The future of Geoscience education and the National Exploration Undercover School (NExUS)

August 22, 2023

by Richard Lilly, Program Leader at the University of Adelaide

NexUs students in the field

Australia produces world-class geoscientists, but there is a growing skills gap between what students are taught at university and what the industry requires. How do we ensure student engagement and sustainable employment? The minerals industry is changing fast and is facing a prolonged period of increased demand of all commodities, with exploration success and industry best practices paramount in meeting the need for raw materials to build our sustainable energy future. Geoscientists have never been so crucial to society.

However, enrolments are falling nationally in all Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects and universities are burdened with a broken business model resulting in severe financial pressures. The results are stark, with esteemed geoscience departments closing in Australia, increased vulnerability for those that remain and unrelenting pressure on an ever-reducing number of teaching staff. The student experience is also changing, with remote and on-demand learning coming to the forefront, challenging the traditional learning experience, potentially resulting in graduates with less practical experience.

Where are the geoscientists of the future going to come from? What skills will they need? How can we best prepare them for employment? How can companies recruit and retain the best talent? Collaboration between academia and industry has never been more important to form integrated learning pathways through school, university and supporting life-long learning, but any solution requires sustained support, coordination and leadership.

The National Exploration Undercover School (NExUS) was founded in 2016 to provide world-class training in mineral exploration. The three-week summer school is funded by the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) and BHP and coordinated by the University of Adelaide by program leader Dr Richard Lilly. Students from the full range of Australian Universities, along with early career staff in industry and government geological surveys applied for entry.

The primary outcome of the program is that students understand the challenges and opportunities of mineral exploration in Australia into the future, and have knowledge of the tools (and professional network) required to address these problems. This program focuses on four key UNCOVER themes:

  • Theme 1 – Characterizing the Cover: New knowledge to confidently explore beneath the cover.
  • Theme 2 – Investigating Australia’s Lithospheric Architecture: A whole-of-lithosphere architectural framework for mineral systems exploration.
  • Theme 3 – Resolving the 4D Geodynamic and Metallogenic Evolution of Australia: Understanding ore deposit origins for better prediction.
  • Theme 4 – Characterizing and Detecting the Distal Footprints of Ore Deposits: Towards a toolkit for minerals exploration.

The program is a mixture of workshops and hands-on field activities focused on practical mineral exploration. Activities include mine site visits, collecting geophysical and geochemical data, advanced ore deposits workshops, drill core exercises and a range of other topics not normally covered at undergraduate level including regolith, sustainability, ESG and aboriginal cultural heritage training.

Since inception, NExUS has 267 alumni who work in every facet of the Australian minerals industry. NExUS is a case study of successful hands-on education collaboration and a model for future initiatives. Because of the continuing success, since 2020, the program has broadened its scope and expanded to offer over 20 professional development workshops (online and F2F), as well as a 5-day Perth RoadShow workshop event, undergraduate activities and a school outreach program and YouTube channel! (NExUS-RockStars).

Nexus students
The NExUS summer school is a mix of fieldwork, workshops, lectures and industry-focused sessions.

The 2022 cohort was a diverse group of 36 geoscientists representing every state and territory in Australia, from early career exploration geologists and geophysicists to third year university students and everything in between; who are the future of the Australian mining and exploration industry.

NExUS is an invaluable course for early career geoscientists (<3 years of experience) and introduces the challenges the Australian mining industry faces when exploring undercover and the techniques and skills needed to find new deposits in the future. Just as importantly, NExUS brings together a diverse cohort of early career geoscientists from across the country providing a close network, which will stay with the cohort throughout their careers.

NExUS alumni feedback

NExUS students, feedback from class of 2018

‘Literally the best, most engaging course and learning opportunity I have ever been involved with.’

‘I learnt as much from NExUS as I did from either my Honours or Masters qualifications, with added networking opportunities to change the course of my career.’

NExUS students, feedback from class of 2019

‘NExUS was probably the best 3 weeks of my life; the opportunity to meet and network with a variety of people around my age, the hands-on experience, amazing lectures. It was so much fun while being an incredible educational experience.’

‘NExUS… simply the most complete, enthralling and invigorating training experience for early career geoscientists… I fell in love with geology again!’

‘I loved everything about the course and made a network of similar minded people who I look forward to keeping in touch with for the rest of my career. I feel invigorated about the opportunities within geoscience!’

NExUS students, feedback from class of 2023

‘Very inspiring weeks of immersion in geoscience around like-minded people. NExUS returned much of the love for geology I thought I had lost. Thank you!’

‘NExUS has been the most enjoyable learning experience of my life and has helped me build a network of like-minded geoscientists across Australia.’

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