Addressing Locally-tailored Information Infrastructure & Geoscience Needs for Enhancing Diversity (ALIGNED)

Addressing Locally-tailored Information Infrastructure & Geoscience Needs for Enhancing Diversity (ALIGNED) logo

The pipeline principle—that is, building relationships among educational institutions serving students at different stages from grade school, middle school, secondary, community colleges, undergraduate to graduate levels—is fairly well understood as a framework for recruitment efforts in higher education. However, it is often overlooked how such pipelines are spatial in nature, and how characteristics of place impact recruitment outcomes and retention rates. Where universities are, where prospective students are coming from or might come from, and the dynamic of these origins and destinations matter a great deal. It is also important to recognize the varied starting points for many departments: a small liberal arts school in the rural Midwest has different realities to contend with concerning recruitment and retention than an urban commuter school on the east coast. With this in mind, the Addressing Locally-tailored Information Infrastructure & Geoscience Needs for Enhancing Diversity (ALIGNED) project is consolidating the set of resources and studies developed over the past several years by the AAG to design a toolkit that supported departments in their efforts to enhance diversity.


More About ALIGNED

Where do we look to attract a more diverse group of students to our program? And what do we do once we find them? These are common questions asked at the departmental level, the reproductive core of our discipline and the place where students enter and engage with universities through their majors.

Despite growing national support for broadening participation in higher education, increasing university-level commitment to pursue goals of inclusion at their institutions, and widespread agreement with the goal of enhancing diversity within departments, undergraduate and graduate advisors can often find themselves at a loss for where and how to engage potential students from traditionally underrepresented populations.

To launch a process of collecting our current disciplinary insight to directly support the way departments address diversity in geography, the AAG received funding from the National Science Foundation’s Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences Program for the ALIGNED project.

The three-year pilot study sought to align the needs of university departments and underrepresented students by drawing upon the intellectual wealth of the discipline to inform and transform ways in which departments envision and realize their own goals to enhance diversity. NSF reviewers called the effort “an innovative and potentially transformative project with substantial merit, a refreshingly creative approach to understanding how we might improve recruitment and retention of underrepresented students in the geoscience-related fields.”

The toolkit, which is no longer available due to obsolete technology, included, among other items, linkages to an expanded AAG Diversity Clearinghouse, an annotated bibliography highlighting cutting-edge research by geographers and related scholars that offer understanding about how spatial dynamics and place-based realities relate to efforts to attract and keep underrepresented students; careers information resources that promote broader inclusion; and outcomes from the AAG’s recent research on graduate education conducted through the EDGE project. It also featured a mechanism to query spatial data and georeferenced information that can help departments identify their recruitment catchment areas, design diversity goals in relation to characteristics of communities of potential underrepresented students, and elaborate appropriate plans for how to best engage prospective young geographers.

ALIGNED also expanded the opportunities for underrepresented students in geography to participate in professional networking through organizing special activities at the AAG Annual Conferences and through providing supplemental support for attending the conference to students with disabilities, community college students, and AAG Diversity Ambassadors. It supported more participation in the Visiting Geographical Scientist Program for faculty to visit Historically Black Colleges & Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges & Universities. To evaluate the toolkit design, the AAG worked closely with an institutionally-diverse, geographically-distributed set of ten pilot hybrid geography/geosciences departments and reached out to synergistic programs and resources from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, American Association of Persons with Disabilities, American Association of Community Colleges, White House Commission on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities, and American Indian Higher Education Consortium, among other organizations.

This project highlighted the unique advantages of our discipline for underrepresented students, including the high growth of jobs in GIS and geospatial technology fields, multiple exit pathways into employment, the opportunity to make a difference, interesting research subjects such as environmental justice, and many other benefits of careers in geography. Resources were collected and developed to support departmental recruitment efforts. For example, the AAG’s ALIGNED-sponsored “Geography in Focus” photo competition reflected that the integrative subject matter of geography that spans human and physical sciences is harnessed to encourage students to see the relevance of all geoscience fields and draw them into disciplines and to colleges and universities that they may have not otherwise considered.

Geography departments that have stand-alone or integral diversity plans in place at the department level to recruit and retain under-represented minorities (URM) have an average graduate student population of 20.0% URM, while departments without plans only average 8.1 percent. (22.8% is the average for all STEM fields nationally.)

AAG’s initiatives, particularly the ALIGNED Project funded by the US National Science Foundation, have focused on supporting departments to develop realistic, place-based, geographically-aware plans at this level. These have proven valuable to pilot departments, and the handful of early adopters have seen female student participation rise 6% and URM participation rise nearly 15% from 2005 to 2010. (Data is not available for 2009-2012 for all pilot departments.) The increase reflects greater representation of all non-white groups except for Native American and Other. At the same time, total numbers of undergraduates enrolled in these departments grew by 16.2% so absolute growth in individual students was documented. Over the same time period, the AAG Departmental Data Survey reveals a drop in undergraduate URM across the responding set of departments from 14.4 to 12.7 % but a slight rise in graduate URM rates from 12.4 to 15.6 %. (Note this is not a census but a sample, and response rates doubled from 2005 to 2010.)

While it was too early to evaluate data on URM representation that result from the implementation activities of these plans at the time this project launched, the evaluation of the ALIGNED toolkit as a means toward progress on diversity measures revealed that this resource met every participating departments’ expectations to provide new insights for their plans, and even exceeded the expectations of half of the users. When asked about the project’s impact for inspiring action, respondents noted that “It was compelling … It moved us from a general sense of the situation to concrete data” but “Much more than data, it allows you to link potential actions with data.” Departments identified tangible uses from strategic planning to increase diversity, lobbying their university for diversity initiatives, educating faculty on diversity, tracking diversity trends in the institution and comparing them to others, grant writing for garnering support for diversity initiatives, SACS reports, and more.

Comments from pilot department reports on the qualitative nature of their progress:

“Participation in the AAG’s ALIGNED Program has been a critical component of our department’s success over the past in dealing with diversity and inclusion issues. We have been able to utilize the toolkit as well as other diversity materials, produced by the AAG, in drafting our Diversity Plan. We look forward to further collaboration with the AAG and hope that we can aid their work by serving as a pilot department in future grants.”

—University of Kansas

“The toolkit itself served as a catalyst for initiating a discussion regarding diversity within our department. It was through this discussion that these projects were borne. These activities have served as a catalyst for dialogue regarding diversity in our department. While the general sense in the department is that student diversity is not a problem – the tool revealed that our diversity numbers are lower than the university as a whole. Indeed, the most significant outcome to date is the consciousness-raising through participation. This perspective has tremendous potential as a tool for departments to enhance diversity recruitment and retention.”

—University of Texas at Austin

“The ALIGNED toolkit is a wonderful resource and very user friendly. It allows for the user to explore relevant information to target recruitment and open new opportunities to reach out to communities that would otherwise be “off the map.” The ability to merge data spatially – the AP data with the demographic data—in a user-friendly environment provides the basis for our approach. I do not think that we would have been able to identify the schools any other way. Houston ISD is one of the largest school districts in the country, and only a dataset and framework like the toolkit could provide the essential information to select schools to participate in the program.”

—Texas A&M University

“Although slow-going, I think we can point to some steps as a result of the ALIGNED project. Updating the strategic plan, the syllabus sharing session, creation of the common space, discussions on ways to integrate diversity into key classes all happened as a result of our participation in the project. I know my participation in the meetings has made me think about some additional readings to incorporate into classes.” 

—Illinois State University

“Thanks for letting us be part of the project I believe it improved our Department and forced us to think about issues that we would not have without the involvement.” 

—University of North Carolina, Wilmington

“It’s been a great boon to my department, primarily because it got us to start talking about diversity and also take some steps forward. We have a long way to go, but now that there is a large group of new, highly motivated junior faculty on board here, progress is finally being made…Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to get involved and for helping my department get its act together on this!”

—University of Wisconsin, La Crosse

Principal Investigator

Dr. Patricia Solís, AAG Director of Outreach and Strategic Initiatives


Dr. Inés Miyares (City University of New York)

Senior Personnel

Dawn Wright (Oregon State University);Chrys Rodrigue (California State University—Long Beach); Michael Solem (AAG)

The ALIGNED Board of Advisors

  • Greg Chu
  • Cynthia Berlin
  • Darryl Cohen, US Bureau of the Census
  • Leslie Duram
  • Ken Foote, University of Colorado and AAG President
  • Wendy Jepson
  • Al Kuslikis, American Indian Higher Education Consortium
  • Victoria Lawson, University of Washington
  • Lisa Marshall
  • David Padgett, University of Tennessee
  • Renee Pualani Louis, AAG Indigenous Peoples’ Specialty Group and IGU Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledges and Rights Commission
  • Alex Ramirez, Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities
  • Rickie Sanders, Temple University
  • Rebecca Torres

Our advisors with expertise in geosciences, education, diversity, spatial analysis and other relevant fields contributed their extensive experience working with diversity enhancement on their campuses, including from community colleges to doctoral universities at a broad set of geographic locations across the country. The diverse team itself represents traditionally underrepresented groups, including women, ethnic minority, gay, and foreign-born researchers in recognition of the value of multiple perspectives to help mobilize and retool departments with better ways to learn where to find and how to connect with underrepresented groups, including how to convey the relevance of geography and geoscience careers.

AAG Staff

  • Jean McKendry
  • Joy Adams
  • Astrid Ng

Technical and Toolkit Mapping Work

Kevin Knapp, Tierra Plan LLC

Pilot Departments

  • Illinois State University
  • University of Missouri – Kansas City
  • University of North Carolina – Wilmington
  • University of Texas – Austin
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of Wisconsin – La Crosse
  • Southern Illinois University – Carbondale