Home » Integration of Sustainability in Mining Engineering Education

Integration of Sustainability in Mining Engineering Education

Since sustainability is an integral part of mining, it is necessary to emphasise the topic in mining engineering education curricula. This article examines selected definitions of sustainability and assesses them with regards to their suitability for educating future mining engineers. Finally, approaches for the integration of sustainability principles and priorities are presented through selected examples.

Authors: Angela Binder M. Sc., Prof. Dr.-Ing. Oliver Langefeld, Clausthal University of Technology, Clausthal-Zellerfeld/Germany, Prof. Michael Hitch Ph. D., P. Eng. P. Geo., Tallinn University of Technology (TTU), Tallinn/Estonia

Mining Engineering comprises more than just technical solutions for the extraction and processing of raw materials. By its very nature, it exists in the emotionally charged intersection of economics, environmental and social values and occupies an integral position in a well-functioning circular economy. Sustainability and sustainable development embodies these three values and are determinants in the future of mining.

Mining Engineering education begets a moral responsibility to instil core competencies to future generations of decision-makers and guardians of raw material supply. These core competences form the basis for solving future problems which make up the “sustainable mine practice” and include recognising society is a partner in mineral development and production with priorities such as economic sufficiency, social wellbeing and biophysical integrity. Therefore, these aspects need to be core themes in any mining engineering education curriculum.

This need for a stronger focus on sustainability when educating young mining engineering students was became a priority for the Education Committee of the Society of Mining Professors (SOMP). This committee has focused on two main priorities: content and methodology. As we are all well aware, the term “sustainability” has evolved since it first mainstream usage in the early 1980s and has morphed into a multidimensional concept that includes a time-dependent component. One outcome of the SOMP Committee’s work was an examination of the most commonly accepted definitions of the term and distils a working definition that we as educators believe reflect the essence of the ideal. The following section looks at that process.

The term “Sustainability”

One of the oldest known definition was given by Hans von Carlowitz (1). Based on the wooden roof support, timber was very important for mining. Working for the mining authority and being responsible for the timber supply, von Carlowitz wrote the first treatise on forestry as it was a field of high importance for mining and smelting. He formulated the concept of sustainability in the sense that it will be the highest science, effort and technique of the country to conserve and cultivate timber in a way that a continuous steady and sustainable utilization is possible, because it is essential and the country cannot preserve its character without it (1, pp 105–106). In short, the amount of timber harvested should not exceed the amount that regrows in the same time.

In comparison with forestry, mining resources do not regrow in general in non-geological periods. Consequently, either the definition is not suitable for mining, or mining cannot be sustainable at all. The supply of raw materials represents the backbone of the society and its growth. Hence, the country would prosper without mining. But, the concept of von Carlowitz is suitable in mining. Coming from the field of mining, it advises to critically assess the resource usage, i. e. timber in his case, and choose supply chains focusing on sustainable approaches. Identifying this impact, the definition can be used for increasing the awareness on the impact of mining besides the operation itself.

As the concept of von Carlowitz was based relatively regional and motivated by the timber supply for the mining district, after the World War II, a number of books raised the question: Is the planet capable to cope with the increasing population, and will it provide the resources needed for the growth? This notion was also adopted by the Club of Rome in 1972 in the term “Limits of Growth”. This issue evolved even further towards the end of the 1960s to embody a concern on environmental quality and the “Ecology Movement” as envisioned at the United Nations (UN) Stockholm conference in 1972 on the Human Environment. In the same year, the term of “Sustainability” appeared in documentation produced by the UN. In the following decade, the term became even more popular and its meaning evolved further with the UN Commission on Environment and Development (2).

In the landmark report “Our common future” the Brundtland Commission states that “humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (3). In this definition, generations and their needs are addressed, which begs the question of how to reconcile our needs and the very philosophy of prosperity and life. Furthermore, not the state of sustainability but a sustainable development pathway was chosen, which lead to way of improvement and not to resignation. Taking into account that mining cannot be sustainable itself by using the definition by von Carlowitz, a more sustainable performance can be realized and the process can be compared by its impact.

Fig. 1. Three pillars of sustainability on equal footing (4). // Bild 1. Drei-Pfeiler-Modell auf gleicher Basis (4).

In the 1990s, the triple-bottom-line or three-pillar concept was often used taught encompassing the areas of economy, environment and social as a base of a sustainable development. The declaration of the UN’s conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 cemented the model of three pillars on equal footing as shown in figure 1 (4). For the purpose of mining engineering education, the model is simple and we can draw on many examples that support this model. Hence, the introduction of the Brundtland definition and the three-pillar-model, the modern-day definition becomes more recognisable. The question remains, can this blended definition reflect the three priorities, economic sufficiency, social wellbeing and biophysical integrity mentioned earlier in a mining context?

Based on this discussion and interpretation of the three-pillar-model to fit mining, David Laurence (5) introduced the model of sustainable mining practice, shown in figure 2, focusing on the five dimensions safety, economy, resource efficiency, environment and community adding the dimension of safety and resource efficiency to the three pillars covering more the characteristics of an mining activity. Introducing this model to learners, who are taught about the three-pillar-model before, addresses the development and characteristics of mining, perhaps emphasising social aspects, however the full complexity of the notion is still not fully reflected.

Fig. 2. Aspects of sustainable mine practice according to (5). // Bild 2. Aspekte der nachhaltigen Bergbaupraxis nach (5).

The next concept to be included, and partly reflected by Laurence, i. e. resource efficiency, relates to the popular concept of circular economy representing the opposite of a running-down flow by reducing inputs and outputs of the system through reusing, remanufacturing and recycling of materials or in other words eliminating waste. The approach is heavily promoted by the EU and is recommended as an approach for aligning economic growth and a sustainable development (6).

With a minimization of input, and the elimination of waste streams, the looming question is, does mining have any role in the Circular Economy. Lèbre et al. (7) comment on what role mining has in the Circular Economy and suggests that the role of mining must be enlarged. The multidisciplinary character and the links to other industrial and non-industrial activities take a higher priority and become more important. This enlarged role and responsibility needs to be a core message in mining engineering education.

As a result of this call for a more expanded view, the definition of sustainable mine practice needs to be renewed and adapted to the multidimensional role it plays in the Circular Economy. Hence, the SOMP subcommittee presents a new definition for sustainable mine practice: the “Creation of valued raw materials that use processes that are non-polluting, conserve energy, natural resources, economically sound and safe for employees.” (8).

This new iteration of the definition recognises society’s need for raw materials but not at any cost. The non-polluting, energy conservation and economic soundness pays homage to the three-pillar definition that remains valid today but also recognises Laurence’s (5) safety emphasis. By no means is this definition static but rather intended to respond to changing society values and the authors encourage review, however it reinforces the essential and strong core values that are necessary for young engineering students to take on board early in their academic understanding.

Furthermore, definition set the basis of the teaching broader aspects and influences on the mining system and the Circular Economy in which it operates. Additional methodologies, applications, and examples of best and worst practice as well as approaches for communication builds upon it as required to meet learning objectives and graduate outcomes. Methodologies for integration are introduced below.

Methodologies for the integration

The period 2005 to 2014 was declared by UNESCO as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development that reflected a broad and diverse view of the topic but the essential elements discussed remained (9). Common identified important aspects for effective education in sustainability can be defined:

  • interdisciplinary content of learning;
  • involvement of students in the context of learning;
  • active, experiential, inquiry based process of education;
  • practice of sustainability; and
  • partnerships with local, regional communities (10).

Multidisciplinarity can be realized by avoiding teaching the topic in isolation and using incorporating the overarching themes of mining and its connection with society as a whole, with examples and applications. Student involvement and active/participatory learning methods are highlighted as a more engaging approach to learning this somewhat complex concept. The implementation of the model of Constructive Alignment according to Biggs (11) and course design based on activating methods, increase the involvement and learning efficiency. An inquiry-based process as well as the actual practice of sustainability is best defined through the four stages of experiential learning according to Kolb and Fry (12), whereby experiences represent the introduction of a learning process. This can be combined with an active engagement and partnership with actual communities, as illustrated below.

Besides general, subject-specific methodologies and content, a broader level of engagement needs to be considered. Implementation in engineering education, especially those extractive disciplines, i. e. mining and petroleum engineering, is strengthened through four approaches in order of expenses and
complexity (13):

  • the coverage of some ecologic matters and materials in existing courses;
  • specific courses on sustainability;
  • intertwining sustainability in regular courses; and
  • specialization in the field of sustainability.

Again, the way to implement a core sustainability-based curriculum is based on appropriate situations and case examples. A reflexive study program is required to meet and honour the diversity of student groups and reflect the import of a basic education. All of this sensitises students to sustainability and presents the possibility for further specialization.

All of the approaches presented, are incorporated in the framework of both the Bachelor’s and Master’s programs at Clausthal University of Technology.

Sensitizing and addressing sustainability

In order to sensitize students for the topic and the complex linkage of industry and society, the practice of sustainability needs to be included alongside other technical characteristics and influencing factors such as geological and geotechnical properties of any mineral deposit under investigation or review. In the technical field of mining engineering, a holistic approach is introduced and the consequences and impacts of the presented technologies and procedures are highlighted. The discussion above has illustrated three or five pillar models that can be used to consider technologies from different perspectives and evaluate it to find advantages and disadvantages.

Like the practice of sustainability itself, content, delivery and management of mining courses needs to address sustainability-related impacts. Examples and case studies form the basis of any discussion of impacts of mining methods and processes particularly from a stakeholder perspective.

Specific course

The following discussion examines the didactic approach to course development and the emergence of learning outcomes that fulfil the prescribed graduate attributes. The general approach can be applied to examples from the field of mining to activate preliminary knowledge of the students. At Clausthal University of Technology, a course on “Sustainability in Underground Mining” was introduced as an elective. The principal learning objective was for students to develop an opinion on sustainability that is based of existing challenges and approaches. Therefore, the activity was structured in three parts as shown in figure 3. Beyond the introduction, students had the opportunity to reflect on the positions and motives of affected stakeholders as presented by different media and first-person contact. On the knowledge foundation of the first two blocks, individual students developed a personal position that was further elaborated and developed culminating with an oral examination. This assessment consists of a presentation and a series of questions to evaluate basic knowledge and was assessed with based on several transparent criteria. Additional course detail is presented in (14) and (15).

Fig. 3. Course structure “Sustainability in Underground Mining” (14). // Bild 3. Kursstruktur “Sustainability in Underground Mining” (14).

Intertwining Sustainability

There are many opportunities for integrating sustainability principles and practices in the learning process. An example follows. In the course “Advanced Underground Mining”, students took part in such a course. The main learning activity of this course was to develop a mine plan, including assessing and selecting an appropriate mining method, infrastructure and equipment for a given data set. The learning objectives were the linkage of knowledge and target group based communication. Starting with minimal information, the students work in small teams to assess and determine what additional data is required. To finish the project, the students present their results to two different target groups: a technical expert and members of the local community. For both situations, the students were coached and encouraged to be creative and inclusive in their approach. The presentation to the technical expert and the reflection on their community talk were part of the final examination.

Initially, students do not realise the development of increasingly complex and integrated knowledge, however towards the course completion, they become aware that they have developed a very complex concept involving many streams of technical and non-technical information. Additionally, the students become more confident with communication of technical and non-technical content. Finally, their comprehension of environmental and social issues became more sophisticated and they performed well when examined. A particularly interesting observation out were more challenging for them than technical quest was the students found addressing the non-technical issues far more challenging that those questions addressing more technical content. Further details on the course are presented by (14) and (15).

Specialization on sustainability

The development and delivery of specialised mining content is difficult to manage. This is due to the number of influences on academic programming and the often competing demands of various interest groups including university administration, accreditation bodies, industry advisory committees, senior academic staff and the students themselves. Nevertheless, students can enrich their educational experience by choosing electives with sustainability topics as well as focusing on this in thesis and projects. To foster these decisions, sensitizing for the topic, encouragement for a more critical selection and support for the students is important. Especially thesis course, students are more self-driven and the teaching and learning activity is more student centred and teachers support with expert knowledge and impulses can lead to good results.

Future prospects

Sustainable mine practice is a founding principle in mining as in industry and mining engineering education. This priority must also be represented in the curricula of mining programs. The variety of models to integrate is varied but every school needs to find its way for integration based on focus, environment and students. Nevertheless, a general implicit addressing of sustainability issues is very important. Hence, up-to-date approaches need to be integrated in the courses as well as experts and their approaches. The ability to communicate with all stakeholders on their issues and the understanding of the role of mining in a circular economy is an important skill for mining engineers for sustainable mine practice.



(1) Carlowitz, H. C.: Sylvicultura oeconomica, 1713.

(2) Kidd, C. V.: The evolution of sustainability [online]. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 1992, 5(1), 1-26. ISSN 1573 – 322X. Verfügbar unter: doi:10.1007/BF01965413

(3) World Commission on Environment and Development: Our common future. Repr. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987. ISBN 0-19-282080-X.

(4) Tost, M.; Chandurkar, V.; Hitch, M.; Moser, P.; Feiel, S.: Is it time for a Global Mining Initiative 2.0? [online]. Geo-Resources Environment and Engineering, 2017, 2. Verfügbar unter: doi:10.15273/gree.2017.02.008

(5) Laurence, D.: Establishing a sustainable mining operation [online]. An overview. Journal of Cleaner Production, 2011, 19(2-3), 278-284. ISSN 09596526. Verfügbar unter: doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2010.08.019

(6) Korhonen, J.; Honkasalo, A.; Seppälä, J.: Circular Economy: The Concept and its Limitations [online]. Ecological Economics, 2018, 143, pp 37 – 46. ISSN 09218009. Verfügbar unter: doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.06.041

(7) Lèbre, É.; Corder, G.; Golev, A.: The Role of the Mining Industry in a Circular Economy: A Framework for Resource Management at the Mine Site Level [online]. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2017, 21(3), 662-672. ISSN 10881980. Verfügbar unter: doi:10.1111/jiec.12596

(8) Hitch, M.: Sustainable practices. Update on Education Committee. Beijing, 4. Juli 2018. Education Session at the 29th SOMP Annual Meeting and Conference on Mines of the Future.

(9) UNESCO: United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005 – 2014). International Implementation Scheme. ED/DESD/2005/PI/01. Paris, 2005.

(10) Timpson, W. M.: 147 tips for teaching sustainability. Connecting the environment, the economy and society. Madison, WI: Atwood Pub, 2006. ISBN 9781891859601.

(11) Biggs, J.: Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment [online]. Higher Education, 1996, 32(3), 347-364. ISSN 0018-1560. Verfügbar unter: doi:10.1007/BF00138871

(12) Kolb, D. A.; Fry, R. E.: Toward an Applied Theory of Experiential Learning: M.I.T. Alfred P. Sloan School of Management, 1974.

(13) Shields, D.; Verga, F.; Andrea Blengini, G.: Incorporating sustainability in engineering education [online]. Adapting current practices tomining and petroleum engineering education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2014, 15(4), 390-403. ISSN 1467-6370. Verfügbar unter: doi:10.1108/IJSHE-02-2013-0014

(14) Binder, A.; Clausen, E.; Hutwalker, A.: Intergrating sustainability aspects in mining engineering education. In: R. Brennan, K. Edström, R. Hugo, J. Roslöf, R. Songer und D. Spooner, Hg. The 13th International CDIO Conference. Proceedings Full Papers, 2017, S. 548 – 558.

(15) Binder, A.; Langefeld, O.; Clausen, E.; Hutwalker, A.: Linking Sustainability and Underground Mining: Course development in the Master Mining Engineering. In: M. Cardu, Hg. 28th SOMP Annual Meeting and Conference. Proceedings-Papers, 2017

Authors: Angela Binder M. Sc., Prof. Dr.-Ing. Oliver Langefeld, Clausthal University of Technology, Clausthal-Zellerfeld/Germany, Prof. Michael Hitch Ph. D., P. Eng. P. Geo., Tallinn University of Technology (TTU), Tallinn/Estonia