Despite efforts to increase diversity in geosciences and across STEM fields, only 35 out of a total of 737 doctoral degrees in earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences were conferred to underrepresented minorities in the year 2012 (National Science Foundation, 2015). By losing diverse students, staff, and faculty from our field, we are losing the potential to create our best, most innovative science.  GeoDES (Geoscience Diversity Experiential Simulations) is a National Science Foundation funded project focused on training up champions of diversity who will actively recruit more diverse geoscientists, and will also aid retention and promotion by improving hostile or “chilly” work environments through bystander interventions (Jackson and Leon, 2010) that leverage the innovative and unique affordances of immersive virtual simulations for professional development. By practicing specific skills, participants will begin to systematically open up the profession by countering bias in key professional gate-keeping roles such as search committees, annual review, promotion, and graduate admissions.


There is mounting evidence that the typical diversity training for university faculty members is largely ineffective at changing attitudes or behaviors (Bezrukova et al., 2012; Moss-Racusin et al., 2014).  One possible reason for this is because there is low engagement in this type of training (Williams, 2013), and the training provided does not help participants take on specific behaviors to counter implicit and explicit biases or to push against institutional inertia (Bezrukova et al., 2012; Moss-Racusin et al., 2014).

Drawing from the teacher professional development (PD) literature, we propose a theory of change that is rooted in the importance of practice-focused PD (see Hamre et al., 2012).  In this theory of change model, Hamre et al. concluded that, “interventions that primarily target beliefs and knowledge may have limited impacts on teachers’ practice unless they directly focus on practice” (p. 114).  That is, helping people develop the behaviors and habits that are consistent with adaptive beliefs makes it more likely that they will not only change behaviors for the long term, but also will correspondingly change their beliefs.

But how do you practice countering prejudice in an authentic way?  Virtual simulated professional development (VSPD) is the use of virtual reality (VR) technology to bridge formal training and real-world experience by providing authentic, hands-on, training simulations for professionals. VSPD is situational learning constructed using a variety of techniques and software tools, including simulation-based learning and virtual 2D/3D worlds. The use of VR tools combines the knowledge base that is already being used by numerous occupations to harness the power of promising new strategies that can be applied to leadership development. The use of VSPD can provide the field of leadership the opportunity to integrate theory and practice to accelerate professional growth much like what is already occurring in aviation, medicine, and the military.

Our Two-Year Plan

Phase 1: Construct Scenarios Focused on Bias and Microaggressions in the Geosciences
(January-April, 2017)

Project team members will use existing literature on bias and microaggressions in higher education to provide foundational context for conducting interviews with geoscientists in academia who have experienced bias, microaggressions, or prejudice in their departments. Key informants (i.e., former geoscience researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates) will participate in interviews focused on collecting case studies of discrimination to build geoscience specific scenarios.

Phase 2: Recruitment and Selection of Participants
(March- June, 2017)

The goal of our pilot proposal is to train multiple diversity champions per department in at least 10 geoscience units from academia or industry. These geoscientists will be recruited to participate in an “Understanding and Countering Bias in the Geosciences” Institute in Boulder, CO. Cohorts will apply in teams of two to three, and priority will be given to teams who have letters of support from their leadership. Applications will include a description of each group member’s interest in issues of diversity and inclusion, as well as summaries of their unit’s current policies related to equity.

Phase 3: Create Scripts for use With Authentic Virtual Simulations
(April- September, 2017)

The idea of creating life-like scenarios for individuals to enact specific behaviors builds on active-learning, critical pedagogy (Freire, 1970) as applied to interactive theatrical performance (Boal, 1995). The project team will collaborate with Cornell’s Interactive Theatre Ensemble and the University of Missouri Interactive Theatre Troupe (Burgoyne et al., 2009) to develop scripts that effectively portray bias, microaggressions, and attempted social closure. Through these scripts, literature, and qualitative data drawn from key informants in the geosciences, the project team will construct a set of three, 10-minute, simulations in which avatars express a variety of microaggressive behaviors and subtle biases.

Phases 4 and 5: Developing and Implementing the “Understanding and Countering Bias in the Geosciences” Institute( April- September, 2017 to October, 2018)

We will develop and implement a comprehensive, 3-day, bystander intervention and leadership training institute, which, paired with immersive simulations of authentic geoscience workplace scenarios, will provide participants with an opportunity to:

  • Learn about the ways in which White, male, cisgender, eurocentric, middle-class practices and assumptions are embedded within higher education and the broader geoscience industry, as well as the power structures that produce them;
  • Reflect on and discuss their own personal biases in a safe space; and
  • Practice recognizing and intervening in discriminatory practices

After the 3-day leadership workshop, we will engage participants in a monthly, virtual, journal club with the explicit goal of working with our participants in creating artifacts that they can bring to the attention of key gatekeepers in participants’ home institutions, which will require these gatekeepers to address issues of social closure productively.

Phase 6: Project Research and Internal Assessment

We plan to administer pre- and post-intervention surveys to assess participants’ self-efficacy for identifying and confronting racially and sexually prejudiced behaviors. Because people do not operate in a vacuum, people’s beliefs about their collective capacity to act (i.e., collective efficacy) will also be assessed. This is in line with our overall goal of producing champions for diversity who possess the skills and the belief that their collective departments and/or schools can mobilize their efforts to produce change.

Finally, because we are especially interested in which aspects of the intervention (e.g., the interactiveness of the Mursion simulation, or the ability to connect with others in the virtual network) were especially helpful and effective for which types of participants (e.g., a Chair versus a relatively junior faculty; or a faculty of color versus a White faculty), we will also assess participants’ experiences with each aspect of the intervention.

About Us


Jason Chen

Principal Investigator

Jason Chen is an assistant professor of educational psychology at the College of William and Mary, and focuses on how aspects of a learning environment relate to the ways in which individuals direct motivational and other cognitive resources to learn science and pursue STEM careers.  His expertise are rooted in social cognitive theories of motivation and the application of those theories to the design and implementation of innovative technologies to engage students in scientific inquiry.  He has been involved with the virtual simulation, TeachLive, which is currently produced and managed by Mursion, Inc.  In collaboration with the Mursion Inc. staff, Dr. Chen will help design scenarios, avatars, and scripts involved in the virtual simulation.  Dr. Chen will also be intimately involved in all seven phases of the project, with a special emphasis on assessing participants’ changes in attitudes toward diversity and beliefs about their capability to deploy the skills they learned in the trainings.

Carolyn Brinkworth

Co-Principal Investigator

Carolyn Brinkworth is the Director for Diversity, Education & Outreach at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). She holds a PhD in Astrophysics and a MA in Education, with a focus on improving departmental and institutional climate for LGBT students, staff and faculty. In her work at NCAR, Dr. Brinkworth runs equity and inclusion training for the organization’s employees, covering topics such as privilege, gender identity, race, and bystander intervention techniques. She is an author on the Inclusive Astronomy recommendations for improving departmental and workplace climate in the field of astronomy, and the LGBT Physicists’ guide: Supporting LGBT+ Physicists & Astronomers: Best Practices for Academic Departments.


Heather Houlton

Co-Principal Investigator

Heather Houlton is a science education researcher at the American Geosciences Institute holding her Master’s degree in Geology from Purdue University.  Her research specializes in the student-to-professional transition and workforce development, including bolstering participation of underrepresented groups in the geosciences.  She has been the PI on two NSF grants; the first was hosting a PD workshop for traditionally underrepresented geoscientists pursuing academic careers. The second grant was investigating non-PhD preparatory Master’s degree programs and student preparation for non-academic careers in the geosciences. She is currently the PI on an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant dedicated to increasing diversity within the Deep Carbon Observatory Community. In addition to these projects, she is the scholarship coordinator for AGI’s diversity scholarships. Houlton will be responsible for designing the interview protocol, and conducting data collection and analysis for the qualitative data that will construct the scenarios of bias, microaggressions, and prejudice. She will help integrate the data into meaningful scripts for the modules.

Jerlando F. L. Jackson

Co-Principal Investigator

Jerlando F. L. Jackson is the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education.  He is also the Director and Chief Research Scientist at Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory at UW-Madison.  His central research interest deals with organizational science in higher education, with a special interest in hiring practices, career mobility, workforce diversity, and workplace discrimination. He also has a portfolio of research focused on interventions designed to broaden participation for underrepresented groups in school-based educational settings and in the scientific workforce. He is credited with more than 100 publications that appear in high-impact journals that include Research in Higher Education, IEEE Computer, American Behavioral Scientist, Teachers College Record, Review of Higher Education, and West’s Educational Law Reporter. His books include Measuring Glass Ceiling Effects: Opportunities and Challenges (Jossey Bass, 2014); Introduction to American Higher Education (Routledge, 2010); Ethnic and Racial Administrative Diversity: Understanding Work Life Realities and Experiences in Higher Education (Jossey Bass, 2009); Strengthening the African American Educational Pipeline: Informing Research, Policy, and Practice (SUNY-Albany Press, 2007); and Toward Administrative Reawakening: Creating and Maintaining Safe College Campuses (Stylus Publishing, 2007). Dr. Jackson is responsible for developing and delivering the leadership development training component.


Andrea Motto

Co-Principal Investigator

Andrea Motto is the Manager of Public and Youth Engagement at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where she oversees programs that engage URM high school and undergraduate students in STEM literacy, college preparation, and career development. This work includes providing weekly after-school classes to over 100 students, collaborating with Yale faculty to provide research internships to high school seniors, and working with community organizations to implement a student-driven environmental justice group that explores air and water quality issues in the city. She holds a Ph.D. in Education, and her research focuses on using critical pedagogy to explore ways that  power and privilege are enacted in science education in museums and in post-secondary education. Dr. Motto will be involved in developing scenarios for the simulations, as well as developing curricular materials related to identifying and counteracting bias, which will be used for the 3-day workshop.  

Justin Richardson

Co-Principal Investigator

Justin Richardson is a postdoctoral fellow for the Critical Zone Observatory Network at Cornell University and holds a Ph.D. in Earth Sciences from Dartmouth College. His research focuses on using trace metals to understand processes of the critical zone, specifically plant-soil-human interactions. He has participated in the NSF-AGEP (Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate) program and served in developing the E.E. Just Program at Dartmouth College for increasing and retaining URM participation in STEM fields. Dr. Richardson will be responsible for development of the repository of exclusionary and biased practices and geoscience specific scenario scripts for the Mursion modules, working closely with the director of the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble. He will also act as a supporting member of the faculty diversity champions created by the GEODES program.  Finally, Dr. Richardson will leverage the Critical Zone Observatory Network and other professional societies to identify participants to interview. The interviews of successful and former geoscience students will be used to inform and shape the situations to be simulated in GeoDES.


Carrie Straub

Co-Principal Investigator

Carrie Straub is the Executive Director of Education Programs at Mursion, Inc., and is responsible for leading the design and implementation of immersive learning among Mursion’s 80+ partners. Previously, she was the Research Director for TeachLivE, the project at UCF that originally developed and tested the core technology utilized by Mursion. In that capacity, she planned, directed, and coordinated activities for a $1.5M national research project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to discover whether training in the TeachLivE virtual classroom could produce measurable changes in teacher practices and outperform more traditional professional development methods; and (b) take the TeachLivE model to scale. As Co PI, Dr. Straub’s primary role on this project will be to provide guidance and consultation to the other Co-PIs about how to best integrate virtual simulation into the research study.

Brian Teppen

Co-Principal Investigator

Brian Teppen is a professor in the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University. He is a soil chemist with a research focus on the environmental fates of organic pollutants, and expertise in applications of computational chemistry to environmental systems. Dr. Teppen often works as a modeler in large experimental research collaborations, which led him to engage philosophers and social scientists in several projects to study power relations and bias in knowledge production. He believes that a major frontier for physical science is admitting and grappling with the unconscious social conditioning that biases all our thought and action. In the current proposed  project, Teppen will help to write simulation scripts, recruit participants, develop and present workshop materials, and co-develop and co-lead the geoscience diversity-advocate continuing-education and mentoring network. Teppen hopes to learn from his fellow PIs and participants how to become a better diversity champion in his own university through facilitating training sessions for other scientists, practicing bystander-intervention behaviors, and strategically working for institutional change.


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