The edge was a line of improbable contradictions. Above it, the high summer sky stretched to oblivion, pale and merciless. Below, a landscape carved by time itself—thousand-foot cliffs describing the course of an ancient river, two billion years of history demarked in light and shadow. Jeff Sitgreaves stood between the two feeling insignificant yet grasping for the first time the significance. “So this is what geology is all about,” he thought as he gazed into the Grand Canyon.
It was 2007 and he was 16 years old, a high school sophomore from a small Texas town, and he was on an adventure that would change his life in ways he couldn’t yet understand: a field trip organized by GeoFORCE Texas, a summer outreach program designed to get kids excited about the geosciences. And obviously it was working.
Sitgreaves walked among monuments of stone. All around rose the epochs of the earth, frozen in stratified rock. Here, millions of years ago, protozoa wriggled in primordial seas. There, dinosaurs roamed the earth and, much later, humans lived, the distant ancestors of the Hopi and the Navajo. And here was Jeff Sitgreaves observing firsthand this living record of the earth’s past.
“GeoFORCE is a four-year program for high school students and this was my second trip with the program,” said Sitgreaves. “We had been to the Appalachians the summer before and I thought it was pretty interesting. But I hadn’t been blown away by geology until that week at the Grand Canyon.”
Launched in 2005 by the University of Texas at Austin’s (UT) Jackson School of Geoscience, GeoFORCE coordinates 15 annual field trips to geologic sites across the U.S. These trips allow students in small, often rural and underprivileged school districts in southwest Texas and Houston to meet new, inspiring people and learn about geology. The program’s ultimate goal is to increase the number and diversity of students pursuing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degree programs.
Today, more than 570 students go through GeoFORCE each year, and it boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate for participants who go through all four years. As of 2015, more than 95 percent of those graduates have gone on to college, with about 60 percent in STEM fields.
Sitgreaves hails from Bracketville, TX, a town of fewer than 2,000 people. What first drew him to GeoFORCE wasn’t geology, but the prospect of a fun summer trip outside the Lone Star State. If he happened to learn a little about rocks along the way, so be it.
The Grand Canyon changed that.
“After the Grand Canyon trip, I knew that the geology itself could be an adventure and a career,” said Sitgreaves. “The next year we went to the Pacific Northwest and visited Crater Lake and Mt. St. Helens. On the final trip we went to Florida and studied modern carbonate sediments on the beaches to unlock the secrets of the ancient rock record, a concept I use every day in my job as an exploration geologist.”
While his sophomore trip to Arizona ignited his passion for geology, it was on the beach in Florida that Sitgreaves found his calling and decided to turn his passion into a profession.
In 2010, he enrolled at UT. Many kids who had gone through the program with him were there as well. They were a source of support while Sitgreaves transitioned from high school to college. He earned a bachelor’s in geophysics in 2013 and a master’s in geology in 2015.
Today, Sitgreaves is an example of GeoFORCE coming full circle. He was recruited out of UT by ExxonMobil, a founding sponsor of the program and an active participant in the summer trips. He began his career as a geologist with the company in January this year, using his knowledge of the earth to help find new energy sources. He’s currently exploring for new resources in the Brazilian salt basins.
“GeoFORCE is unique in the way it opens doors and presents opportunities that wouldn’t be there otherwise,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gotten into geoscience. I wouldn’t have worked with some of the best scientists in the world. And I wouldn’t have found a career in the energy industry.”
All those possibilities opened up to Sitgreaves as he stared at the impossible beauty of the Grand Canyon on that one summer day back in 2007.