August 2017

Future direction of mineral resources education

  • By Dr Louisa O’Connor MAusIMM(CP), Associate Dean Learning and Teaching, Western Australian School of Mines, Curtin University

Strategies and innovations for the new generation embarking on a career in the extractive industries

There are many challenges to address for education in mineral resources disciplines, particularly at the tertiary level. As with all tertiary institutions, the aim is to successfully produce graduates that are hard-working, high-achieving and job-ready. Industry is not the only receiver of these students – postgraduate degrees and life-long researchers are also targeted. Very little secondary school education about natural resources and associated industries is integrated into the curriculum, and this poses a problem. This article is intended to address past, present and future initiatives with a teaching and learning emphasis for the mineral resources industry.

Globally, the tertiary education sector is facing an ever-shrinking number of related schools that teach subjects for the resources industry. Deniz (2015) highlights the decrease in departments for mining and metallurgy specifically in the US (Figure 1).

Related departments have merged into other discipline areas, due mainly to small numbers of applicants. But then numbers have grown and new departments with strong branding have been opened or reopened; eg Camborne School of Mines (Exeter University, UK), the Royal School of Mines (UK) and the Henry Krumb School of Mines at Columbia University (US). Tertiary education is seen as a business, and this is strongly reflected in the course and subjects on offer to new and returning students. Are industry, government bodies and university alumni really speaking to one another to create a consistent, sustainable and enticing opportunity with mining schools and departments to attract new generations in the resources sector?

Resources education has and continues to evolve, but perhaps not at the rate the industry needs, nor in the discipline areas that are compatible with current industry innovations; however, postgraduate degrees – more so those that are research-related – are largely contemporaneous with industry applications and often sponsored. These postgraduate projects, whether they are Master of Philosophy or Doctor of Philosophy degrees, are key to finding new technologies and innovations, in many cases adding value very quickly to corporate and operational business.

Historical perspective – have we progressed?

A 1998 publication by the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) titled Back from the Brink: Reshaping Minerals Tertiary Education is a well-known reference, having been cited in many articles in the past decade or so. It is interesting to remind ourselves of a quote from the introduction:

The opportunity

Australia has the potential to be the world’s leader in minerals education. University education in Australia is changing, driven by more market orientation, reduced government funding and more flexible delivery of education. The opportunity exists for a true partnership between industry, government and academia to reshape minerals education in Australia and secure the supply of the industry’s future specialist professionals. (MCA, 1998)

The opportunity stated in 1998 is relevant to today’s situation. Australia provides an excellent education for the minerals resources industry, with the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM) ranked first in Australia and second globally behind the Colorado School of Mines in the US. Australia provides three of the top five mining and minerals programs globally. WASM has two influential teaching and collaborative bodies for the traditional disciplines of mining and metallurgical engineering: Mining Education Australia (MEA) and the Metallurgical Education Partnership (MEP), both governed by the MCA. These two entities utilise the collaboration of several universities around Australia to design and teach units for the mining and metallurgical engineering degrees, the content of which is accredited by Engineers Australia. Intrinsic to the delivery of projects and workshops for these two bodies is assistance from industry. Volunteers are sought to come and speak and interact with the students, providing a great opportunity and experience.

As a result of the MEA university collaboration led by UNSW with industry (Samsung), WASM are now looking at the learning opportunities provided by virtual reality – a novel and exciting way forward for teaching methods. Curtin University is now running a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) titled ‘The Business of Mining’ as an introductory education piece.

A huge task for any tertiary education body is to assess and develop new ways of teaching and distributing learning to those students who are working, are located in a remote area or are overseas. Flexible ways to learn and become qualified is very important, and so it’s an area that is constantly active in development and execution.

Although points raised in the 1998 document continue to be addressed and worked upon, there are still some large areas requiring attention. Communication between universities, government and industry is ongoing. Flexible teaching methods will only be as good as the technology we have to make them available, but this is coming to fruition.

Funding for education in the near future

Government funding for universities has fluctuated, and the 2017 Australian federal budget stipulates that funding will be cut and an increase in fees will be incurred by students from the beginning of 2018 (Department of Education and Training, 2017). Although a reduction in funding is not new, it comes at a time when universities are being told to grow education and tertiary learning, particularly relating to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. STEM subjects are intrinsic to the resource industry’s functionality.

Assuming that costs will be passed on to new students to cover the reduction in government funding, this is likely to negatively affect the number of applicants into the key discipline areas for mineral resources – more so than ever before. The trend of applicants into resources education is cyclical, reflecting the domestic and global industry. As this can adversely affect the industry’s need for graduates, a strategic response must be developed to market resource industry careers in parallel with courses offered at the tertiary level.

Media coverage has a huge effect on parents not in the resources industry, who can have a major influence on their own teenage children who are investigating what they wish to do as a career. Advice can often be negative and frequently include words such as ‘downturn’ and ‘cyclical’. But it seems little consideration is given to the length of a degree course and the fulfilling career that can be won at the end of it when the cycle is positive once more. Table 1 is taken from Spearing and Hall (2016) and highlights the employment rates in various engineering disciplines in Australia. The table clearly shows the successful employment figures for graduates.

More effort is required from all parties in the industry to counter the negative press. If this is not addressed, universities can expect more departmental closures due to an increasingly reduced number of applications.

Teaching and learning – fundamentals

Resources education continues to evolve, but perhaps not at the rate industry seemingly dictates. A student leaving school wishing to embark on a technical degree such as mining engineering or extractive metallurgy must understand the fundamentals of their chosen subject. It just so happens that the fundamentals run three to four years depending on what degree course has been selected – Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Engineering.

Part of the fundamentals of these degrees is to learn skills such as how to think, be creative, problem solve, work with others and be thorough and accurate. Fundamentals of the subject matter are a different thing altogether. The mining industry has moved on, particularly in the use of technology with special reference to data analytics, codifying, computer programming and decision-making – ie using computers to make decisions. This can be applied to all aspects of the mine value chain, from ore to product, people and finance, and supposedly addresses fluctuations, subjectivity and error. Yet, the use of mathematics and decision-making in the resources industry dates back to 1977 (Tomlinson, 1977). A question for consideration: do universities now need to evolve our core courses, such as mining engineering and metallurgical engineering, to incorporate these new aspects of the industry? Codifying information to remove variation and subjectivity is not a simple task, but this process would suggest computing skills and fundamental technical knowledge and experience. Is it for mine schools and similar departments to create a hybrid degree so that the student graduates with these new fundamentals? What are the new fundamentals?

Spearing and Hall (2016) suggested a table for future mining engineering graduate skills (Table 2). In a degree course, adding content learning to a course without removing other material is something that cannot be done, or there is a danger of overloading students. Mining engineering is a huge discipline; is it therefore possible to create several variants of a mining engineering course, incorporating these new industry areas? Indeed, what should a ‘mining engineering’ degree now be? The same could be asked for several degree courses in the mineral resources area.

What do we need to teach and at what level?

There is no escaping the need to teach the fundamentals to students entering either a science- or engineering-based degree course when entering the mining industry. Part of the role of universities or places of tertiary education is to teach students how to think. The ability to assimilate and apply all sorts of information and data is essential. In general, the expectation from industry is to hire autonomous people, especially in professional level roles, in which they have the capacity to work cross-discipline and in a team-based environment. Problem solving is a necessity and is derived from the proficiency to think clearly and strategically.

Content learning during the fundamentals of any degree is highly important, and being aligned with industry requirements is essential and part of an accredited program by Engineers Australia. Core subjects such as mathematics, physics and chemistry are fundamental subjects. With the evolution of the mining industry and the increase in data generation and modelling, there is an opportunity to diversify and create newer areas of fundamental learning. Data analytics, computer programming and app design, as well as more mechatronics, would appear to be a paradigm shift. Not only are students required to learn the technical content of their chosen subjects, but also the applications of other discipline areas.

For the last decade or so, there has been terabytes of data generated across all operational areas in the industry. So much data is accumulated in areas such as exploration, geophysics, geology, geochemistry and drilling that it generates a problem of how to interpret and utilise this data (Fekete, 2015). There are many initiatives being investigated at both university and corporate level looking at how to turn all this information into something useful.

How to make teaching, learning and qualifications open to all

It is evident that universities constantly evaluate methods of teaching and technology used; eg virtual reality has already been mentioned as an innovation. Online teaching and learning is already available in many units for most courses globally, but there will always be a requirement to undertake laboratory, field and operational work, and that simply cannot be accommodated online. An initiative that could assist this is to teach intensively in blocks, either online or face to face. In utilising this delivery, a person could finish a unit in a few weeks rather than over a semester.

Not everyone can take on a course outright. The ability to undertake each unit individually, gradually building towards a MicroMasters, bachelor’s, graduate certificate, diploma or master’s could be achieved through ‘stackable’ learning. This is a flexible way for someone who is time poor and possibly financially stressed to be able to continue an education or individual units for continual professional development. Though still in a conceptual phase – particularly for WASM – it is due to soon become reality.

Conclusion

In keeping with the statement of the 1998 Back from the Brink report, there is always a need for improvement in terms of content and subject matter for degrees, short courses and the newer MicroMasters and MOOCs in resources education. Industry must be integral to these improvements by providing information on what the projected needs are, and utilise existing platforms to discuss and action ideas. This can be done via institutes, alumni and industry advisory boards, or straight through the universities and academics. Along with these informative communications, there is the necessity to work with government bodies, ensuring that education needs are met and in turn initiatives are actioned through strategic research projects.

There is a real opportunity to make considered changes in the resources tertiary education sector to move it into the future.  

References

Deniz V, 2015. Problems of Mining Education at Turkish Universities: Past, Present and Future. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 174: 441-447.

Department of Education and Training, 2017. Higher Education Reform Package Overview [online]. Australian Government. Available from: https://docs.education.gov.au/node/43531.

Fekete J, 2015. Big Data in Mining Opereations. Masters thesis, Copenhagen Business School, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), 1998. Back from the Brink [online]. Available from: www.minerals.org.au/file_upload/files/resources/mtec/backfromthebrink_chap.pdf.

Spearing S and Hall S, 2016. Future mining issues and mining education, The AusIMM Bulletin, 4: 26-28.

Tomlinson R C, 1977. The Practice of O.R. In Coal Mining. European Journal of Operational Research, 1(1): 9-21.

Feature image: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock.com.

Share This Article