty exciting to see what the possibilities are.”

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/7O_1GYx4DUY?rel=0

Although much of the communication among IAGD members happens online, the organization is putting down more physical roots overseas. The organization was recognized as an associated society by the Geological Society of London in 2017, which led to the formation of the first international chapter of the IAGD the following summer. That organization, Diversity in Geoscience UK (DiG-UK), has already led its own accessible field trip to the Isle of Anglesey, Wales, and is forming partnerships with other scientific organizations across Europe.

IAGD members explore the new accessible walking path in a forested area of Mammoth Cave National Park

Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

The IAGD has broadened its focus to more than just those with physical disabilities, and works to include all disability types in the geoscience disciplines. This year, the IAGD kicked off a new community to offer support and mentoring for members with autism. And a new, IAGD-facilitated partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey and UC’s Advancement and Transition Services, which works with students with developmental and intellectual disabilities, gave UC students with autism the opportunity to intern with the USGS. These students learned earth sciences skills while earning work experience and a possible pathway to future employment.   

“I love how we’ve diversified our membership and our board. We have people with all sorts of disabilities,” says Marshall, who now serves as the IAGD’s chief operations officer. “They all bring something unique to the table as far as perspectives and life experiences. It’s really started to explode in the last few years.”

The progress on all fronts makes it unlikely that Atchison will ever question the impact his organization is making. But if he ever should, he need only return to the place where it all began. Atchison, Carabajal and Marshall, along with several other IAGD members and attendees from a GSA conference in Indianapolis, visited Mammoth Cave National Park during the first weekend of November.

Where it once took nearly two years to arrange an accessible tour, the park now offers daily wheelchair accessible cave tours. Visitors are conveyed 280 feet underground via a newly installed elevator that opens to a section of the cave where a sturdy concrete pathway has been installed. And above ground, near the banks of the Green River, a wheelchair accessible walking path has been cut through the woods. Wooden decking covers portions of the path, with no grades steeper than 5 percent. Where once the forest would have been daunting for someone in a wheelchair, it’s now welcoming.

“I’m proud to know that so many people think about accessibility now,” says Atchison. But he knows there’s still work to be done. “The culture of the geosciences remains rugged,” he says. “There's a lot of things to overcome. When you start addressing the limited diversity, you start addressing a lot of the problems that come with it. I think that with diversity comes scientific innovation. You're not going to have diversity unless you enable full collaboration through access and inclusion.”

About the IAGD

The IAGD is a global network of geoscience faculty, staff and students, industry representatives, disabilities education researchers, and anyone interested in fostering accessible science. The IAGD strives to minimize the barriers to full participation for persons with disabilities by providing training and support to create and implement universally-designed instructional strategies inclusive communities of research, and accessible professional work environments. Founded in 2008, the IAGD is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Featured Image at top: Geologists with the IAGD explore Mammoth Cave. Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Inclusive excellence

More than simply a metric, inclusion drives Next Lives Here, the University of Cincinnati's strategic direction. Diversity fuels creativity and drives innovation. At UC, we strive to identify and invest in new ways to activate inclusion in innovative and impactful ways. 


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