Geological Engineering Site Investigation

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


This course is designed to teach the skills needed to investigate subsurface soil and rock for engineering projects. Students learn drilling, sampling, logging, and testing methods, and they practice using geological knowledge to optimize site investigations. The goal of the course is to provide experience by exposing students to a wide variety of data types, and to provide judgment by allowing them to practice using data to solve real world type problems. The course integrates geology and engineering and provides students with practice making decisions that rely on both fields.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an upper-level undergraduate and graduate course, designed to be a capstone experience for geological, civil, environmental, and mining engineers. Because of the broad audience, no prerequisites are listed, although only students advanced in their respective curricula are accepted. Typically, 75-90% of the students are geological engineers. The class usually has 50-75% undergraduates.

Course Content:

The course covers methods of field investigation, testing, and monitoring for geotechnical and hazardous waste sites, including: drilling and sampling methods, sample logging (rock, rock cuttings, and soil), field testing methods, instrumentation, and trench logging. Projects include technical writing for investigations(reports, memos, proposals, workplans)and practice conducting simulated investigations (using a computer simulator).

Course Goals:

The course is focused on meeting a number of detailed objectives, which may be summarized as follows:
  • develop accurate descriptions of soil, rock core, and rock cuttings using standardized systems
  • explain differences between various drilling and sampling methods for soil and rock and select appropriate methods for different types of investigations and conditions
  • explain various laboratory tests typically run on soil and rock samples, and match sampling methods to these tests
  • describe various in situ tests, field tests, and instrumentation methods; comment on their costs, effectiveness, and accuracy; and decide when and where they are best used
  • for various types of investigation problems, design optimal investigations

Course Features:

In addition to lectures, tests, and laboratory exercises, there are three critical features that challenge students towards higher order learning skills. First, about half a dozen classes are devoted to "one-hour wonders," which are open-ended exercises based on problems I encountered when working in industry, but that address specific, timely topics for the class, such as selecting drilling methods, technical writing, proposal preparation, and instrumentation. When individual class components are evaluated, these exercises are typically the highest rated by students. The second critical aspect of the class is the three term projects, of which one or two are written in groups (all of the field work is done in groups). These projects offer an extended time to concentrate on specific aspects of site investigation, different types of written documents, and a variety of field skills. The third feature that is unique is the three laboratory sessions devoted to conducting simulated site investigations using a computer software package developed for the course (a current beta file of version 2 is available at The program provides students with an objective and a limited budget, returning boring logs and sample test information on their selected locations.

Course Philosophy:

This course was designed to develop subjective skills of engineering judgement, decision-making confidence, and approaches to solving open-ended problems with no fixed solution. These skills are applied within the framework of geotechnical and hazardous waste site investigations, and require students to integrate their technical knowledge base in ways they have not yet been challenged to do in their curriculum. Course materials frequently demand that students apply geologic knowledge to address engineering problems, and that they understand the engineering components of the problem well enough to design geologic data-gathering plans.


The lecture materials are assessed through two in-class exams, consisting of multiple choice, short answer, and mid-length essays (1/2 page). Laboratory assignments are due nearly every week, and they ask students to fill in standard boring log sheets, draw cross-sections of the data, and make engineering decisions based on their observations and interpretations. Projects are each oriented to a different type of writing (technical memo, proposal, workplan) and rely on a different technical skill (stratigraphic column development for engineering use, trench logging, engineering soils mapping). The first project is written individually, the second project is a proposal written as a group and then scored by other groups in a competitive "proposal review and selection" session, and the third project relies heavily on group observation and decision-making in the field.


Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

Textbook consists of a manual of materials assembled by the instructor
Supplemental materials include materials from the Federal Highways Administration digital library ( the US Bureau of Reclamation (