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Students of the Precambrian Research Camp gain valuable skills while working in the field. Students of the Precambrian Research Camp gain valuable skills while working in the field.

A future set in stone

NRRI geologists train the next generation of mineral mappers

Metals of all kinds — copper, nickel, gold, platinum, and others — are increasing in demand world-wide. And that means geoscientists who can map out where to find these metals are also in high demand.

As it turns out, northern Minnesota is a great place to become a geologist. The area’s bedrock terrain formed during the Precambrian era of the earth’s formation beginning some 4.6 billion years ago. The activity of early life forms left behind thick deposits of iron ore, now mined for taconite. But it takes specialized skill in field mapping to identify the rocks that host non-ferrous and precious metals deposited in Precambrian rock.

In 2007, NRRI and UMD’s Department of Geology formed the Precambrian Research Center to supply the next generation of expertly trained field geologists. NRRI and UMD Geologists Jim Miller, George Hudak along with Dean Peterson, Vice President of Exploration for Duluth Metals, share their summers with eager geology students at the Precambrian Field Camp. It didn’t take long for word to spread nationally about the leadership and experience it offers geology students. Twenty-four students from 17 different colleges from across the country have filled the roster for this summer’s camp.

"We noticed that geologic mapping was becoming a lost art," said Miller. "Universities simply have not been mentoring students in this experience-intensive activity. This Center and our Field Camp is reversing that trend."

In addition to fundamental mapping skills, the Field Camp focuses on specialized training for the glaciated Precambrian shield terrains. This involves diamond drill core logging, glacial mapping, mineral prospecting techniques, magnetic and gravity geophysical surveying and interpretation, and much more. Then the students disperse across northeastern Minnesota to put their skills to the test.

During the fifth week of camp, the students and instructors break into groups to tackle capstone mapping projects as far north as the Canadian border and throughout the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They map previously unmapped or poorly mapped areas. This summer, three of five capstone projects will focus on areas within the wilderness area that were impacted by last fall’s Pagami Creek fire.

"It was kind of a shock to be in the field right away, but I learned a lot straight away," said Taylor Balogh, a 2010 field camp student from UMD. "The professors were very involved in the whole learning experience."

The students also appreciated having representatives from the minerals industry come to their capstone project presentations, allowing them to make valuable connections.

"My field skills have never been anywhere near what they are now," said another 2010 graduate. "And with the connections I made at the final capstone presentation, I’m confident that my career will be successful."

That confidence is important as they enter the realm of field geology.

"Probably the most rewarding aspect of putting on this field camp in a challenging geological setting is the confidence that the students develop in their field abilities," Miller said. "And we see the success as many field camp students find employment in minerals exploration, not only in the Canadian Shield, but throughout the world."

The Center is planning to expand training beyond the new generation of field geologists. With encouragement from the minerals industry, a specialized field training program for professional geologists is being planned for next fall.