Mining in America invokes passions pro and con. An embedded research project in a Mineralogy course provides students with first-hand experience to engage exploration, development and remediation of mineral resource deposits as a possible career path, and hosting mineral companies get access to state-of-the-art research results that can be used to inform their project operations. This instructional activity addresses national needs to develop mineral resources to sustain our economic health and national security, and to develop the workforce needed to support the mineral industries from discovery to environmental remediation.
Students in the core shack at the Black Butte Cu-Co Deposit, hosted by Tintina Resources.
The United States is facing crises with respect to mineral resources on two fronts: 1) the dependence of the security and economic health of the United States on critical and strategic mineral resources required to sustain our quality of life (NRC, 2008; see also USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2015), and 2) the need to train the future workforce that is prepared to work in the area of mineral resources, including exploration, development, mining, ore processing and environmental remediation of mineral resource deposits (NRC, 2013). Modern technologies demand use of resources from virtually the entire periodic table, most of which are exceedingly rare in nature, are not currently mined in deposits developed in the US, and are imported from countries that may be politically unstable or may not be particularly friendly to the interests of the U.S. Examples of uses of critical minerals include: solar panels (boron, gallium cadmium, germanium, indium, selenium, tellurium), wind turbines (cobalt, Rare Earth Elements, cadmium, lithium), cell phones (gold, palladium, platinum indium, tantalum, cesium)...you get the picture. With respect to preparation of geoscientists to explore, develop, mine and reclaim mineral resources, the AGI Status of the Workforce (2016) reports that only 4% of Geoscience graduates with a MA/MS degree were hired in the mineral sector (none were reported for BA/BS or PhD; Figure 4.2), even though the median salary in mining and geologic engineering is over $90,000/year (2015; Figure 4.10). Although there is well-founded concern about legacy environmental issues related to mining, the fact is that the quality of life in our modern society is strongly dependent on access to a wide array of mineral resources (see InTeGrate Module on Human's Dependence on Earth's Mineral Resources
). We're in a world of hurt in our inattention to development of both the physical and human resources required to support the mineral extraction (and recovery) industries.
Students exploring a massive sulfide deposit in the Newland Formation, Belt Supergroup, at the Black Butte Cu-Co Deposit, hosted by Tintina Resources.
To address these national needs, every year my Mineralogy class (n ~ 30-35 students) undertakes an embedded research project (see On the Cutting Edge module on Undergraduate Research in Upper Division Courses
) to characterize the mineralogy of local mineral exploration/development projects, active mines, or post-mining environmental remediation sites. The goals of these projects are to: 1) produce good Science that will be useful for the operations of our host companies, and 2) to produce good Scientists, who are developing the knowledge and skills to step into the modern geoscience workforce. Over the years we have benefitted greatly through collaborative projects sponsored by the Golden Sunlight Mine (Barrick Resources), Yellowstone Talc Mine (formerly operated by Luzenac Resources), the Stillwater Mining Company, and most recently by Tintina Resources (developers of the Black Butte Cu-Co deposit). These projects typically include a field trip to see the deposits first hand, to collect samples for analysis, and to interact with project geologists which includes a discussion of "what it takes" to become an exploration geologist, professional development required to be successful in the minerals industry, and employment opportunities. The Mineralogy students are required to characterize the mineralogy of the ore and gangue minerals, and must integrate observations and data from petrographic analysis (if thin sections are available), X-ray powder diffraction (mineral identification from whole rock powders and clay mineral identification using USGS protocols), SEM and back-scattered electron (BSE) imaging of ore minerals and their textures, energy dispersive spectrometry (EDS) analysis of mineral compositions, and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis of whole rock powders to identify metals of interest as well as possible environmental contaminants. All students write a consulting report with their data and interpretations for the sponsoring company, which is a valuable asset for their portfolios when they apply to graduate school or for employment. Beyond mastery of scientific skills and use of disciplinary knowledge, the students also must practice established professional skills including communication with numerous audiences, data representation and interpretation, collaborative skills as they must work in small groups and compare results, and related professional practices such as lab safety, cleanliness of work spaces, adherence to schedules (instrument time is costly and limited), reporting chain of custody of samples and procedures used in their processing, and assuming responsibility of their personal contributions and to the overall success of the project.
These types of embedded research projects in geoscience classes are a win-win-win-win-win proposition: students gain essential experience in authentic research projects that demonstrate the procedures used in our community of practice, and they also gain insights into a potential career pathway (mineral industries) that they may not have previously considered; our lab facilities benefit from expanded use of our instrumentation, as many students choose to continue this work in undergraduate research projects or continuing to graduate school; the institution benefits as we contribute to the central mission of our land grant institution to serve the citizens of our State and contribute to its economic well-being; companies benefit as they receive state-of-the-art results to inform their project development; and the nation benefits as there is an increased awareness about our reliance on mineral resources, and potentially the development of the workforce needed to address these needs.
American Geosciences Institute, Status of the Geoscience Workforce, 2016
(can be ordered at: https://www.americangeosciences.org/workforce/reports
InTeGrate, Human's Dependence on Earth's Mineral Resources;
National Research Council, 2008, Minerals, Critical Minerals, and the U.S. Economy, National Academy Press
National Research Council, 2013, Emerging Workforce Trends in the U.S. Energy and Mining Industries: A Call to Action, National Academy Press
On the Cutting Edge, Strategies to Involve Undergraduates in Research: Upper Division Courses, Independent Study, and REU's http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/undergraduate_research/strategies.html
U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summaries, 2015