The undergraduate Petroleum Engineering Program at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has been highlighted as a model partnership between industry and academia by the Business-Higher Education Forum.
The forum describes itself as “the nation’s oldest organization of senior business and higher education executives dedicated to advancing innovative solutions to U.S. education and workforce challenges.” Its board of directors includes leaders of major academic institutions and Fortune 500 companies, including University of Houston President and UH System Chancellor Renu Khator.
As part of its work, the group regularly produces profiles of “innovation communities” that have leveraged partnerships between business and higher education, yielding impressive results.
According to BHEF Chief Executive Officer Brian Fitzgerald, the undergraduate Petroleum Engineering Program at the Cullen College program clearly falls into this category. “Efforts such as the University of Houston’s undergraduate Petroleum Engineering Program clearly demonstrate how strong, diversified business engagement strengthens new education offerings in high-demand fields,” he said in a foreword to the report.
While the Cullen College has long had a successful Master’s program in petroleum engineering, until a few years ago it had no such offering for undergraduates. By the middle of the last decade, though, many businesses in the petroleum industry were experiencing difficulty finding new talent and saw “the great crew change” – the coming wave of retirements among key engineering and technical personnel – as a major looming challenge. College and program leadership, seeing a need they could help meet, took the first steps toward establishing an undergraduate degree in field.
With significant support from the petroleum sector, the program was launched in 2009. Companies and individuals in the field provide the program with funding that has allowed it to build essential facilities such as labs and classrooms, as well as to help students through scholarship support.
Industry members also serve on the petroleum engineering advisory board, where they help design a curriculum that addresses the realities of the modern petroleum sector. The curriculum addresses the “evolution in the industry toward new technologies that allow engineers to access previously unreachable energy sources,” the report stated. Students gain a solid grounding in the full span of upstream petroleum engineering, including drilling, formation evaluation, production, and reservoir engineering.
What’s more, the program’s classes and labs are focused not just on memorizing facts and formulas, but on developing skills vital to success in the 21st century, such as problem-solving, teamwork, effective communication with colleagues from diverse backgrounds, and safety in the actual practice of engineering.
Since its founding in 2009, the program has experienced tremendous growth. At its launch, the undergraduate petroleum engineering program had just 20 students. Today, it has 400, and that number is projected to grow even larger in the coming years.
The report’s executive summary contained four main takeaways from the creation of this program that should be considered by future academic/industry collaborations:
- “New partnerships must address actual workforce realities and create college graduates who can enter high-demand fields.” One of the main strengths of the program is that it seeks to fill an urgent workforce need.
- “Deeply engaged high-level industry support is a critical requirement for program development.” The deep, genuine and ongoing involvement of industry partners was central to the program’s success.
- “ ‘Quick wins’ can help keep business engaged.” Academia and industry often move at different speeds. Regular, incremental gains can help sustain industry involvement and enthusiasm.
- “Targeted interventions in education can help universities recruit and retain women and minorities.” Support and programs aimed toward underrepresented populations can help ensure a diverse pipeline of talent for business and industry.
“The success of the undergraduate petroleum engineering program shows how much pent-up demand there was for a program like ours,” said Tom Holley, the program’s director. “This success would not have been possible without the combined support, insight and guidance from the petroleum industry and from the UH administration. With their help we’ve been able to establish a program that is academically rigorous and helps students learn the skills they’ll need to thrive in a fast-paced, global industry.”