Geology and Development of Modern Africa

Barbara A. Tewksbury
Stephen Harper Kirner Chair of Science
Department of Geology
Hamilton College

A 2002 SENCER Model


The Geology and Development of Modern Africa is a writing-intensive, laboratory based, introductory geology course that has been taught at Hamilton College since 1994. The course is predicated on the idea that an understanding of geology is instrumental in recovering our human past, understanding the present, and predicting the future, and that a significant number of human events cannot be completely understood without understanding the underlying role played by geology, geologic processes, and the natural environment.

Students in the course gain a rigorous understanding of geology and geologic processes through the exploration of a series of scientific topics that have direct relevance to particular historical, cultural, political, or economic issues in Africa, such as the fluvial processes of the Nile River System, hydrogeology and climate change in North Africa, the structure and evolution of the East African Rift Zone, and the concentration of mineral resources. Some of the many complex topics explored during the semester include: long-term fluctuations in fluvial activity and the rise and fall of dynasties along the Nile, climate change, bedrock geology, the location and timing of development of Egyptian civilization, the economic implications and environmental consequences of damming the Nile at Aswan, and the relationship between geological resources, such as gold and diamonds, and black oppression in South Africa.

A centerpiece of the course is a month-long diamond exploration project where students are organized into virtual teams of geologists prospecting for diamonds in different areas of southern Algeria. The goal is to develop a presentation to a group of “investors” that will convince them to fund further exploration of likely target areas. Teams plan and implement simulated airborne magnetic surveys using scaled models, collect data and samples for analysis, create contour maps, and test for ground resistivity. Because each group is dealing with a different exploration area and different material conditions, they must make choices and decisions based on their data, and there is no single “correct” result.

This course emphasizes collaborative and self-directed learning, as well as critical thinking skills. It encourages students to see the connection between science and “real life” by revealing the complexity and ambiguity that scientists encounter in their research, and by providing them with opportunities to put their knowledge to use in solving immediate problems.

Teaching and Learning Strategies

Because the overarching goal of the course is not just to teach students about connections between geology and human events but rather to enable them to draw connections on their own in the future, the course gives students practice in teaching themselves about both geologic and non-geologic topics and in drawing connections themselves. The course consists of a set of in-class and out-of-class exercises and activities that require students in the course to take responsibility for their own learning. Students work repeatedly in small groups using real data sets, articles from the literature, and materials that I have written for them in order to work out both the geologic story and the connections to non-geologic topics (including public policy issues). The course uses a variety of teaching strategies, including daily written preparation for class, small-group discussion, jigsaw, simulations of international negotiations and press conferences, debates, field and laboratory activities, posters, and summary reports. This course engages students actively in the classroom; lecture forms a very small percentage of the classroom time. Here is one specific example: Influence of geology and geologic processes on the timing of development of ancient Egyptian civilization: Many investigators have contributed to a picture of climate change in the Sahara between about 9000 years ago and 5000 years ago that strongly suggests a habitable, Sahel-type climate throughout much of the Sahara early in the Holocene followed by decreases in rainfall leading ultimately to the hyperarid conditions that have characterized the Sahara for the past few thousand years. The timing of development of agriculture in the Nile Delta also appears to be related to climate change and deceleration in sea level rise following Late Pleistocene deglaciation. The timing of development of civilization in the Nile Valley appears to be no accident and closely follows the time period during which Neolithic peoples would have been driven out of the Sahara by decreasing rainfall and into an increasingly habitable and farmable Nile Valley with annual floods of reasonable magnitude.

I designed a series of activities for students to explore both the climatologic evolution of the Sahara and the influence of climate change on the timing of Egyptian civilization. I begin by having students examine the sedimentologic record in four Early Holocene Saharan paleolakes using real-world data. I use the jigsaw technique, having each team unravel the geologic record in one stratigraphic column. Mixed groups with one member from each team then compare stratigraphic columns and evidence for rainfall changes and are charged with developing an overall picture of temporal and spatial changes in rainfall in the Sahara between about 9000 years ago and 4000 years ago. The goal could be accomplished by lecture and presentation of stratigraphic evidence by the instructor, but having students examine the data for themselves allows them to experience first hand how geologists use the rock record to determine something about the geologic past. Not only are the students quite capable of drawing these conclusions themselves, the strategy gives them practice being geologists, marshalling evidence, defending a point of view, speaking the language, and solving a geologic problem.

As a follow-up assignment, each student prepares an essay of significant length drawing together everything we have considered about the location and timing of Egyptian civilization to evaluate the connection overall between geologic processes (including climate change) and the development of Egyptian civilization. This assignment provides an opportunity to see how well students can individually synthesize a large body of information and draw disparate pieces of evidence together to argue a point of view.

The month-long diamond exploration project in Version 1 of the course provides a longterm group task for students that is both complicated and open-ended. The project provides an experience in data collection, sample analysis, map work, project planning, time management, and teamwork. The final presentation to an outside expert on international mineral exploration has proven to be a very successful way of setting high external standards for performance and having student meet those challenges.

The Course


Geology and Development of Modern Africa Syllabus 

Download (PDF, 194KB)

Course Format

After having taught this course several times, I realized that students gained no first-hand experience in data collection and analysis. To fill that gap, I designed a simulated diamond exploration project to replace about four weeks of the middle of the course. Although students do not travel to the exploration site in southern Algeria, they work in groups to design an exploration program, carry out a simulated sample collection project, analyze real samples with instrumentation in our department, carry out simulated geophysical surveys, iteratively plan additional phases of exploration based on results, and prepare an exploration evaluation for a hypothetical client company. At the end of the semester, I bring to campus a colleague who has experience in international mineral exploration and who can play the role of a potential investor, and each team presents and tries to sell its prospect.

On the accompanying CD, version 1 is the course with the diamond exploration project, and Version 2 is the course without the project. Because both versions of the course are valuable, and because the diamond exploration project may be difficult for someone to carry out elsewhere, I have included course materials from both versions of the course. I should say, however, that the diamond exploration project could serve as a template for a different type of exploration project suitable to the resources of a particular department. I should add something about the design process for both the course and the diamond exploration project, because the process is somewhat unique. Designing a course that integrates science with non-science topics is a daunting prospect for most people, and this course was no exception. I began the project with an expert point of view in geology, of course, but I had a limited knowledge of the geology of Africa in particular and only a superficial understanding of non-science issues in Africa. Rather than doing the development work alone, I selected four students to work with me to develop the course during the summer of 1994. I chose three students who had had no geology courses but who were majors in non-science fields and knew more than I about economics, archaeology, and history. One of the students had taken an introductory geology course. All would serve as TA’s and tutors when the course was taught the following fall. Three were students of color and would serve as role models for minority students in the course. At the start of the summer, I asked each of the four students to take responsibility for one of the four broad content areas of the course: the Nile River system, the Sahara and Sahel, the East African Rift, and mineral resources. The first half of the summer involved searching for and acquiring books and articles on a broad range of topics in each area and teaching ourselves about the issues in the region. My job was to teach the students geology and to try to learn as much about all four areas as each of the students did. For about a month, each of them knew more about their own areas than I did.

We also interviewed a number of faculty members at Hamilton with specialties in Africana studies, history, economics, politics, and archaeology. Each was enormously helpful in suggesting interesting topics, connections, and resources.

The decision to work with students, rather than by myself or with a faculty colleague, to design the course was a felicitous one. Not only did spreading the work load help make the project manageable in one summer, but the students proved to be a tremendous source both of good ideas and of advice on what works and what doesn’t work in class from a student perspective. Working with students also helped avoid the many logistical problems that arise when faculty from different departments try to collaborate on course development and to team-teach a course.

I repeated the process when it came time to design the diamond exploration project. In the fall of 1998, I taught a half-credit seminar on diamond exploration that had the dual aims of:

  1. teaching the seminar participants about diamonds and diamond exploration and
  2. developing a diamond exploration module for the Africa course. The project was big enough that we didn’t finish by the end of the semester, and I hired one of my seminar students to work with me for a month the following summer to finish the development work.

Course Management and Logistics

The course is an integrated lab/classroom course that meets for roughly 5.5 hours of class time per week, and all of the laboratory activities are integrated into what happens during class. “Lab” might happen during part of Tuesday class one week, during all of Wednesday and Thursday class the following week, on Friday the week after that, and so on. The course is designed to have students do laboratory activities when they make sense in the scheme of the course for as long as necessary, rather than fitting the topics to a fixed three hours of class followed by three hours of laboratory every week. The class also conducts a day-long series of field investigations to study river processes (something that could be done in virtually any part of the country) in preparation for working on the Nile River system (for Versions 1 and 2 of the course) and to give students experience in heavy mineral sampling (in Version 1 only).

I typically enlist the support of two or three students who have previously taken the course to serve as undergraduate TAs for the course. They come to class, help students who are having difficulty, and serve as after-hours tutors for those who are having trouble. They are truly “assistants” – they do not actually teach class.

Extending What You Have Learned in This Course

Ground rules for Part III: You may discuss ideas for this question only with me. You may not discuss this question with other members of the class.

First: The North African and East African Rift portions of theis course emphasized connections between geology and human events as we have looked at how geology/geologic processes have had an underlying influence either on past or present human events or enables us to predict the future. Answer the following in one sentence each:

  • Which connection(s) surprised you the most? Why?
  • Which connection(s) interested/intrigued you the most? Why?
  • Which connection provided the biggest leap in insight (change) for you in understanding something that you thought you understood before or hadn’t understood at all?

Second: Think about what you have learned over the past several years in courses in history, literature, anthropology, art, music, religion, psychology, sociology, economics, government, and so on. What connections might exist with geology and geologic processes? In other words, how might understanding geology help us understand human events more deeply? Offer 5 distinctly different ideas that would be worth following up. I will give extra credit for more than 5 ideas. Here are two examples (you may not use either of these specific examples in your answer). As you are thinking about possibilities, remember that the study of climate change falls under the auspices of geology!

  • Homo sapiens migrated to North America very late in human history. Sometime in the past 10-20,000 years or so, people from Asia migrated from Siberia to Alaska across what is now the shallow Arctic waters of the Bering Strait. Why didn’t they arrive earlier? To what extent were geologic factors (tectonics, climate change) involved in the “peopling” of North America? What can the geologic record tell us about when the Bering Strait was emergent and passable over the last 100,000 years to allow migration of Homo sapiens out of Asia and into North America?
  • Flood legends are a common in many cultures (e.g., the Gilgamesh legend, the Noah story). Is it possible that these legends are more than simply stories? Is it possible that an actual catastrophic geologic event might have occurred and given rise to the legends? What kinds of geologic events can trigger catastrophic floods, and are any plausible in the areas and times where the flood legends originated? Might geologic evidence consistent with catastrophic flooding be found in those areas?

Some additional guidance for Part III:

1) Your ideas must be specific and relate to specific places, times, and events or occurrences or trends in human history. Your examples must not be ones we studied in class.

2) Your ideas must be 5 distinctly different ones. If two examples amount to the same thing or show essentially the same connection, I will count them as one example.

3) You may add silly ideas as extras for fun, but I’ll only give you credit for serious ones.

4) Use the following format for each idea:

  • State the event/occurrence/trend/observation first. This could be something you’ve learned on your own or in another class at some point. Clearly articulate your idea and be as specific as possible. Elaborate as necessary so that I know precisely what you are talking about, when it occurred, where, etc.
  • Speculate on the underlying influence of geology. Be specific. Don’t just say, “Gee, I wonder what geology had to do with that?” Make a plausible connection with a particular aspect of geology and/or geologic processes.

5) Here are some ideas of possible general topics to get you started in thinking about specific events and connections. Remember that you’re after examples of how knowledge of geology and geologic processes would give you a deeper understanding of some aspect of human events:

  • distribution and character of mineral/petroleum resources as influences on international relations, power and influence of people and nations, causes of war, immigration/emigration, etc.
  • influence of bedrock geology and geologic history on settlement patterns, transportation types and routes, migration patterns, invasion routes, trade routes, cultural isolation, cultural diffusion, agriculture
  • influence of local geology on art and architecture
  • geology or geologic processes as explanations for legends, stories, myths
  • influence of climate change on history, settlement patterns, rise and fall of nations, etc.

6) Examples will not immediately pop to mind, and I expect you to be persistent in thinking creatively and broadly. Start by thinking about non-science things that you know something about, and evaluate them for possible geological influences. You might decide that no obvious influence exists, and you’ll have to discard the idea. On the other hand, you might need a little more information, particularly about the geology of an area. If so, come see me, or e-mail me.

Linking Science and Social Issues

What Basic Science is Covered in the Course and How is it Linked to Public Policy Questions?

I have taught this course in two versions, one with a month-long diamond exploration project (Version 1) and one without (Version 2). The current version incorporates the diamond exploration project. The following links have topical outlines for both courses.

What Strategies Does the Course Use to Both Advance Science Education and Foster Civic Engagement?

Fighting the partitioning of knowledge

Most students compartmentalize science and view it as something that scientists do, but which has limited relevance to non-science studies. In the case of the geological sciences, most students see only the most obvious connections between geology and human events, typically the connections involving resource wealth or geologic hazards such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and floods. Most students are aware, for example, that the power and influence of South Africa are directly tied to its fabulous mineral wealth. Very few understand, however, either the evolution of the underlying geologic framework that makes South Africa so different from other regions in Africa, or the fundamental connection between the character of the gold deposits in South Africa and the origin of black oppression policies in the country. Virtually every student I have encountered has been unaware that exploitation of the comparatively low grade paleoplacer gold deposits of the Witwatersrand required a large supply of cheap indigenous labor and that the labor supply was insured with development of taxation, pass, and homeland laws favorable to the mine owners, leading ultimately to the mid-20th century policy articulated as apartheid. Students are by and large completely unaware of connections such as this that tie the geology and geologic evolution of regions to the economic, sociological, cultural, and historical development of nations.

In this course, I want to give students an opportunity to see science, not as an esoteric collection of factoids, but rather as being instrumental in recovering our human past, understanding the present, and predicting the future. I also hope that, by tying science to human events, science will become more interesting and relevant to non-science students, as well as broader and richer for science students.

Providing students the wherewithal to think scientifically and grapple confidently with science issues after the course is over.

Most students leave high school having experienced science as a collection of facts and terms to be memorized, and items or processes to be recognized and classified, rather than as a way of thinking, solving problems, and finding out how the natural world works. Few students who enter college understand what science is and what scientists really do. Most introductory geology courses unfortunately do little to change students’ perceptions about science. In typical introductory courses in both high school and college, students do not actively participate in the process of science, nor do they have the experience of asking questions and trying to find ways to get at answers, which is what science is really all about. Students in introductory geology are typically subjected to a flurry of topics in survey fashion and are never asked to “do science”. By focusing on content, most introductory courses do little to prepare students to think on their own scientifically once the course is over. This is a large contributing factor in rampant science illiteracy in this country.

My goal is to create a more effective learning environment in class than is typically achieved in a traditional lecture-based course. Because students learn best by doing, rather than by being lectured to, I have developed a course that de-emphasizes traditional lecture and focuses instead on hands-on investigative activities, self- and peer-teaching, and group-learning. By giving students practice in acting and thinking as scientists during
the course, the course is “enabling”, and students come away with more than a grade on their transcripts. The course stresses personal (but guided) experience in doing science (rather than listening to the instructor talk about others doing science) in order to increase literacy about the process of science (rather than simply the “facts” of science) and to improve students’ abilities to think critically. The various assignments and activities in the course help students accomplish the following:

Develop a personal understanding of and experience in how geologists solve problems, including the types of questions that geologists ask, the kinds of data that geologists collect and why they collect those data, how geologists use specialized language and reporting strategies (e.g.., maps and stratigraphic columns) for presenting data, and the kind of reasoning geologists use to solve problems.

Gain experience in using geologic data and concepts to solve open-ended problems, including evaluating evidence, coping with imperfect and incomplete data, developing and defending a solution to the problem, and assessing the uncertainties.

Understand the usefulness and necessity of the quantitative aspects of science, ranging from simple tasks such as unit conversion and interpretation/construction of graphs to specific quantitative tasks such as calculation of radiometric ages to loosely constrained quantitative tasks such as estimations and back-of-the-envelope calculations.

What are the Capacious Civic Questions or Problems Addressed in This Course?

The Geology and Development of Modern Africa is an introductory geology course that has been taught at Hamilton College since 1994. The course aims to help students develop a deep understanding that human history has been dramatically influenced by the actions and accidents of geologic processes. The course is centered on the following overarching principles:

  • that understanding geology is instrumental in recovering our human past, understanding the present, and predicting the future and that a significant number of human events cannot be completely understood without understanding the underlying role of geology, geologic processes, and the environment.
  • that science plays a unique role in providing real data for decision-making but that scientific data rarely form the only basis for making decisions in public and business arenas.

During the course, students gain a rigorous understanding of geology and geologic processes and explore the underlying influence of geology on human events. The course is structured around a series of geologic topics that have direct relevance to particular historical, cultural, political, or economic issues in Africa – past and present fluvial processes of the Nile River System, hydrogeology and climate change in North Africa, the structure and evolution of the East African Rift Zone, and mineral resources in Africa. Once the geologic framework for a given topic has been firmly established, students work out the connections between geology and the relevant human issues. Some of the many connections we explore during the semester include the following:

  • long-term fluctuations in fluvial activity and the rise and fall of dynasties along the Nile.
  • climate change, bedrock geology, and the location and timing of development of Egyptian civilization.
  • processes in fluvial systems and the economic implications and environmental consequences of damming the Nile at Aswan.
  • water supply, water demand, and international relations in North Africa.
  • modern hydrogeology in the Sahara and Sahel and the future for economic growth in North Africa.
  • climate change, greenhouse warming, and the future for the Sahara and Sahel.
  • development of the East African Rift and the evolution of hominids.
  • bedrock geologic history of Africa, the natural resource “haves” and “have-nots”, and international relations.
  • character of gold deposits and the origin of black oppression in South Africa.

Tables Showing Public Policy Links in the project with the Diamond Exploration

Table of Public Policy Issues with Diamond Exploration

Download (PDF, 103KB)

Tables Showing Public Policy Links in the Project without the Diamond Exploration

Table of Public Policy Issues without Diamond Exploration

Download (PDF, 110KB)

Evaluating Learning

Final Writing Assignment

Part I: Re-evaluation of Atlantis Found

Ground rules for Part I: You may discuss any aspect of this question with people in this class, with the TAs, or with me, but you must prepare and write your own answer.

As you know, in the prologue to Atlantis Found, Clive Cussler postulates that a meteorite more than 15 km in diameter slammed into the Earth in the year 7120 BC (9076 ypb). He describes a series of geologic and historical consequences of the proposed impact, including formation of Hudson Bay in Canada, global geologic changes of many types, mass extinction, and destruction of advanced human societies, including the lost continent and civilization of Atlantis (quelle surprise….).Earlier in the semester, I asked you to use your knowledge of geology and geologic processes to evaluate the plausibility of his hypothesis. Since your wrote your first essay, you have learned things that should help you be better able to evaluate Cussler’s hypothesis.

Using what you have learned in this course, write a short essay re-evaluating the plausibility of his claim that a 15-km diameter meteorite slammed into the Earth at Hudson’s Bay in 7120 BC (9076 ybp) and caused the effects described in the introduction to his book. Choose specific claims, and make arguments that draw on your increased knowledge of the geology and human history of North Africa, of the nature and rates of geologic processes and evolution, of the age of the Earth and the length of geologic time, and of the character of the geologic record. At the end of your essay, add a short paragraph explaining whether your assessment of Cussler’s hypothesis is different now than it was in September and, if so, in what ways.

Part II: What You Have Learned About How Geologists Solve Problems

Ground rules for Part II: You may discuss any aspect of this question with people in this class, with the TAs, or with me, but you must prepare and write your own answer.

We began the course with the Nile River region, where we have spotty historical records for events back to about 5000 ybp. That length of time is only one ten thousandth of one percent of the entire history of the Earth! How do geologists reconstruct events during the other 99.9999 percent of Earth history? How do geologists determine what the Earth was like at various times, what happened when, and so on? Write a short essay that conveys a clear understanding of what kinds of questions geologists ask, what kinds of data geologists collect and why, and how geologists use these date to help them build up a picture of past events. You may use examples to illustrate your points.


  • This is a writing intensive course, and the Writing Program has organized the following plenary sessions for students taking writing intensive
    courses. I expect you to attend all four sessions, so please put them on your calendar.
  • While this course is officially designated as a “writing intensive” course, the writing you will do is not solely designed to help you become a better writer. Writing will be an integral part of learning the material we cover in the course. Unless a person processes information in one way or another, he/she will not learn very much. Many courses ask students to process information by studying and taking exams. This course has no exams, and you will be processinginformation in this course by doing a good deal of writing and teaching. I will grade your writing according to the grading guidelines on the attached sheet.

Individual Worksheets and Questions

Due dates will be marked clearly on each sheet. Late assignments will be penalized 10%, and late assignments not submitted before graded
assignments are returned will receive a zero.


  • In this course, you will be graded on both your written work and your oral work. Some papers will receive standard number grades out of 100 (e.g., homework problems involving calculations, short-answer problems, etc.). Other papers do not lend themselves as well to number grades, and those papers will be graded on a scale of 0 to 5, with each number reflecting a clearly-defined standard for the assessing your efforts. Those criteria are outlined on the next page. I will do this, rather than give you a letter or standard number grade, because I want you to focus on what kind of work you have done and what kind of work I expect from you, not on what grade you have gotten. A satisfactory job on an assignment will earn a 3. To earn a 4, you must do more than an average workmanlike job, and a 5 requires that you really knock my socks off. Yes, the standards are high in this course.
  • On the next page, you’ll find both the general criteria for the 0-5 scale and a general view of where “satisfactory work” stands in terms of the College’s grading system. Please notice that a B is good work, not merely satisfactory. So. This handout will let you know at the outset what it takes to get a B or an A in this course, both of which involve work above a satisfactory job on assignments, and that’s the last time you’ll see standard grades in this course. From now on, you’ll simply receive a grade on the scale from 0-5 in the hopes that you can then focus on the quality of the product you produce in the course, not on the letter grade.

Overview of the Diamond Mine Module

This module gives students experience in project planning, data collection, analysis, and presentation via a simulated diamond exploration project set in southern Algeria.

The exploration project occupies the middle month of the semester, but preparation for the project begins at the start of the semester and continues with one class and assignment per week that run parallel to the main work that students do on the Nile and the Sahara during the first part of the semester. For example, students begin preparing for the projectat the end of the first week of the course, when they spend two days in the field studying river processes, panning for heavy minerals, and performing mineral separation and analysis in the lab on the samples that they collect. The once-a-week assignments also give them basic background on diamonds and kimberlites.

  • Once the exploration project starts in earnest, students do not (of course) travel to the exploration site in southern Algeria, but they do work in groups as if they were there. Teams design an exploration program, carry out a simulated sample collection project, analyze real samples with instrumentation in our department, carry out simulated geophysical surveys (see class photos), iteratively plan additional phases of exploration based on results, and prepare an exploration evaluation for a hypothetical client company.
  • At the end of the semester, I bring to campus a colleague who has experience in international mineral exploration and who can play the role of a potential investor, and each team presents and tries to sell its prospect. Final preparation for this presentation takes place in parallel with course and class work on the final section of the course on the East African Rift.

The Storyline

I believe that it is important to make a project such as this one as realistic as possible, and I worked closely with the colleague mentioned above to design an exploration program that mimicked as closely as possible what might actually occur in Africa if a company wished to conduct mineral exploration. I also wanted to design a quasi-realistic scenario for how a college student with a rudimentary knowledge of diamond exploration might become involved in a major diamond exploration program. So, I invented an Uncle Jesse who is a principal in an Algiers-based exploration firm called KMJ Consulting. The story begins with a boondoggle in Colorado, during which each student visits a hypothetical friend and spends a week chasing after the rumor of discovery of a diamond pipe north of Saguache, Colorado (in the folder, the related explanations and assignments are Boondoggle in Colorado 1 and 2). Upon discovering that his niece/nephew has had a little taste of diamond exploration, Uncle Jesse invites his niece/nephew to join him for an exploration season in Algeria. Each student receives two letters (separated by about a week) via campus mail from “Uncle Jesse” (you can find these in the folder under Uncle Jesse letters). I plan this as a surprise, and the letters arrive in student mailboxes in envelopes complete with KMJ Consulting logos, return addresses in Algiers, and Algerian stamps. The main part of the project revolves around actual exploration work in Algeria, with the students taking an admittedly larger role in planning and carrying out the exploration program than they would in the real world if the “Uncle Jesse” scenario were true.

Just as an aside, I wanted to site the project in an area in Africa that was likely to contain diamonds (based on its geology) but that had never been explored for diamonds before. I selected three areas initially, Mauritania, Western Sahara, and southern Algeria. I ruled out Western Sahara when I discovered that the wars of the 1980s and 1990s had left over 100,000 land mines in the country. In the real world, an exploration company would not be likely to choose such an area as a primary target. I decided against Mauritania because of extensive sand cover in the desert and settled on southern Algeria, which was very promising despite its very remote and inhospitable location. Roughly a year after I taught the Algeria module for the first time, I discovered that DeBeers had just been granted a concession by the Algerian government to prospect in southern Algeria, and a Belgian company had just finished its first season prospecting in Mauritania!!

The Overall Structure of the Module

The Exploration Program Overview provides general background for the exploration program and outlines the phases of exploration in the context of the course. Students receive actual heavy mineral samples for microscopic examination and use those samples to plan subsequent phases of exploration. After selecting possible target areas based on sample analysis, teams plan and carry out a simulated airborne magnetic survey using
scaled models of their exploration areas using CBL magnetic field probes (see class photos). After collecting data and creating appropriate Excel files, teams use Surfer to create contoured maps to locate magnetic anomalies. Teams receive geochemical data on garnets from samples that they request to have analyzed, and students have the opportunity to run a small suite of garnets on our SEM-EDAX to determine calcium and chromium contents, which are correlated with the presence of diamond in kimberlite. Students can continue to collect and analyze heavy mineral samples at any point in the project. Teams also plan and receive data for ground resistivity surveys and for a finalphase of diamond drilling. At every phases after the initial phase, teams must make a proposal that outlines what they want to do next and why and how much it will cost. If the proposal is inadequate or unreasonable, teams must re-do proposals. At each stage, teams receive bonuses for being aggressive (i.e., submitting progress reports, proposals, and data request ahead of the mandated schedule).

To simulate more closely the kinds of serendipitous things that can happen to a real field party, teams must draw two Serendipity cards each class period. One card each day is a negative chance happening (e.g., unusually poor quality for a particular set of samples or loss altogether of a suite of samples), and one card is a positive (or potentially positive) chance happening (e.g., discovery of a colorless stone, plus the instructions to roll a die to determine whether it is a diamond or not). The Serendipity Cards are included in the CD.

Teams do not compete directly with one another, and I think that is an important aspect of this module. Each team is responsible for designing and carrying out an exploration program for a different portion of the same large exploration area. Each exploration area adjoins at least one other team’s exploration area, and teams have the opportunity to share data at the boundaries of their areas of they wish.

The other aspect of the project that I think is important is the overall complexity and openendedness of the project. As the project progresses, students have many different avenues to pursue, and the amount of data and diversity of data mount quickly. Teams must cope with keeping track of many strands of an exploration program and must plan subsequent phases using as many threads as possible in order to be most successful and not head down blind alleys. For most students, this is a new and valuable experience that is markedly different from their prior experiences in traditional labs that have a finite end-point at after three hours.

Advice for Using the Model as a Template

This module could be used for any kind of exploration scenario – water resources for a town, sand and gravel deposits, any type of mineral resource, petroleum, etc. Based on myexperience with the diamond exploration project, here is my take on what the important
aspects might be:

  • The problem should be as real-world as possible. My students actually enjoy the rather hokey story line, and they value the real-world details that range from government agreements to sample security to timetables and budgets.
  • The problem must be open-ended so that teams have to make choices and so that no one clear path to a conclusion is obvious. At the same time, the problem can’t be so open-ended that students are overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. One way to achieve this is to constrain the first phase of the exploration program. I do this by stating that company policy in diamond exploration dictates initial regional drainage sampling (which is what any company would actually do) and by giving them a total budget and a per sample cost for the first phase. This limits what they do at the outset and gets them started. Subsequent phases are much more open-ended.
  • It isn’t important that students know all about possible exploration strategies before the project starts. They can learn about strategies as they go along when they need them. In the diamond exploration project, for example, most companies would start with drainage sampling rather than with airborne geophysical surveys, and the reading that I assign makes that clear. When it becomes obvious that geophysical surveys are a likely next option, students can learn about the various options and choose among them at the time (i.e., just-in-time learning).
  • A final presentation to an outside expert (even if it is no more complicated than having a colleague from the department serve as the expert) really ratchets up the expectations. The presentations that my teams have done for my colleague from British Columbia have been truly outstanding and far beyond anything that my students have done or would do just for me.

Related Resources

Books and Materials

  • purchase at the bookstore: Geology, by Chernicoff (2nd edition) and The Nature of Diamonds, by Harlow
  • buy from the Science Building secretaries: Africa course notebook ($20); cost covers maps, photocopying for the semester, plus assorted materials you will be using during the semester.