August 2018

Educating the next generation of geologists

  • By D R Cohen

This is an edited extract of a keynote presentation originally delivered at the Tenth International Mining Geology Conference in 2017

Australia has a long tradition of providing high-quality geoscience programs to prepare graduates for entry to the workforce or undertake further studies. Employment opportunities in the future will be significantly different from those of the past and educational pathways need to provide for this. Geoscience graduates must have highly transferable generic skills that extend beyond traditional geoscience careers.

Changes in systems are brought about by revolution or evolution. At the tertiary level, changes to the way universities deliver academic programs are becoming more revolutionary than evolutionary. There are several drivers for this revolution. The dominant drivers are the dramatic and disruptive advances in the digital world – from data availability and advanced personal digital devices to new capabilities in data analytics. For educators there is increasing focus on delivering material and designing activities based upon more systematic studies on how students learn rather than simply how academics wish to teach (Bain, 2004; Hochella, 2007). Advances in the quality and quantity of online material and the capacity for software to analyse student performance will benefit students at one end of the scale, and potentially allow universities to significantly ‘scale up’ teaching at the other end.

In an increasingly competitive market, the need to improve the quality of our teaching programs, ensure a good student experience and better meet the expectations of employers is driving universities to commit significant resources to staff educational development and new infrastructure.

The sectors

Universities and the tertiary sector

Universities are very protective of their reputations. Reputation influences whether staff and students choose to come to a university. Many overseas students will not enrol in a university unless it is ranked in the top 100. To the array of university research quality ranking systems and individual staff metrics, new measures of student experience and teaching performance are being added.

Universities must balance their books and generate sufficient surpluses to maintain and renew their infrastructure. Most university budget models militate against the effects on staffing of short to medium-term swings in demand (unlike the swings in employment that characterise the resources industry). Universities do not fund disciplines in direct proportion to the income generated but a mix of income generated and the cost to operate. This has generally benefitted science, medicine and engineering, who typically receive significant cross-subsidisation from non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) faculties to cover the higher cost of delivery and the hidden costs of research. At the department level there is cross-subsidy of upper level subjects using the income from the larger first year subjects. For most universities, the financial break-even is 35 students in a class. It is higher for field-based subjects. In the modern demand-driven system, disciplines displaying growth will eventually be rewarded with additional staff or resources and waning areas will contract and eventually disappear.

Ideally, the tertiary sector should contain widespread availability of geoscience programs, designed to graduate professional geoscientists, and the possibility for university students pursuing other science majors and degrees outside of science to have access to geoscience options within their degrees. Unfortunately, the narrow view of the geosciences as largely vocational training commonly results in small class sizes compared with other science disciplines.

Small classes offer great educational benefit but are financial millstones that require cross-subsidisation from the operating budgets of other disciplines. Such cross-subsidies occur at many levels within our universities as administrations attempt to optimise various outcomes, including generation of high-quality research. In other cases (eg geodesy and geophysics) the problem of small student numbers has resulted in ongoing contraction of the subdisciplines.

Despite the contention of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) that geology is a fundamental science, we are not given the ‘protected species’ status typical of physics, mathematics and chemistry. Those disciplines are generally a co-requisite of geoscience degrees – the converse is not the case.

In terms of educational quality, the three key components that can be measured are:

  1. The student experience
  2. The capacity of students to demonstrate readiness to gain entry to professional practice or continued studies
  3. The perception of quality by employers.

By these measurements, the geosciences track very well.

By the first measure, most universities have indicated to me that students typically rate geoscience subjects significantly above those of the other sciences. I can verify this for UNSW, where the geosciences track above the biological sciences. It can be broadly concluded that our programs are delivering capable geoscientists.

As to the third category, there are now international comparators. The QS (2017) rankings of universities and subjects are based on a mix of hard metrics and the opinions of a large set of academics and employers. While the methodologies may be debated, they do form a basis to compare institutions. The underlying excellence of the earth (and marine) sciences in Australian universities is demonstrated by QS placing five of our universities in the world’s top 50 and seven in the next 50. The interesting trend for our top 12 performers is an inverse relationship between academic reputation and employer-determined reputation. Can’t we all be good at both research and teaching, or is there a cost to excellence in research or excellence in teaching that must be borne by the other half?


As a major employer of graduates and a contributor to the public purse through taxes and royalties, industry has a right to have its expectations of the knowledge and skills in graduates heard. While industry has some capacity to direct the syllabus in programs that must be accredited (such as engineering), geological sciences are typically delivered within programs that do not require (and which would likely oppose) external accreditation beyond the general rules concerning degrees that will permit graduates membership of relevant professional or learned societies.

Conflict emerges from time to time between universities and industry over the content of degrees. Assuming a student completes honours in geology (a four-year degree) there will be ~2000 hours of structured teaching time (lectures, laboratories, fieldwork, thesis and independent research) with an expectation of a further ~1000 hours of reading, assignments and exam revision. Once the necessary science subjects such as maths and chemistry (and, for some universities, general education subjects) are deducted, around 60 per cent of the remainder focuses on the geology major. Half of this will probably be taken up introducing the main subdisciplinary areas such as mineralogy, petrology, structure, sedimentary systems and palaeontology, leaving 30 per cent of a program or ~600 contact hours for in-depth study of subdisciplines and integrative subjects such as field mapping or tectonics, as well as the honours project. Additional fields of study – economics, project management, languages – add excellent breadth to a graduate’s skill set but must come at the expense of geological core and elective subjects.

Some in industry criticise universities for not turning out ‘work-ready’ graduates. Universities can likewise be critical of industry for not carrying its weight in delivering professional development through vacation or part-time work for students and high-quality graduate programs for those entering the full-time workforce. The AusIMM provides an excellent blueprint for graduate programs (AusIMM, 2017) but few companies or government agencies have the resources to properly implement them. In the case of the geosciences, the AusIMM program is very mine-site oriented, though the model is adaptable to suit employment circumstances.


Governments like the tertiary sector; education generates $21 billion in export earnings and is the third largest export industry in Australia.

At the 2017 Universities Australia GenNext Conference, both Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham and Shadow Minister for Education Tanya Plibersek pointed to the need for agility in the university sector to continually revisit the question of whether our graduates will collectively meet the economic needs of Australia and to avoid preparing graduates for job types that will not exist.

Whereas governments have recognised the need for producing graduates that meet the nation’s skills needs, this is more qualitative than quantitative. The demand-driven enrolment policy rewards quantity and is oblivious to areas of national priority or need. It is also quite expensive.

Australian Academy of Science Decadal Plan for the Earth Sciences

Education will feature prominently in the AAS Decadal Plans. This will include reference to both specific training of geoscientists and the general necessity for a society that is geoscience literate.

If geoscience education in Australia is critical to our national development, then it should be approached on a national basis through the collaborative efforts of government, education providers and industry, but in the context of the society we should be serving. This reflects aspects of the recent position statement of the Geological Society of America (2016): This is a critical time for students to understand how the Earth works as a system and how humans interact with the Earth. Understanding the causes and potential societal consequences of natural Earth processes (earthquakes, floods, landslides, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, weather and global climate change) and the production, availability, and potential depletion of natural resources (water, soil, minerals and energy) is of particular importance. These processes and resources impact our economy, our security, and the safety and sustainability of our environment.

The schools sector

All states and territories require some geosciences to be taught up to Year 10. Most states provide earth and environmental science (E&ES) or equivalent subjects at senior school level. It is encouraging that E&ES enrolments have grown, but total uptake is still very low.

Increasing E&ES enrolments is largely controlled by the capacity of schools to offer E&ES which, in turn, is limited by the availability of qualified staff and teaching resources. A desire to teach must be the main driver for those wishing to enter the school system, but other incentives such as reductions in HECS and even re-introduction of teaching scholarships for all or part of university programs for high-quality students will assist in enticing STEM graduates into teaching.

The link between the numbers of students undertaking E&ES at senior high school and enrolments in geoscience programs at universities is tenuous in most states. Though employment prospects in the resources industry are a factor in students deciding on tertiary geoscience programs, employment is not as prominent in the thinking of students as in previous generations. Unemployment amongst law graduates is very high but students are still applying for Bachelor of Law courses in droves. Geology is being marketed as a fundamental and intrinsically exciting scientific discipline to join, rather than a generator of cannon fodder for the resources sector.

Degree structure and content – is there an agreed ‘geology’ syllabus anymore?

The geosciences are evolving, new challenges for society emerging and new approaches to education developing. The content, delivery and character of our geoscience programs must similarly evolve.

Geoscience students must have the ability to handle ambiguity, incomplete data sets and high levels of uncertainty. They must not only be excellent problem-solvers but also have a deep appreciation of the long timescales and lags in systems that are essential to properly understanding earth processes. In a progressively more digital age, and with the availability of more advanced data acquisition systems and computing capabilities, the statistical, coding and spatial information skills of graduates will continue to expand. Beyond this, the general skills developed in the context of geoscience programs should prepare students for employment outside the geosciences. Mining engineering and geology were singled out by the CEO of the Group of Eight Universities (Thompson, 2016) as an example of where the industry downturn was having a significant effect on employment, but that the fundamental skills developed in those students were applicable across a range of industries.

Most university departments specialise in a more limited set of areas than 20 years ago (as reflected in their staff profiles and research outputs) and this flows through to the senior undergraduate offerings. The days of having four or more specialist mineralogists and/or petrologists on staff and multiple petrology subjects are gone (Wei, 2003).

Ronald (2017) provides a succinct history of geology training from the resources perspective and the ‘importance of a strong scientific foundation based on field observations, continuous challenges and varied experiences for career success’. I question whether the decline in mineral deposit exploration success from the late 1990s can be attributed to inadequacies in recent undergraduate programs. Instead, I would argue it is because of a decline in systematic regional exploration, inadequate methods for detecting mineralisation under cover and project management ill-equipped for handling large and complex data sets.

Unlike many other professions we (certainly the universities) have tended to oppose formal accreditation of academic programs by external bodies, let alone government-sanctioned professional registration schemes. However, this does not mean we should shy away from defining the core competencies, knowledge, and areas of specialisation that are necessary for a major to be defined as ‘geoscience’ or a graduate to be able to label themselves a ‘geologist’ and obtain employment in areas such as the resources sector, or gain entry to professional associations.

In designing the geoscience program of the future, some sacrifice of content may be needed to provide time to develop more generic skills and span greater breadth within and beyond the geosciences. It is also universally acknowledged by staff and students that high-cost field-based activities embedded in undergraduate programs provide students with important, authentic, experiential learning opportunities at various stages of their study and are one of the defining features and major attractions of geoscience programs.

Institutional collaboration

Whereas institutional collaboration in research has many obvious advantages, the benefits of collaboration on the teaching front are less clear. Consensus among the universities is that moves to reduce the number of geoscience departments to ensure critical mass of academic staff and viability of degree programs in the departments that remain will simply result in fewer departments and graduates nationally. Australian students typically choose their university first (based on institutional status and where their friends are heading), closely followed by the general discipline, and finally subdiscipline.

The Victorian Institute of Earth and Planetary Sciences (a teaching collaboration between Monash and Melbourne) has been in place for two decades, the equivalent Sydney Universities Consortium of Geology and Geophysics (Universities of Sydney, NSW, Macquarie and UTS) was shorter-lived, though some common field-based modules remain. Whereas such agreements were designed to provide students wider selection of subjects in their upper years, they can also be used by university administrators to justify smaller (or even fewer) departments at the member universities.


From time to time you get presentations that are disturbing. A recent presentation by Hugh Bradlow, the Chief Scientists at Telstra, was one (Bradlow, 2017). With the development of so much advanced teaching material online and the growth in capacity to rapidly handle big data and undertake complex analytics, are we finally at the point of delivering individualised learning programs for students? Not the student-tutor model of Oxbridge but a model that is scalable to very large student cohorts.

While there is a growing move to build and evaluate individual competencies online, there will always be a place for an on-campus experience. This is not the case for all students as colleagues at Arizona State University have explained – the desire of 17-year-olds to have an on-campus experience (only part of which would be strictly academic) is significantly higher than for veterans returning from their third tour of duty and commencing a degree through the GI Bill.

As most lectures have gone online, attendance rates have dropped significantly, especially as the term moves on. I would be happy with 65 per cent attendance by week ten. There have been numerous studies on relationships between class attendance and academic performance (eg Massingham and Terrington, 2006). While attendance is often a proxy for engagement with a subject (and strong engagement generally leads to good results assuming universities maintain suitable entry bars) the advent of online lectures and related materials are finally killing off the lecture as a primary means of transmitting knowledge and understanding. I believe there is still a place for the lecture, especially at first year, to help paint a picture of the big ideas and issues in each discipline and the framework within which individual subjects are constructed, but the real learning and skills development are dependent on practical activities – labs, tutorials, group work and fieldwork.


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Thompson, V, 2016. Impact of the Turnbull government’s innovation agenda on higher education and employability, Speech to Graduate Employability and Industry Partnerships Forum by Ms Vicky Thompson, CEO, the Group of Eight.

Wei, C, 2003. Using contemporary education strategies to improve teaching and learning in petrology courses at Peking University, The China Papers, July 2003, 84–89.

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