What should be in the Mineral Processing curriculum?

  • By Diana Drinkwater MAusIMM, Chair, Education Commission of the International Mineral Processing Council (IMPC) and AusIMM Board member

Global study of pathways to the mineral processing profession

The question of who can call themselves a metallurgist or a mineral process engineer can spark some very interesting and occasionally heated discussions.  We are a little different from our colleagues in mining engineering and geology, most of whom achieve their professional status via university programs called ‘mining engineering’ or ‘geology’. We all know a metallurgist or mineral processor when we see one, yet we frequently struggle when asked to provide a simple definition of what exactly the profession encompasses. It can be even more challenging if we are asked for advice on the ‘best’ pathway to the profession.

Data collected in Australia in 2011 (Lind, 2011) suggests that most metallurgists in Australia took their first degrees in chemical engineering, chemistry, materials science or engineering and a variety of other disciplines; only around 25 per cent  studied in programs with the words ‘mineral process’ or ‘metallurgy’ in the name.  It may be surprising to some of our younger colleagues to learn that this is not a new phenomenon. Many of our most prominent senior metallurgists started out 30 or more years ago as analytical chemists, materials scientists, steel-works cadets, instrument technicians and (of course) chemical engineers.

The many different and quite legitimate pathways to the profession present quite a challenge to a professional organisation such as the AusIMM that undertakes to set and maintain professional standards.

The International Mineral Processing Council (IMPC) is also concerned about this question, and is conducting a global review of mineral processing education with a particular focus on tertiary programs. The study aims to ‘establish a set of curriculum guidelines for minerals engineering education that meet current industry needs and can be implemented  by education providers around the world’.

This study is in progress, but there has been some interesting initial findings and the final report, due in 2016, should be of great interest to AusIMM members.

How is mineral processing capability developed around the world?

There is no argument about the importance of mineral processing in the mine to metal value-chain and little dispute about the need for technically competent specialists to oversee and further develop relevant technologies.  There is considerable discussion, however, about declining technical competency in the discipline.  The underlying factors behind this decline are discussed in some detail in an excellent paper presented at the 2014 IMPC Congress in Santiago by McCaffery, Dunne and Giblett (McCaffery et al 2014).  They group these factors under four general headings of social and school related factors, University programs, industry environment, and workplace factors
and then follow with some suggestions about how to directly address and reverse the decline.

There is considerable discussion about declining technical competency in the discipline.

The IMPC study focusses primarily on university programs, though there is also an inevitable overlap with workplace factors and industry environment as it is almost impossible to avoid extending the review to address graduate development experiences including formal postgraduate study, early-career professional development and on-the-job training, coaching and mentoring.

IMPC Education Commission study – Phase 1

The primary objective of IMPC is to manage a series of international congresses which draw together the world’s leading mineral processing and extractive metallurgy exponents. Since it came into existence in 1952, however, this large group of senior professionals has also undertaken to maintain oversight over various formal activities of the international community of mineral processors and represent their views.  From time to time commissions have been established within the IMPC whose task is to give attention to matters which Council deems to require a formal review.

IMPC’s Education Commission was established in 2008 to address growing concerns about the supply and demand of minerals engineers, and the degree to which they possess the skills needed to make the best use of available tools and technology. Phase 1 of this work, which concentrated on supply and demand issues, was completed in 2012 and widely reported (Cilliers, 2012).

The data about the numbers of minerals engineers is presented in summary form in Tables 1 and 2.  Table 1 shows the numbers of graduates in minerals processing courses collected from around the world.  The numbers and percentages of the total represented by each region are shown. Note that data was not available at that time for Asia; this information gap is being addressed and Phase 2 of the study will include Asian data.

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Table 2 presents an estimate of demand for mineral processing expertise, based on data about mineral production around the world.  Production of the major mineral commodities for the period 2005–09 was collated and divided into regional proportions.  This was used as a proxy for demand, and the percentages calculated are shown in Table 2.

IMPC Education Commission study – Phase 2

Phase 2 of IMPC’s Education Commission study aims to build on the Phase 1 findings and establish a set of curriculum guidelines for minerals engineering education that meet current industry needs and can be implemented by education providers around the world. This is to be achieved by conducting two separate reviews:

1. A survey of (mostly undergraduate) education providers to compare content and quality of existing minerals engineering programs around the world.

2. A survey of industry representatives to establish their view of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed by minerals engineering professionals.

Survey of education providers

The initial focus of this phase 2 study is on undergraduate curriculum and the contribution of tertiary institutions to the development of professionals. Currently the study has collected details of curriculum in mineral processing or extractive metallurgy from 22 education providers in 13 countries including:

  • Australia
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • China
  • India
  • Malaysia
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • Sweden
  • The Philippines
  • Turkey
  • USA.

Data collected includes curriculum outlines, minimum years of study, how many credits are required and a description of the subjects being taught. 

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Some interesting patterns are emerging.  Figure 1 shows a map coloured to represent the typical duration of courses in that region.  Mineral processing programs in Chile tend to be long by world standards, typically six year programs, in contrast with the three and four year programs typical in Australia, India and North America.  The length of programs in Europe are also quite long, reflecting the prevalence in that region of ‘3 plus 2’ year degrees (Bologna model and similar) where students study for a generalist bachelor’s degree followed by specialist master’s degree.

University curriculum development is typically driven by historical, rather than current, industry requirements.

Examination of the curriculum data also allows for segmentation of programs into some basic categories, such as:

  • specific education in mineral processing or metallurgy (including pyro- and hydro-metallurgy, mineral economics and sustainability)
  • basic science and maths
  • basic engineering including mechanical, electrical and materials engineering, professional skills (report writing, seminars) and research project/thesis
  • general process engineering
  • electives.

The IMPC Education Commission is also interested in gauging the standard of ‘professional engineering’ education that is being delivered by mineral processing and metallurgy programs.  One indicator about this is the stated ‘graduate attributes’ or ‘learning outcomes’ of a program, information which is also being collated.  Education providers have been asked to outline opportunities built in to programs for collaborative learning, teamwork development, critical thinking and problem solving skills. Other issues of interest include whether students are getting practical industry experience, whether they do a research project or thesis and whether program quality is managed internally (by academics) or externally (by professional bodies or industry accreditation boards).

University curriculum development is typically driven by historical, rather than current, industry requirements; this is also been taken into account in the IMPC study. Generally speaking, minerals and metal extraction is getting more difficult.  Grades are declining, orebody mineralogy is becoming more complex and at the same time community and environmental issues are increasingly important.  Compared with the industry of the mid-to late 20th century, modern mining is global, it is data-heavy and information-poor, license-to-operate is critical, performance is driven by cost not value, technical and other specialists are frequently off-site, and workforces are lean, busy and ethnically diverse. 

All these factors have an impact on education requirements. This study provides a very real opportunity for industry leaders to ensure that these issues are addressed in the early education of our professionals.

Survey of industry representatives

Phase 2 includes a survey of members of industry from different global regions and representing different commodities.  The survey will ask for their views of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed by minerals engineering professionals for effective performance in today’s industry. Their responses will be used to develop a framework for recommended curriculum content and desirable learning outcomes.

This phase of the study is currently underway and will be completed over the next 12 to 18 months. Results will be reported in due course. 

Development of curriculum guidelines

The final deliverable of Phase 2 of this study will be a set of guidelines for minerals engineering education that meet current industry needs and can be implemented around the world by education providers and accreditation bodies.  The guidelines will not be perfect, neither will they be enforceable.  But we believe that they will be useful for those wishing to enter this profession and to those whose task it is to monitor performance in the sector.

As well as supporting mineral processing and metallurgy programs, these guidelines should also benefit students in more general engineering programs.  They should allow easy identification of relevant content that is missing from programs such as chemical or materials engineering, and will allow students to address these gaps via elective study, bridging courses or postgraduate or professional development programs.  This is especially relevant in regions where minerals engineering professionals are drawn primarily from chemical engineering programs, such as Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Europe. 

Where to next?

The IMPC Education Commission review will remove some of the ambiguity that currently exists about what is expected in a minerals engineering or metallurgy qualification, and will also provide guidance about the key competencies considered important for those entering the profession in the 21st Century.

As well as providing general curriculum guidelines for mineral processing and metallurgy programs, the study will explicitly address the training needs of generic process engineers (eg chemical engineers) to prepare them for the minerals industry.  This information can be used by education providers and by students to address gaps in their knowledge and skills, either via formal qualification or on-the-job experience and professional development.

The development of a set of international guidelines for mineral processing curricula and dissemination of these guidelines internationally can provide educational institutions with an example of best practice, and provide students interested in metallurgy and mineral processing with reliable information about the best educational pathway to their chosen profession.  The IMPC believes there is great value in taking a global approach to education in our industry.

The final report of the IMPC Education Commission Phase 2 study will be presented at the IMPC Congress in Quebec City in 2016. 

References

Cilliers J, 2012. ‘The Supply and Demand of Minerals Engineers’ Minerals Industry Education and Training (IMPC)’, 2013. IIME

Drinkwater D and Napier-Munn T, 2014. ‘Why good professional development is key to profitability in the mining industry’. Proceedings. IMPC 2014: XXVII International Mineral Processing Congress, Santiago, Chile, (28-37). 20-24 October, 2014

Lind G, 2012. ‘Minerals Industry Engagement in Metallurgical Education in Australia’, Minerals Industry: Education and Training, IMPC Monograph  Eds: J. Cilliers, D. Drinkwater and K. Heiskanen, Indian Institute of Minerals Engineers, 2013

Munro P D and Tilyard P A, 2009. ‘Back to the Future – Why Change Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Progress’ Proceedings Tenth Mill Operators Conference, AusIMM

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