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It's a leucocratic gneiss. So what?

Paul Santi, Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, Colorado School of Mines

"Fine, it's a leucocratic gneiss. So what?"
This statement captures the essence of my approach to integrating engineering and geoscience education. It was the catalyst for my gradual shift, one degree at a time, from geology, to engineering geology, to geological engineering. In fact, the fundamental differences between an academic approach to geoscience (the "scientist") and an applied approach (the "engineer") show up in other ways (Santi, 2009):

Scientist vs. Engineer
Why? vs. So what?
Descriptive vs. Importance
Understanding vs. Significance
Geologic maps vs. Derivative maps
Bedrock vs. Surficial deposits
Where are the outcrops? vs. How deep is bedrock?
What process created this? vs. Is it still active?
"Past oriented" model: present is the key to the past vs. "Future-oriented" model: recent past is the key to the near future

While these are extreme examples, they represent the ways that each group must learn to think in order to integrate skills from both ends of the spectrum. One category should not exist in the absence of its alter ego. With this in mind, I design classes to balance scientific discovery with practical application, to nurture engineering skills while establishing a knowledge base in geoscience. I approach this from the standpoint of injecting engineering thinking, tools, and problems into geoscience education. The reverse process is equally valid, but not one where I have as much experience.

Perhaps one of the most immersive ways to do this is to include larger design-based projects as part of the class. Examples might be "select a landfill site," "convert a quarry into a pond," "investigate a TCE plume," "map and rank geologic hazards in an area," "plan a scheme to stabilize a rock slope," "design a landslide drainage program," or "aesthetically stabilize a stream bank." Design in geoscience has some fundamental differences from classical engineering design (Santi, 2006):
  • the solution not a widget (it may be a procedure, investigation, detection of something below ground, etc.),
  • we work with materials not visible or homogeneous that are difficult to characterize,
  • judgment and experience play a greater role, and
  • the level of ambiguity is uncomfortably high.

Standard engineering tools can be used to address these unique components. For example, judgment can be made more objective by use of stochastic models, algorithms, or lumping of parameters. Ambiguity can be handled by presenting trade-off alternatives rather than numbers. Inhomogeneous materials can be appropriately described through sensitivity analysis, use of upper and lower bounds, and assessment of accuracy and error ranges.

Engineering can also be integrated through deliberate use of quantitative exercises, using real data, and asking open-ended problems. I am convinced that the lasting value of many of the math and engineering courses taken by geological engineers is not that they can solve triple integrals, but that they eventually turn into "numbers" people. Frequent use of quantitative data makes them methodical problem solvers, able to weed out bad information and communicate the process and the answers with clarity. Hand in hand with numerical data is the advantage of incorporating real data, which does not behave neatly and forces the use of higher intellectual skills (Bloom's levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation). Real data is also analyzed through the use of "war stories" in lecture, which teaches important engineering concepts of critical thinking and professional and ethical responsibility. Open-ended problems require integration of skills from across the curriculum, grappling with ambiguity and developing mature judgment. Engineering design problems are typically open-ended: they are incomplete, ambiguous, and self-contradictory, with no readily identifiable closure, yielding solutions that are not unique or compact, and they require knowledge from many fields (Hyman, 2003).

Like geoscience education, instruction in engineering requires a focus on communication skills through writing and technical presentations, as specified in ABET accreditation criteria for engineering programs. While proficiency in these areas is generally a goal, deliberate and focused scaffolding across the curriculum is a key to success, and I and others have published examples of strategies to do this (Leydens and Santi, 2006). The "ability to function on multidisciplinary teams" is also an ABET requirement, and this skill can be developed in the geoscience curriculum by dividing team projects into skill components (with different students responsible for expertise in structure, stratigraphy, Quaternary geology, or tectonics, for example), or by use of jigsaw learning and other methods that require resource and knowledge interdependence.

What I have touched on above is a broad range of ideas that represents curriculum-wide thinking. We explored the application of these ideas at the individual course and assignment level in a Journal of Geoscience Education paper (Santi and Higgins, 2005). In general, the integration of engineering skills and techniques into geoscience classes in this paper fell into five categories for implementation. First, short lecture asides or discussion problems in class give students immediate examples and practice applying their knowledge. For example, in the middle of a lecture on geomorphological analysis of hillslopes, I might explain how these techniques were incorporated into a debris-flow prediction model. Next, homework assignments provide a chance for focused application of learning: students can be asked to apply their latest knowledge to solve a real problem (e.g., "which weathering process led to settlement of a recent highway fill and how could it have been avoided?"). Third, application questions can easily be added onto mapping assignments. For instance, "identify and rank geologic hazards in the area," or "develop a cross-section at a specified depth where a tunnel is intended." Fourth, application questions can be added to laboratory exercises. Examples of these might include: "locate three water well locations where you expect the highest quality aquifer" or "evaluate rock mass strength and choose between two cross-sections for placement of high voltage transmission line towers." Finally, semester projects with primary focus on geoscience concepts can still include complex and multi-faceted questions related to site selection, material evaluation, and hazards analysis.

In summary, engineering education has some important connections with applied geoscience education. In engineering, there is an emphasis on application of knowledge. There is a sense of building towards a capstone experience – senior design classes for engineers, field camp and senior technical courses for geoscientists. Engineering focuses on capabilities and not just exposure to knowledge – e.g., what can you do with your knowledge? Finally, engineering relies on real-world examples and case studies.


Santi, P.M., 2009, "Translating Engineering Accreditation Criteria into Applied Geoscience Education," Geological Society of America Annual Meeting Abstracts with Programs.
Santi, P.M., 2006, "Application of Standard Design Tools to Specialty Engineering Disciplines," ASEE Annual Conference, Chicago.
Hyman, B., 2003, Fundamentals of Engineering Design,, accessed February 7, 2013.
Leydens, J.A. and Santi, P.M., 2006, "Optimizing Faculty Use of Writing as a Learning Tool in Geoscience Education," Journal of Geoscience Education, Vol. 54, No. 4, pp. 491-502.
Santi, P.M. and Higgins, J.D., 2005, "Preparing Geologists for Careers in Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology," Journal of Geoscience Education, Vol. 53, No. 5, pp. 513-521.

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