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Future Shock

Well-oiled universities: Readying the next wave of petroleum engineers

Energy industry leaders are recruiting from colleges and universities who prioritize R&D in the fields of water reclamation, desalination, and water recycling
University Business, August 2013

At the end of this spring’s TV season, CBS’s “Big Bang Theory” was the highest rated sitcom. Focused on the lives of two physicists, an aerospace engineer, a neuroscientist, and a waitress, the success of this pop culture comedy gives us a creative perspective on the serious contributions engineering and math majors make to our petroleum industry—and to fueling energy production sustainability.

Sheldon Cooper, one of the Big Bang physicists, mused that the crucial work of engineers is “Where the noble, semi-skilled laborers execute the vision of those who think and dream.” While American TV watchers are fixated on this sitcom, higher education leaders are actively recruiting those who aspire to be Hollywood-like stars of engineering research and development.

Simultaneously, due to the connection between water and energy production, energy industry leaders are recruiting from colleges and universities who prioritize R&D in the fields of water reclamation, desalination, and water recycling—because doing so implements sustainable social and economic systems.

Simply put, fresh water is the new gold. Unlike gold, the task is not to discover where to find it. The challenge is teaching humans to be more efficient water users. As a National Geographic article on the “Freshwater Crisis” stated, “In essence, only .007 percent of the planet’s water is available to fuel and feed its 6.8 billion people.”

Ironic though it may seem, the really critical, immediate shortage is not in oil or gas. It is in filling the petroleum industry pipeline with competent middle skills engineers who can extract these natural resources without further depleting our planet’s water supply.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that between 2010 and 2020, employment of petroleum engineers in the energy sector is expected to grow 17 percent. The average annual compensation for experienced petroengineers with a bachelor’s degree is pegged at approximately $147,470. You can read that as a surefire academic pathway toward gainful employment.

According to a Wall Street Journal survey, industry recruiters view leading petroleum engineering universities like Texas Tech University, University of Wisconsin, Purdue University (Ind.), and Colorado School of Mines as key feeder programs for developing a dependable reserve of engineers.

The Whitacre College of Engineering at Texas Tech University has set a new bar for restructuring petroleum engineering education—infusing coursework and fieldwork with real world experience. Relying on his actual experience as a NASA astronaut, Dean Al Sacco Jr. told us that regardless of academic specialty track, every engineer interfaces with the process of recycling water for the purposes of making energy.

The university needed to fund five new endowed chairs, hire 35 professors, and build a cutting-edge research facility that marries formal theoretical teachings with hands-on practical applications. Sacco says there is clearly a need to operate as a research community of energy engineers/scholar practitioners.

Through building a shared vision with the perspectives of both scholars and practitioners, the university increased its competitive funding by more than 50 percent, with $20 million earmarked for scholarships and teaching research fellowships. Even with a 98 percent placement rate of undergraduate engineers in their chosen field, Sacco says, “We still can’t get enough undergraduates to pursue engineering degrees fast enough.”

At the University of Wisconsin, we learned that the workforce gap in petroleum engineers has spiked their enrollment in the College of Engineering to unprecedented numbers. Today, UW’s Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering is seeing the highest enrollment of any department in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences - especially on the petroleum side.

At Purdue University (Ind.), the i2i Learning Laboratory, housed in the School of Engineering, prepares first-year engineering students for the rigors of the profession. Through the exploration of urgent societal problems, Purdue’s emerging petroengineers are among a legacy of notable alumni, including Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, the first and last man to walk on the moon; and Lilian Gilbreth, a mechanical engineer who invented the wastewater hose for washing machines.

Celebrating the largest Society of Women Engineers in the U.S., Colorado School of Mines officials say it has distinguished itself with a curriculum and research program geared towards responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources.

The Mines has forged partnerships with The Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, and closer-to-home, water-related engineering companies such as Aqua-Aerobic Systems, Carollo Engineers, and CH2M Hill. Together, these mutual growth, win-win collaborations are discovering technical processes that balance water reclamation with development and control of toxic societal behaviors—key elements when engineering sustainable energy currencies.

From the unique perspective of these leading petroengineering programs, we realize that it takes highly focused intellectual energy to produce oil and gas. In the new millennium, our nation’s most venerable engineering schools, colleges, and universities are recalibrating their output to meet the daunting challenges of our global energy interdependence.

James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.