Teach the Earth > Undergraduate Research > Upper Division Strategies Collection > Undergraduate Research Across the Curriculum > Case Studies > Research Experiences in a Mineralogy Class

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This page first made public: Dec 1, 2011

Research Experiences in a Mineralogy Class

Dave Mogk, Montana State University


One of the goals of my Mineralogy class is to demonstrate how the principles and content covered in class can be applied to questions of geologic interest or that have practical applications to society or industry. This is an early step towards introducing students to authentic research projects. The general theme of these projects is characterization of Earth materials, and typically involves collection of samples in the field (if possible), hand sample observation, petrographic analysis, and further analysis using X-ray powder diffraction and electron beam techniques such as scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and back-scattered electron (BSE) imaging and elemental analysis using energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDS).


Mineralogy students working on the X-ray powder diffraction instrument. Photo credit: David Mogk
My Mineralogy course is the first course for geology majors in our curriculum, is taught at the sophomore level, and has a year of introductory chemistry as a prerequisite. This course also has a university "Core Curriculum" designation as a research-intensive course.

These projects have been done in a number of different contexts.


This is the first "for-majors" course offered in the second year in our curriculum. The Introductory Physical Geology course and a year of introductory chemistry are pre-requisites.

Class size

Enrollments in this class have been steady at 30 +/-2 for numerous years.

How the activity is situated in the course

The research experience is conducted during the latter part of the course, and accounts for ~20% of the total course grade. The research project is done after students have had an introduction to the physical properties of minerals, and have been introduced to hand sample identification of minerals. The research project is continuously addressed in stages (sample selection, sample preparation, analysis), while regular course work in crystal chemistry, crystallography, and mineral optics are being taught in lecture and lab. In some cases, a field trip is conducted early in the semester to collect the samples that will be analyzed. In other cases, students will identify their particular interests (e.g. paleontology, igneous petrology, structural geology) and we will pair the students with faculty or graduate student mentors early in the term. This gives the students a chance to identify samples that they will work on, read some of the background literature for context, and work with their mentors to understand the larger context of their work. Mid-way through the semester students undertake appropriate sample preparation (cutting thin sections, preparing powders for XRD, making SEM mounts). XRD and SEM analysis by students takes about a month to finish, and the final week of the term is used for data representation and report writing.

Mineralogy students working on the scanning electron microscope; Photo credit: David Mogk


In developing their research project to characterize their sample(s), students are expected to:


Students work independently or in small groups to identify minerals, and characterize their morphology, texture and composition to address a problem of geologic, economic, or societal significance. Students either collect their own samples (if possible) or work with samples provided by mentors to: a) conduct petrographic analysis, b) use powder XRD methods to identify samples, and c) use SEM/BSE/EDS and possibly CL methods to characterize the size, distribution, morphology and composition of minerals of interest. The results of these analyses are then presented in a written report to the mentors to provide information that contributes to understanding of geologic process, geologic history, environmental, or economic applications.

Notes, Tips, and Logistical Considerations





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