At the start of the 20th century, Virginia Tech looked quite different than it does today. There were 728 male students enrolled in the university in 1904, the year that what is known as today's Department of Geosciences was born. The site of the present-day Derring Hall was part of a row of faculty houses. All courses taught in what today is the College of Science took place in one small building that was located at the site of today’s Shanks Hall in the upper quad. Thomas Watson was hired as professor of geology and mineralogy and thus began a program of study that would eventually be recognized internationally for its excellence.
Watson left the next year, and despite the fact that the science building almost completely burned in 1905, and the total enrollment at what was then called Virginia Polytechnic Institute dropped to 477 during World War I, the department survived thanks to Watson’s replacement, Roy J. Holden. A young geologist who had just completed his Ph.D., Holden served as a dedicated and inspiring mentor to all who took geology at VPI for the next 40 years. Almost single-handedly, he brought the department through the first half of the century.
Even in those early days, being a geology major was not for the faint of heart. The 1904-05 college catalog lists such mandatory courses for geology majors as chemical physics, inorganic chemistry, zoology, and French in the first two years, and metallurgy, mineralogy, organic chemistry, petrography, and German in the last two. In 1907, the department graduated its first major, Joel Watkins, who later became a prosperous mining entrepreneur.
Watkins and those who followed him in the early years would have been members of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets and enrolled in the “Scientific Department” as it was called. A description for General Geology A, the major’s introductory course, reads,”Lectures, recitations, field and laboratory work. General outlines of the subject including dynamics, structural and historical geology. During the fall and spring, the laboratory period is devoted to field study of geological phenomena near the Institute.”
Today, the geosciences program, which is housed mainly in Derring Hall, harbors more than 20 specialized research facilities, including a unique crystallography lab, a state-of-the-art transmission electron microscope, and a worldwide standard seismograph station. The department also houses a museum containing more than 13,000 mineralogical and paleontological specimens used for research, education, and outreach. Internationally recognized faculty lead research programs in the forefront areas of geosciences, including Earth surface processes, geobiology, geochemistry, geophysics, hydrogeology, mineralogy, petrology, and tectonics.
Today, Virginia Tech’s Department of Geosciences is known worldwide and has consistently been ranked among the best geosciences programs in the nation for the past 20 years. In fact, the National Research Council has ranked it as the leading geosciences program in the southeastern United States, public or private.
Research conducted by renowned faculty members and their students spans the entire globe. One-third of the department’s faculty members have won one or more international medals for excellence in science, including the Alexander von Humboldt Research Award, the Bowen Medal, and the Dana Medal. The department has two prestigious Fellows in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and two University Distinguished Professors, the highest honor awarded to faculty at Virginia Tech. Four faculty members have even had minerals named in their honor.
In addition to excellence in teaching, research is a driving force in the department, which reported more than $2.5 million in research expenditures during the 2006-07 academic year. All 22 graduating seniors in geosciences in spring 2008 participated in faculty-mentored research as an undergraduate. At any given time, 80 to 100 undergraduate students are working on degrees in geosciences, and the department awards thousands of dollars in graduate scholarships each year.
The first graduate of the geology (now geosciences) program at Virginia Tech was Joel Hill Watkins from Charlotte Court House, Va., who finished all requirements with the VPI Class of 1907. Read more.
After Roy Holden's death 1945, Byron Cooper arrived to begin the department's evolution to its status today.
Some notable events since Cooper's arrival include
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