Over the years I’ve interviewed lots of geoscientists, and one of the questions I tend to ask them is, “What got you interested in this field?” Almost unanimously, their answer has been, “I like being outdoors.”

In an industry that worries about training the next generation, the University of Texas at Austin (UT) has responded with a program tailored for rural and inner-city teens that certainly has them spending a lot of time outdoors. Called GeoFORCE, the program exposes the teens to four consecutive summers of weeklong geological field trips and helps them get into college. The success of the program has recently resulted in the awarding of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, announced by President Barack Obama March 27.

According to Samuel Moore, director of outreach and diversity programs at UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences, the program started 10 years ago at the behest of several university alumni who were concerned about the lack of diversity in the geosciences. “They said, ‘You’ve got to do something about this because the profile of the state is changing, and that’s our pool for the workforce,’” he said. The program started with schools in rural southwest Texas and has since been expanded to include students from the Houston area.

Every year about 600 students take part in the program and are recruited out of the eighth grade. Students must maintain a strong B average, especially in math and science.

After learning where the students get to go, I toyed with the idea of enrolling in eighth grade again. In the first summer the students study sediments and beach processes, beginning in areas around Austin and then flying to Florida. In the second summer they visit the Grand Canyon. “They hike halfway down into the canyon getting a lesson on the way,” Moore said. “This is where they start learning about deep geological time and layered rock. There’s not a better classroom.”

Year three takes them to the Pacific Northwest to study igneous rocks and volcanic activities. This trip includes a visit to Mount St. Helens and Crater Lake. Year four takes them to the Appalachians to get a look at complex rocks and folding, concluding with a visit to the U.S. Geological Survey headquarters.

In addition to offering great field trips, the program also helps the students prepare for their college exams and applications. “For many of these students, they’re the first one in their family going to college, and their parents can only provide them with so much information,” he said. There are 96 graduates of the program in various disciplines at UT and 487 program graduates altogether attending some sort of institute of higher learning, including one Ph.D. candidate at UT.

Not all of the students become geoscientists, and not all of them go into science, technology, engineering or math. Moore said this is not a concern for the sponsors. “They know the students have been given the opportunity to make an informed choice,” he said.