The Metallurgical Education Partnership – elevating Australian metallurgical engineering graduates

  • By MEP Implementation Committee: Laurence Dyer (Chair), Department of Mining Engineering and Metallurgical Engineering, WA School of Mines, Curtin University; Yongjun Peng, School of Chemical Engineering, University of Queensland; and Aleks Nikoloski, Department of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, Murdoch University

The Metallurgical Education Partnership (MEP) is co-funded by the Minerals Council of Australia and partner universities Curtin University, Murdoch University and The University of Queensland.

The partnership, in collaboration with industry professionals, delivers a learning program to final year students enrolled in four-year Bachelor of Engineering (Metallurgical Engineering) programs. The program’s directive is to produce graduates that are better prepared for the commencement of their careers through enhancing the experience gained in the capstone ‘Process and Plant Design’ unit. Professional skills such as leadership, problem solving, collaboration and communication are targeted through the structure of the program and design of the learning activities (which are problem-based).

Design teams are grouped together both within their own university and across institutions (known as ‘supergroups’). Each supergroup is presented with a specific resource description with unique grade, gangue composition and mineralogical challenges. The first assessment item involves major process selection and is prepared across campuses. Therefore the overall approach to exploiting the resource must be agreed upon by all design team members from all institutions. Beyond this, the groups complete the remainder of the unit internally. This manner of organisation provides experience in project management issues that arise from multiple locations and influences contributing to some of the most important decisions of the process.

The remainder of the assessment structure is arranged to lead the groups through more detailed aspects of their plant design. Once a basic flowsheet is reached, the plant requirements to conduct the unit operations are determined. Funding of the program provides modelling software and training to better compile coherent plant mass and energy balances. Subsequently, equipment selection and sizing, cost estimation, social and environmental concerns, plant layouts and ancillary requirements can be determined. As is the case in reality, the process selection can be revised if a significant case for alteration is reached as more data becomes available.

A student–industry workshop is organised at the commencement of the unit. Industry members relevant to the commodity of focus present material about various aspects of plant operation and the design process. The presentations often involve activities to promote higher level thinking and interaction between the students and the invited speakers. Pending the presenter’s agreement, their contact information is made available to students to allow them to further access their experience as issues arise with the more detailed analysis of the design. Key industry members are also often involved in marking assessments.

The improvement of professional skills is a key objective of the program and has been highlighted as one of the major potential benefits to graduates by industry reviewers. A major priority is communication ability, as this is critical regardless of technical excellence. This is practiced and assessed through written communication (report quality) and presentations given both as a design description to the entire program cohort (inter-university) and a defence of the design to the teaching team (intra-university). Project management skills, ranging from document control to conflict resolution experience, is gained throughout the process. Peer review is also conducted to allow the students to reflect on the group and member participation.

The feedback received from students that have completed the unit and industry members that have participated in a variety of manners has been overly positive. Dr Gavin Lind, the Minerals Tertiary Education Council Executive Director, noted that ‘the MEP program is an innovative and collaborative capstone unit that is world-class and world-first, and is beneficial to metallurgical graduates and those companies that employ them based on reviewing the historical student feedback from the MEP program, surveying employers/supervisors of MEP graduates and seeking recent graduate feedback.’

However, the program is consistently being revised and updated in an attempt to provide the greatest value to the students and benefit to their prospective employers. This includes periodic reviews by a panel consisting of both academic and industry members.

Whilst the MEP delivers this world class learning program, professionals in the minerals industry need to be aware of the recent sharp decline in enrolments in metallurgical engineering programs as a result of the minerals industry downturn. It is incumbent on the profession to ensure that this valuable learning program survives the bad times and is able to continue to deliver the well trained graduates needed by industry in the next business cycle. The MEP is a unique and valuable initiative – one well worth fighting for. For further information on the program please contact Don Ibana.

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