150 Feet Below: Into the San Xavier Mining Laboratory

According to Jeff Burgess, MD, MPH, professor and director of the Community, Environment and Policy Division of the College of Public Health, “The benefit to the students is incredible.” Photo credit: Bryce Myhre/Arizona Public Media.
May 28, 2013

As you leave the Tucson sunshine and walk down into the shadowy depths of the San Xavier Mining Laboratory, an education and research project under the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources, it’s hard to believe you’re entering one of the most unique learning labs in the nation. But here amid the dust and stone and heavy machinery, tomorrow’s top mining engineers are literally drilling deep into their field.

View YouTube - "150 Feet Below: Into the San Xavier Mining Laboratory"

One Dollar of State Money

“In 1958, the University of Arizona leased the San Xavier Mine from the Anamex Mining Company,” says John “Ros” Hill, director and principal investigator of the mine. “In 1978, there was one state dollar used to purchase the mining property.”

And with that single dollar, the UA students and faculty have created an incredible, hands-on, experiential learning environment.

“The students themselves actually run the mine,” says Hill. “They come up with the projects that need to be done, and they assign the projects. If you start as a freshman, you start as a miner. Then you work your way up. Depending upon the amount of time you put in, you can become the mine manager out here.”

According to Jeff Burgess, MD, MPH, professor and director of the Community, Environment and Policy Division of the College of Public Health, “The benefit to the students is incredible.”

In this environment, multiple disciplines cross paths, and students collaborate on a countless projects. One current project, a combination of mining and public health, focuses on comparing exposures and health effects from diesel fuel powered equipment and one quarter diesel and three quarters bio-diesel powered equipment in underground mining settings.

Without a working mine, such projects are much more difficult to fund, design and execute.

A Hands-on Understanding

“It’s definitely good to be out at the mine,” says Ashlyn Hooten, undergraduate in mining engineering. “When you’re in the classroom it’s good, you get more of the text books. But being out here you actually get the hands-on experience. You understand the safety behind mining. Just sitting with a text books, you never understand what mining is all about until you get out there and do it.”

The mine provides a working lab for studying the geosciences and the business of working in the field of finite resources. But along with that, it also offers a place for students to truly get their hands dirty.

Each year, students have the opportunity to participate in the International Inter-Collegiate Mining Competition, where mining schools throughout the world compete in seven hands-onevents ranging from “track standing” to “hand mucking” to “hand steeling” to “jackleg drilling.” 

Such physically and mentally demanding events take hours of hard work, and the mine offers the perfect environment to dig in.

Tons of Opportunity

At any given time, according to Hill, 40 to 60 people are out working the mine. For the students, that experience translates directly to careers.

“For the last several years we’ve had 100 percent placement of our students,” says Hill. “They go to companies all over the world.”

As for Hooten, she looks forward to whatever comes next.

“After I graduate I want to travel a lot,” she says, sweating in her hard hat and goggles, and leaning on her jackleg drill.  “I’m thinking about studying abroad also in Australia, because mining is pretty big over there. I kind of just want to travel and see the world.”

Aside from producing great students, the research done in the mine produces information that is improving the mining industry every day, helping professionals make better decisions and design safer operations.

“The whole purpose of operating this mine is to make sure the students operate in a safe and healthful way,” says Hill. “Our whole goal is really to graduate the safest mining engineers in the world, designing the safest mines in the world.”

Dig into the world if the San Xavier Mining Laboratory.
Related article: Celebrating 125 Years and a New Face of Mining
Related article: The New Face of Mining: Women Carving Out a Place in Surging Industry