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The importance of field work in geology

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The most essential experience a geologist needs is time in the field. Image credit: Remote Exploration Services

The importance of field work in geology

Ask any veteran geologist and they’ll tell you that the most essential experience a geologist needs is time in the field; boots on the ground, looking at the rocks and debating features (often quite robustly) with colleagues around the campfire.

By Charl van Rensburg  for Remote Exploration Services

Going out into the field provides context, critical to really understanding geological concepts such as metamorphism, sedimentary structures, and deformation styles, amongst others.

The more time spent in the field, the better one is able to build a visual catalogue as conceptual reference (or mental picture if you like), essential in facilitating the better interpretation of fragmented more abstract information.

Basically, the more you see and experience in the field, the more you are able to fill-in gaps when faced with incongruous information.

Historically, Universities and Tertiary Institutions have been responsible to provide young geoscience students and graduates with their first taste of field work. Usually taking the form of a Field Trip where students join their class-mates and lecturers for a few days at a location with interesting geology. For most it would be the crystallisation of the theoretical into the practical.

Fieldwork. Experience that cannot be taught (The importance of field work in geology)

The onset of Covid-19 created a pivot-point that would radically impact education. As in industry, educational institutions had to suddenly grapple with how to still deliver their services against a backdrop of lockdowns and without access to their usual infrastructure.

This cloud of unpredictability was completely at odds with these institutions’ usual reliance on the university timetable, the means by which movements, lectures and university-life has been managed for many years.

Rescuing the educational trajectory of more than a million higher education students in South Africa became paramount and, given the extent of the challenges to be overcome, operational rather than ideological considerations had to, of necessity, drive decision-making.

As in business, technology came to the rescue. Almost overnight, courses had to be converted into online presentations and the buzz of active campus life was replaced by the silence of students, completely isolated from each other, listening to lecturers over headphones.

Faculties such as Geoscience, offering courses that usually include technical and practical application as part of the curriculum, was hardest hit. Not only were students not able to engage in-person with their lecturers, peers and subject-matter, all field trips were also indefinitely postponed and ultimately cancelled.

Not surprisingly, the trends tracking student enrolments since 2020 shows a very clear downward trend, especially in Earth Sciences.

Stepping in and stepping up (The importance of field work in geology)

Three years later we have an entire cohort of students whose, almost entire, tertiary education was online, we also have geoscience students who have never set foot in the field and to some degree have no idea how what they’ve studied relates to a real-world work environment.

This at a time when the mining and exploration industries are set to ramp up significantly in response to the energy transition and the scramble to find and mine vast reserves of critical raw materials.

While students were robbed both of a more complete education and the opportunity to have a conventional student-life it is industry who will also suffer its long-term consequences, some of which will only emerge over time.

RES recognised the potential fall-out of the absence of fieldwork experience late in 2020 and, in 2021, introduced a three-month internship programme, giving recent graduates the opportunity to work in a real-world mineral exploration environment.

A RES internship exposes recent graduates not only to the geological aspects of exploration, but also the realities of being away from the comforts of home for long periods of time, the complex operational challenges of working in foreign jurisdictions that often lack even basic infrastructure and the dynamics of working in a close-knit team.

Having seen dozens of young geoscience graduates advance through our internship programme, RES is stepping up our commitment to developing the next generation of exploration geologists through formalised partnerships with South Africa’s top tertiary institutions towards more inclusive and meaningful field training programmes.

A PRIME Solution (The importance of field work in geology)

One such initiative is RES PRIME (Professional Rigor in Mineral Exploration), initiated in collaboration with the country’s leading geoscience faculty.

RES PRIME is an exclusive in-service accelerated development programme launched specifically for young aspiring exploration geologists eager to gain multi-faceted experience in every aspect of the mineral exploration cycle, from target generation to brownfields resource drilling, while completing their MSc in Economic Geology.

Not only do successful candidates have the opportunity to work with one of the leading mineral exploration consulting businesses in Africa, but the full tuition for their MSc is also paid for by RES as well as earning a basic salary for the duration of their studies.

We believe that this integrated blended style of learning will be critical to the development not only of graduates into the future but of the industry itself.

As the world moves to a greener future, the minerals industry is faced with the dilemma of growing pressure regarding its role in CO² emissions, while at the same time being relied upon to explore and mine for critical raw materials in quantities far exceeding historic production numbers.

Ultimately, the reinvention of the industry will rely upon the next and subsequent generations of geoscience graduates, and it is our responsibility to ensure that they are up to the task because, while education happens in the classroom, learning happens on-the-job.

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AgricultureEnvironmental Management & Climate ChangeEnergyESGInfrastructureMiningPolitical EconomyTourism and ConservationWater Management