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The value of mining industry experience in teaching the earth sciences

Phil Hawke
Department of Geology and Geophysics
The University of Western Australia
In response to the growing demand for graduates with the appropriate skills to enter the mining industry the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Western Australia, in consultation with the Mineral Council of Australia and industry representatives, has redesigned its Honours program.

The author's involvement in this program was in the design and teaching of an elective unit titled "Geophysics for Geologists". While this was the first time teaching a formal class, the author was able to draw on industry experience in the subject. This relatively unusual lecturer background has a number of advantages and disadvantages for student learning. This paper provides a summary of these from the authors experience and student feedback.


Background

It is an increasing trend within higher education that one of its primary roles is seen as vocational training, particularly for students aspiring to one of the professional careers. As a result, universities are being increasingly assessed according to their success in achieving a measurable amount of graduate employment (Rosenman, 1996).

This trend is particularly evident in the Earth Sciences. Recent Graduate Destinations surveys at the University of Western Australia show that over sixty percent of students graduating with an Honours level degree or higher with majors in geology or geophysics find geoscience related work in government or private industry. A large percentage also sought to continue further studies in the subject. Only ten percent of respondents were seeking work or found employment unrelated to their studies. Similar trends of graduate destinations are reported nationally by the Graduate Careers Council of Australia (GCCA, 2000).

Tertiary institutions are aware of the need to provide graduates with the necessary tools to gain employment. These are not limited to an understanding of their field of study, but also include a suite of "transferable skills" such as communications skills, critical thinking and self motivation. Several papers at this forum address this issue (Banham, 2002, Soontiens, 2002).

In 2001, the Department of Geology and Geophysics sought to address this issue by restructuring the Honours program to include a number of new course units designed to provide a background for working in the mining industry. These units were selected in consultation with the Mineral Council of Australia and industry representatives to teach some aspects of the profession not covered in traditional geology courses.

Training in "life skills" such as project management, four wheel driving, basic safety and bush survival were provided, though these were not assessed. Core course units, counting toward the final grade for all students, included subjects such as mining law, mineral economics and the modern application of computers in the geosciences. A number of qualified external lecturers were sought from the mining industry to teach many of these new subjects. These lecturers provided expert knowledge on subject material not commonly used in academia and an opportunity for students to interact with professionals currently working in the industry.

Geophysics for geologists

The author's involvement in this new Honours program was in designing and teaching an elective unit titled "Geophysics for Geologists". Geophysics is a specialist sub-discipline of the Earth Sciences often used, but generally poorly understood, by other geoscientists. The main aim of the course was to provide a general working knowledge, without complex theory, of advanced geophysical techniques to mainstream geology students.

In designing the course, the author was able to draw on personal experience as a geophysicist in private industry. As the class size was small, the course could be run as a workshop. This style of teaching is common to many professional development courses and had been previously used by the author for informal coaching in geophysics to his industry peers.

The course consisted of three components. Firstly, a series of informal lectures were used to convey fundamental information. The lessons were supported by short, practical exercises, focussing on the lecture topic. These were aimed to show a correct application of each geophysical technique learned. Most were taken from real world examples, where geophysics had been used to solve a particular geological problem.

The main tool for assessment was a project in which each student was required to perform a relatively complex task: the interpretation of a large suite of geophysical data, relating this to geology, assessing of the economic (mineralisation) potential of the area based on the data available, and provide a report to their manager (the teacher) including a concise summary of their findings and recommendations for further work.

The data set used for the project was, in fact, one interpreted by the author several years earlier in his role as a company geophysicist. One of the aims of the project was to teach the students a strategy for breaking down a multi-component data set and the process by which the results of each can be combined to produce a meaningful interpretation. This type of task is one of the core duties of many industry geoscientists.

On the final day of the course (just before the students were asked to write their final report), the students were shown the drilling results from the real exploration project to compare against the targets they had selected. It was satisfying to witness the air of anticipation as the results were brought to light. Much the same feeling exists in any mining house, as the results of drilling programs become known.

Discussion

The author's background is somewhat unusual for a university lecturer. Although he has over eight years industry experience, this is the first time teaching a formal class. There were a number of positive and negatives to this, both from the student perspective as well as from the teacher's. The following summarises the author's experience as well as student feedback.

Advantages

Disadvantages

This teaching style assumes, and hopefully builds on, a relatively sophisticated level of the "transferable skills" listed earlier. While this is entirely appropriate for students preparing to enter the workplace, a more traditional, theory based style of teaching would be better for first and second year students.

References

Banham, V. (2002). Caught between a rock and a soft place: Bridging the gap between university learning and the world of work. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/abstracts/banham-abs.html

GCCA (2000). Graduate Careers Council of Australia. Gradfiles 2000.
http://www.gradlink.edu.au/gradlink/gcca/GFiles2000.pdf

Rosenman, L. (1996). The Broadening of University Education: An Analysis of Entry Restructuring and Curriculum Change Options. Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Canberra. [verified 20 Dec 2001] http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/highered/eippubs/eip9612.htm

Soontiens, W., de la Harpe, B. and Briguglio, C. (2002). Assessing professional skill development at a third year level. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/soontiens.html

Author: Phil Hawke, PhD student and part-time Lecturer, Department of Geology and Geophysics, The University of Western Australia. phawke@geol.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Hawke, P. (2002). The value of mining industry experience in teaching the earth sciences. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/hawke.html


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