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IPFW Geosciences Department Transitions From Endangered To Extinct

Lisa Ryan, WBOI News
Amanda Straw examines a rock in one of the geosciences classroom.

The geosciences department at Indiana University--Purdue University Fort Wayne inspired the idea for the school’s mascot, the mastodon. Students in that department helped uncover a mastodon fossil about 40 miles north of the school, which is now on permanent display at IPFW. However, the department itself has just been eliminated.

The students had known for a while that their department was endangered, but most say it came as a shock when it was announced last October that after the fall 2016 semester, the department would stop accepting new students. IPFW’s Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Carl Drummond says the decision was based on its low enrollment numbers.

"It's going to make Northern Indiana suffer... It's not going to have a good college."

Second-year geosciences student Tessa Aby knows her department is small, but she’s still disappointed that the university has decided to end it.

“We’re small in quantity, but we’re pretty big in quality. I would rather have a scientist who knows what they’re doing, than have a scientist, a whole bunch of them, coming out of one place,” Aby said. “I don’t think what’s happening at IPFW is anything more than politics.”

Aby says without geology and philosophy, IPFW will lose its credibility. She doesn’t have hope for the university or the region’s future.

“It’s going to make Northern Indiana suffer. Fort Wayne’s not going to be a good community; it’s not going to have a good college,” Aby said.

But Vice Chancellor Drummond, who started at IPFW as a geology assistant professor, doesn’t share this student’s concerns. He declined an in-person or phone interview, but said in an email that the economic impact to Northeast Indiana will be “minimal to non-existent”, given the “very low number of majors and graduates produced by the department historically.”

The plan now is for students to rapidly finish their department requirements in three semesters, according to department officials. After the spring semester of 2018, students should have all introductory and intermediate courses completed. By fall of 2018, they should finish up all upper-level courses.

After fall of 2018, there is no plan to have any more classes offered through the department, although there may be some leftover courses for students who need it, says Ray Gildner. He’s the chief advisor for the department and helped make what they are calling “teach-out plans” for 44 students. These plans are precise, and offer almost no room for error.

“Don’t drop a class. Don’t fail a class. Don’t run out of money. Don’t get sick. Tell your parents they can’t get sick,” Gildner said.

Gildner says not all 44 of the students will be graduating from IPFW. Some have already transferred to another department or school, and some will finish a few courses and then transfer. Some will possibly fail a course and not finish their requirements.

Credit Lisa Ryan, WBOI News
Gretchen Luchauer looks at the Geo Club's Homecoming banner, which is extinction themed in honor of the now-defunct department.

The president of the Geo Club, Gretchen Luchauer, says the pressure to finish is palpable. Students are overloading their schedules and increasing their workloads.

“It’s been crazy,” Luchauer said. “Everybody, they have to get their classes passed. They don’t have time to help out with stuff. I’ve been very short staffed with Geo Club.”

Luchauer says even if students aren’t personally feeling pressure to graduate, they are in classes with students who don’t feel prepared for the upper-level courses they are taking. It’s become a team effort to make sure no student falls behind, because failing a class will likely mean that student doesn’t graduate.

It’s not only the students feeling the pressure. For many professors and faculty members, the future is uncertain.

Ben Dattilo was a geosciences department professor, but he’s going to be transitioning into the biology department in upcoming semesters.

He’s still teaching some geosciences courses, and in addition to helping students wrap up those classes, he’s also teaching an introductory biology class. It’s unclear what other courses he’ll teach once he transitions to a full-time biology professor.

“It’s up in the air right now. It’s sort of just talks, discussions, and you should do this, and I think well I should do that. We’re figuring it out,” Dattilo said.

Dattilo says his main concern is, and always has been, making sure students graduate and find jobs. Students who graduate from IPFW’s geosciences department have found jobs in a variety of fields. Some work as environmental consultants. Others work for energy companies, like one IPFW graduate who worked for Chevron in Alaska, studying the North Slope’s oil potential.

“We have people on both sides of the environmental versus energy situation,” Dattilo said. “So, you know, you could go work for oil or you could go work for the environmental companies, but we can’t take sides.”

“I wouldn’t say that they’re on opposite sides,” Gildner interjected. “It’s just covering the whole spectrum.”

"(If) you're going to build something, you really want to make sure the ground underneath will support the building."

Gildner emphasizes the importance of the major continuing, even if students will no longer be able to study it at IPFW.

“(If) you’re going to build something, you really want to make sure the ground underneath will support the building," Gildner said. "People don’t like it when buildings fall down.”

While faculty members and students are worried about the future of geosciences at IPFW, they know that their degree will continue to be in high demand. As environmental issues gain more traction as news topics, whether in the form of oil pipelines, rising sea levels, or climate change, they don’t doubt their geosciences degrees will continue to be worthwhile investments. They just hope others continue to see it as necessary as well.

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