Issue 106 - December 2023

Development and progress of the Master of Engineering Geology degree at the University of Auckland


We describe the development, curriculum content and pedagogic context of the Master of Engineering Geology (MEG) programme at the University of Auckland. This programme is in its 5th year, and is currently one of the few active postgraduate engineering geology programmes in Australasia. Since inception, it’s produced dozens of graduates, the majority continuing University of Auckland students, in addition to students from other domestic universities, and international students. The MEG is usually taught full-time as a 180-point, 18-month degree, but is also available as a 120-point, 12-month degree for those with a qualifying BSc honors, and is occasionally taken part-time. The 180-point MEG includes 6 x 15-point (including 4 “core” papers), as well as the 90-point thesis, with an emphasis on work-integrated learning (WIL). The MEG generally follows Kolb’s (1984) 4-stage cyclic experiential learning model, while technical content aligns with the ISRM-IAEG-ISSMGE competency profile for engineering geology education. Nevertheless, we are considering revising the programme and invite comments from practitioners. 

Introduction and background

Engineering geology has a long legacy of being taught at the University of Auckland as individual papers, including at undergraduate level as an elective within the BSc Earth Science, where it is currently the most popular 3rd year paper (Earthsci 372 Engineering Geology). It has also been taught for many years at postgraduate level (Earthsci 770 Engineering Geological Mapping; Earthsci 771 Advanced Engineering Geology), as well as a Faculty of Engineering-listed paper, Civil 726 Engineering Geology (which is a version of Earthsci 372). Until recently, engineering geology was also a significant part of the Bachelor of Engineering Honors programme, taken as Civil 220 Engineering Geology (with >250 enrolments annually), and taught by Earth Science staff members. In addition, for the Master of Engineering in Geotechnical Engineering, both the Earthsci 770 Engineering Geological Mapping, and Earthsci 771 Advanced Engineering Geology papers can be taken.

Many of the readership will have taken these Faculty of Science and Faculty of Engineering papers with members of our current teaching team, or with our predecessors, such as Warwick Prebble. Nevertheless, the focus of this article is on the Master of Engineering Geology (MEG) degree programme, the only Engineering Geology “named” academic degree programme at the University of Auckland. It is one of very few active engineering geology degree programmes in Australasia, as highlighted in the ISSMGE HTC Education session at ANZGeo2023 in Cairns. The MEG was introduced in 2019, quickly became the most popular Earth Science masters programme, and is now in its 5th year, currently with 14 students enrolled. The aim of this article is to provide readers with a brief report on what we have been doing with the MEG so far, highlight existing issues, and outline some possible modifications and improvements to the MEG in future. The latter changes, once settled upon at the University of Auckland, will then be externally reviewed via the biannual Committee on University Academic Programmes (CUAP, 2023), where the other NZ universities get the opportunity to view and comment on any university’s programme changes.

University of Auckland’s Master of Engineering Geology (MEG)

The MEG is an NZQA Level 9 programme, delivered (full-time) as either a 180-point (18 month) degree for those entering with a BSc (i.e. NZQA Level 7) or 120-point (12 month) degree for those entering with BSc Honors (or equivalent NZQA Level 8 qualification), as outlined in Table 1. Both the 120-point and 180-point degrees can also be taken part-time over longer durations. The MEG programme officially is a cross-Faculty programme, led from the Faculty of Science’s School of Environment, but also includes to a much lesser extent at present, the Faculty of Engineering. Students tend to be either (1) continuing students who have undertaken a BSc Earth Science / Geology at Auckland or another domestic university, (2) international students wanting to upskill and also migrate to Australasia, and (3) returning, more mature students who have an existing degree, but wish to formalise their development with an engineering geology qualification. The motivation of the latter cohort is often to facilitate Membership, or Chartered Membership (PEngGeol) status with Engineering New Zealand.

Table 1. Summary of the Master of Engineering Geology (MEG) programme at the University of Auckland

As with any new degree programme at the University of Auckland, a mandatory 5-year review has to be undertaken (termed the Graduating Year Review, GYR). As part of that process, the core teaching team members and current programme directors (Martin Brook, Nick Richards), had to this year reflect on the progress of the degree in an evidenced-based Programme Self-Review. This included reviewing course assessments and feedback, undertaking consultations with senior industry practitioners, as well as MEG graduates, now in the workforce on both sides of the Tasman. This is followed by a review and a report by a University-appointed Review Panel. The final part of this process is the teaching team and programme directors reflecting on the Review Panel report and responding, in a short 4-page proforma. Thus, this year’s GYR process has given the teaching team a valuable opportunity to reflect on progress since the MEG was introduced in 2019. It also provides us (staff and industry) with an opportunity to identify, consult and ruminate on possible improvements to the programme, hence this short report to readers of this publication. 

As per University guidelines, each semester workload is 60-points for full-time study. Nominally, a 15-point paper is equivalent to 150 hours of study (including all contact, assessments and reading). So, 60-points is equivalent to 600 hours of study across a 12-week semester. Irrespective of the programme size or length, all MEG students at present must undertake a year-long 90-point research thesis project, which can range from 20-30,000 words. In addition to the 90-point thesis, the 180-point MEG programme also requires 6 x 15-point taught papers (i.e. 90-points) to complete the programme, including 4 “core” papers (Earthsci 770 Engineering Geological Mapping; Earthsci 771 Advanced Engineering Geology; Earthsci 772 Hydrogeology; Table 2), and one of a list of “management” style papers listed in Table 1. The other 2 x 15 point “elective” papers are selected from a long list of possible papers from the School of Environment (a range of geological and environmental management-type papers). The Faculty of Engineering papers listed are largely around construction management and project management skills, rather than geomechanics. In contrast, for the 120-point MEG, in addition to the 90-point thesis, 2 x 15-point “core” papers are required, including Earthsci 770 Engineering Geological Mapping, and either of Earthsci 771 Advanced Engineering Geology, or Earthsci 772 Hydrogeology. Some key elements of these taught “core” papers are shown in Table 2. 

Table 2. Core 15-point papers for the MEG degree and selected key elements and current teaching lead

All three “core” papers have a major emphasis on experiential learning (i.e. learning-by doing; Kolb, 1984), and this has included field trips at a range of sites across Auckland and the Waikato (Figure 1). Note that Kolb’s (1984) 4-stage cyclic experiential learning model describes two ways of grasping knowledge (1) concrete experiences and (2) abstract conceptualization. The other two modes, (3) reflective observation and (4) active experimentation, help learners transform their experience into knowledge. Each of these stages acts as a foundation for the next stage, and experiential learning exercises, such as field trips and laboratory exercises are a common pedagogical practice in geoscience curriculums globally (Whitmeyer et al., 2009) and in New Zealand (Fuller et al., 2010).

Figure 1. Example fieldwork experiences during MEG core taught courses: (A) Maramarua mine pitwall stability; (B) logging in Rotowaro mine core shed; (C) East Coast Bays Formation cliff instability; (D) Northland Allochthon exposure logging; (E) Hunua greywacke field mapping, Cosseys Creek

A flavor of some of the 90-point thesis topics undertaken by students is provided in Table 3. Many of these comprise a range of elements of: (1) field investigation (invasive and non-invasive), (2) laboratory analysis, and (3) geospatial analysis/numerical modelling. Sometimes, thesis projects are part-facilitated by an industry or local government partner, who helps with site access, and sometimes, data provision, and/or funding for ground investigations (CPT etc). Occasionally, the topic may be developed around a problem that the student is working on within their part-time day-job in industry. Or, a student is provided with laboratory or sample access via their employer (students working part-time at Tonkin & Taylor, WSP, Beca, Wilton Joubert, Aurecon etc have benefitted from such arrangements). Sometimes, the thesis results are presented by the student at a conference, developed for publication in an academic journal article (e.g. Cook et al., 2022; Leighton et al., 2022). 

Table 3. Some example 90-point MEG thesis projects completed by students recently

Thesis quality control is important; the theses are examined by a research-active member of staff at the University of Auckland, as well as a PhD-qualified external examiner, usually at an overseas university. The two examiners then come up with a consensus grade. An advantage of the 90-point thesis is that the students have the opportunity to engage in a real-world problem, and “sink their teeth” into a substantial project, over a lengthy period of time (12 months). With guidance, the students critically review an existing research problem, undertake their own project design, and then execute the project. This can involve a wide range of technical assistance in sedimentology and minerology laboratories in the School of Environment, as well as the geomechanics laboratory in the Faculty of Engineering’s Newmarket labs. Note that while an engineering geology-themed thesis topic is encouraged, in theory a student could focus on other relevant topics such as geological mapping, stratigraphy, geospatial modelling, mineralogy etc.

However, the 90-point thesis does have potential drawbacks. The thesis (Earthsci 794) is undertaken over the second and third semesters of study (for the 180-pont MEG), and the student is typically commencing the thesis within 7-8 months of completing their BSc degree. It can be a daunting step up for students from writing 2000-word essays to a >25,000-word thesis in a matter of months, on an unfamiliar topic. A 45 or 60-point thesis could be much more preferable, being slightly larger than the New Zealand honors-sized dissertation (30 points), and focused on a problem the student is provided with. That way, the student can “hit the ground running” with their project a little more, rather than producing a literature review before they can even finalise their research question, and execute their research project. An argument that has been made is: is there any point in such a lengthy 90-point thesis, when the MEG student is aiming to go straight into the workplace?

Competency Areas and the current MEG curriculum

The key aspects of what constitute the most important aspects of engineering geology to include in university curricula have been debated for over 80 years (e.g. Terzaghi, 1961), and this continues to evolve. The core papers of the MEG curriculum do not follow all of the body of knowledge (BOK) for Professional Engineering Geologists (PEngGeol), as reported in this publication in 2020 (PEngGeol BOKS, 2020). Indeed, that BOK defines 98 separate core capabilities across 14 project “phases”. However, the core papers of the MEG do meet some of the Joint Technical Committee 3 (JTC3) proposed competency profile for engineering geology education (Turner and Rengers, 2010), that addresses both technical and professional competencies (Figure 2). As outlined by Villeneuve et al. (2015), the JTC3 was a committee of the International Society for Rock Mechanics (ISRM), the International Association of Engineering Geologists (IAEG) and the International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering (ISSMGE). The JTC3 proposed a competency profile for engineering geology education that addresses both technical and professional competencies (Figure 2), according to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning (Bloom et al., 1956). Note that Bloom’s (1956) Taxonomy of Learning had by then already been revised by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001), to reflect how learning is an active process and not a passive one. Nevertheless, Bloom’s (1956) Taxonomy is a hierarchical model of cognitive skills in education, which categorises learning objectives into six levels, from simpler to more complex: remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating, and creating. This framework aids educators in creating comprehensive learning goals and assessments. 

Figure 2. Conceptual competency profile for engineering geologists based on the ASCE competency profile, as proposed by JTC3 (modified from Turner and Rengers, 2010), with Professional ASCE Competency Areas added from Turner (2011). Achieved by university = grey, and via work experience = black. MEG “core” paper numbers have been tentatively superimposed on the table (770 Engineering Geological Mapping; 771 Advanced Engineering Geology; 772 Hydrogeology). Professional CA’s are covered to varying extents 4 the 4th “core” management-style paper (Table 1). The thesis (794) definitely covers some Professional CAs, but also might cover many other CAs, depending on the topic.

The ASCE Competency Areas (CAs) are shown in Figure 2 (modified from Turner and Rengers, 2010). Grey cells are what should be achieved by university studies, while black cells are what should be achieved in the workplace, according to Turner and Rengers (2010). In addition, MEG “core” paper numbers have been tentatively superimposed on the table (770 Engineering Geological Mapping; 771 Advanced Engineering Geology; 772 Hydrogeology), as well as the paper code for the 90-point thesis (794). There are several points about these ASCE CAs in the context of the MEG degree that are worth noting. First, the attempt to map the MEG core papers to ASCE CAs is undertaken with a note of caution. This is because for some CAs, a core paper may only just be “dipping” into the respective ASCE CA, and the Bloom (1956) Taxonomy Level Achievement (1-6) may have been “achieved” only briefly as part of an assignment, rather than in a sustained manner over a full, 12-week semester. Second, knowledge and comprehension of the Rock Mechanics and Soil Mechanics CAs is implicit in two (Earthsci 771, Earthsci772) of the core papers (Figure 2), but this actually extends beyond the ASCE-required Taxonomy Level, into “Application” (via practical exercises in this case). Third, at present, the CAs of Underground Construction and Foundations are lacking from the MEG core papers. Fourth, a broad range of “Professional” CAs are generally lacking within three of the MEG core papers, with the exception of “Professional Ethics” and “Communication”. The former is achieved approximately probably as far as Bloom’s (1956) Level 3 (Application), as students need to compile undertake quite a lengthy field form and critical review of what their thesis research will include, and who they will be interacting with (outside organisations, landowners, iwi etc). The “Communication” is achieved to a similar Bloom Taxonomy Level (3 – Application), via the compulsory research seminar all School of Environment masters students must give, toward the end of their studies. The fourth MEG core paper, chosen from a list of management-style papers (Table 1, 2), does potentially achieve some of the Professional ASCE categories, but this would vary on the choice of paper.

Curriculum Delivery Challenges & Possible Improvements

Ostensibly, the MEG can be seen as somewhat of a success, in that it appears to meet many of the ASCE Criteria Areas outlined in Figure 2. MEG graduates have a 100% employability rate, and often receive several job offers while studying. So, we could simply conclude it is fulfilling its purpose. However, there are several challenges to the MEG curriculum delivery at present that are worth considering. Some of these issues were identified and dissected by the 5-year Panel Review process this year, and other issues were not identified. 

The first issue is the lack of practical, laboratory-based teaching of soil and rock mechanics, rather than the current situation where theory is taught, and Excel-based calculations are made, which are then applied by students into numerical modelling problems in Rocscience software. The School of Environment are only just replacing the direct shear apparatus in 2024, and while Atterberg limits and a Malvern Mastersizer allow soil index testing (laboratories are run in Earthsci 372 Engineering Geology), the vast majority of on-campus geomechanics laboratory apparatus (triaxial, direct shear etc) is in the Faculty of Engineering. This apparatus is heavily utilized in their undergraduate teaching classes. In 2018, one of us (Martin Brook) was part of the University of Canterbury’s PMEG (Professional Masters of Engineering Geology) Advisory Committee alongside others including Mark Eggers and Ann Willliams. The PMEG model at University of Canterbury in-part utilized selected undergraduate Engineering-badged papers such as the ENCN 253 Soil Mechanics, which seems an attractive approach. At the University of Auckland, a similar approach would see a paper like CIVIL 221 Geomechanics 1 within the MEG degree. However, there are impediments to this, including: (1) timetabling even within a Faculty can be problematic, but timetabling across different Faculties, can cause intractable issues; (2) class sizes, with little scope to increase class sizes so that MEG students could be added to existing Civil Engineering lab classes; (3) prerequisites – often Earth Science BSc graduates do not have the adequate prerequisites for Civil Engineering-badged papers. Ideally, a way forward would be to construct a new Geomechanics course by “cherry-picking” key laboratory elements of existing Geomechanics 1, substituting in some written assessments, and thereby bringing the Faculty of Engineering facilities more into the MEG degree “fold’.

A second major issue, is that across most academic programmes at all of the New Zealand universities, a prevailing problem is that many students are enrolling in their studies full-time, but are also trying to hold down a full-time job. The MEG degree is no different, and certainly this creates a pinch-point for students, and for many of them, their academic performance is affected (New Zealand Herald, 2023). Whether or not this problem is offset somewhat in the MEG programme, if the student is working in industry as an engineering geologist while studying, is unknown and has not been evaluated. 

A third issue, that relates to the above, is regarding flexible learning opportunities and online learning. During Covid-19, universities had to rapidly move teaching to distance learning modes (generally via online learning), and for geo-engineering at the University of Auckland this was summarised by Brook et al. (2022). Online learning methodologies have improved markedly in recent years, with delivery often synchronous (e.g. a seminar given in real-time) or asynchronous (where the seminar may be recorded and posted online). This does provide for some flexibility, but practical work, field excursions and laboratory activities can be hard to replicate, virtually. However, some initiatives like virtual quarry visits (e.g. Brook et al., 2022) can be achieved. Ideally though, giving classes in distance / online mode (we have trialed this with Earthsci 772 Hydrogeology) can make it more accessible for people working in industry and studying part-time.

Finally, a growing theme in tertiary education is work-integrated learning (WIL), as well as “micro-credentials”. The International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning defines WIL as “an educational approach that uses relevant work-based experiences to allow students to integrate theory with the meaningful practice of work as an intentional component of the curriculum. Defining elements of this educational approach require that students engage in authentic and meaningful work-related tasks, and must involve three stakeholders; the student, the university, and the workplace/community“ ( Indeed, a strategic initiative within the University of Auckland’s Vision 2030 and Strategic Plan 2025 (page 10) is to “provide credit-bearing and partnered transdisciplinary, research-led, experiential, international and industry-based/Work Integrated Learning experiences for all students”. While some parts of the MEG offer obvious WIL opportunities (use of NZGS 2005 and various other standards and guidelines), what has not been trialed yet is an internship or practicum-type paper. Credit-bearing internships are used in some parts of the University of Auckland. For example, the School of Computer Science includes a 60-point internship as part of a postgraduate degree, which is full-time with an industry partner, across a whole semester. Assessment includes a report, logbook, and presentation, and is arranged by a full-time ICT Industry Liaison Manager within the School of Computer Science. Students are provided a small stipend by the University, and sometimes, a top-up by the industry host. Nevertheless, an engineering geology internship presents additional challenges compared with a desk-based IT role, including inductions for site work etc. Micro-credentials have also grown across New Zealand and globally, in a range of subject areas. These are small, stand-alone awards with set learning outcomes, that recognise learners’ skills, experience or knowledge, while meeting demand from employers, industry and communities. Within the New Zealand Qualifications and Credentials Framework (NZQCF), micro-credentials are up to 40 credits (i.e. points) in size (NZQA, 2023). Utilising existing engineering geology papers as micro-credentials can be worthwhile. An example of this is Earthsci 770 Engineering Geological Mapping, which runs as a block course of 1-day fieldtrips around Auckland over 2 weeks every January/February.


This article has provided an outline of the Master of Engineering Geology (MEG) programme at the University of Auckland, which is in its 5th year of being offered. A variety of stakeholders (students, staff, external industry and universities) have provided input into the MEG programme so far. As well as some of the strengths of the programme, some perceived issues with the organisation and content of the current MEG degree programme have been outlined. First, there are areas where the curricula of existing engineering geological core papers could be modified and improved, as well as possibilities for new papers to be introduced. Second, new modes of learning could be trialed and implemented. A third theme that has emerged at a strategic level is the University’s initiatives around work-integrated learning (WIL), and internships. The internship option could be developed further and would probably mean a smaller thesis of either 60 or 45-points, in order for taught papers to be maintained. A final question is whether the MEG should be more closely aligned with body of knowledge and skills that a Professional Engineering Geologist in New Zealand is expected to have (PEngGeol BOKS, 2020). In summary, graduate engineering geologists learn experientially in the workplace after graduation, but this should not preclude us with developing as useful MEG programme as we can, albeit within prevailing staffing, budgeting, timetabling and technical constraints of the University. As part of a broader consultation exercise, an online questionnaire, around some of the themes outlined above will be circulated in the coming months via social media. Readers are encouraged to take the time to respond.


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Tags : #Auckland University

Issue 106 - December 2023, NZ Geomechanics News
Barry O’Connor, Martin Brook, Nick Richards
Issue 106 - December 2023, NZ Geomechanics News
Auckland, New Zealand

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