Cutting geology does not rock

Helen Mango, pictured in Iceland, is disheartened at the news of the geology major being cut

When Castleton alumni Gustav Semanchik graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geology, he said he was more than prepared to take on the career he had chosen. 

“I received such a wealth of knowledge and skills that I not only used practically while I was attending but also in my day-to-day life now, even in the future as I am going to grad school. I was able to see some of the most interesting and complex geology in the country through the program,” he said.

As the Vermont State College system begins the process to merge, many duplicate programs offered at more than one VSC campus are being cut, but low-enrolled programs are also at risk and are being cut.

Majors being eliminated at Castleton include women and gender studies, philosophy, geography and Spanish. 

And unfortunately for the Castleton University Natural Sciences Department, it also includes the geology major, which is not offered at any other public institution in Vermont. It’s a decision that many, including geology and chemistry professor Helen Mango are heartbroken to hear. 

“Geology is disappearing from the system, and I think that’s a big mistake,” she said in a March 24 interview.

The geology program at Castleton has been a keystone for the discipline in the state, as the program regularly produced students who became valuable assets in the field, she said.

Mango said Castleton has had the resources to be leading the state in this subject and has been a successful program from the start thanks to the program’s founder, Andy Raiford, who started it back in the early 1970s. 

Mango was hired at Castleton in the early ’90s to teach half geology courses and half chemistry courses. Although she likes teaching chemistry, she said her heart belongs to geology. Her passion is clear to every student she meets in and out of the classroom, who say her dedication over the years is unmatched. 

Castleton’s geology major was the last remaining public undergraduate program for geology in the state. Students aspiring to study the subject within the Green Mountain State now have only two options – Middlebury College or Norwich University – both of which are expensive programs at private universities. The University of Vermont cut its undergraduate geology program just a few weeks prior to the CU decision, in order to expand and update their graduate level geology program.

This is not the first time Castleton’s program has experienced cuts. Ones made to the major a few years ago left the program with no full-time faculty.  Mango has always taught half geology and half chemistry. When the only full-time professor, Tim Grover, retired early with no one to replace him, Mango said she felt “…like the rug was swept out from under me.”

Although the program at Castleton was always small, “Our students learned good science and went on to have quality positions within the field,” Mango said. 

Semanchik said the education he got at Castleton got him ready for what he would see out in the field. 

“What Castleton and its professors did was explain the extremely complex history of the rocks that are seen throughout the state and how they got there. It is even more impressive that they did so on such a tight budget, still something I don’t know how they managed,” he said.

Current students are also unhappy with the decision to cut programs in the natural sciences department. 

“The administration is moving from the sciences and the arts, and solely pushing majors that athletes will take,” said junior Adam Mitchell. 

In most cases, students do not learn about geology in high school science classes, they take the course for the first time in college and that is when they become interested in the subject, Mango said. 

And typically these students have already come in with a major they want to study, so many opt to take a minor instead of switching programs completely, she said.

The Natural Science Department plans to continue to offer a minor in geology, which many are taking advantage of, Mango said. But the requirements are to be adjusted and rethought to better fit what other science major’s need from the program. Mango said the department will continue to offer the introductory geology courses for science majors as well as courses geared towards general education opportunities for all students. 

These courses, however, do not utilize the very large collection of samples of minerals the university currently holds. In addition to the beautiful display located in Jeffords, the department also owns a large teaching collection that rarely gets its chance to educate. According to Mango, most of this collection is never covered in classes as the introductory course curriculum does not leave time to go this in depth. There is simply too much information to cover in the short amount of time that one semester provides. When financial struggles caused Green Mountain College in Poultney to close its doors, the geology department’s collection was donated to Castleton at zero cost to the university Mango said. 

The hope was that the samples would still be used to educate future geologists within Vermont, instead of being auctioned like the rest of the college. Not including the value of these huge collections, the natural science department also owns about $70,000 worth of equipment specific to the analysis, study and research of geology, most of which, again, will not be utilized for introductory courses.  

Mango hopes when the financial struggle of COVID-19 loosens its grip, the geology program can be built back into the system, and other science professors agree!

Andrew Vermilyea, professor and chair of the natural science department said, “One of our hopes is that with increased collaboration with institutions across the Vermont State College system that small programs like geology will be able to thrive by engaging faculty and students from across Vermont.”