On the first day of April 1993 a series of explosive blasts shook the earth at Manalta Coal's Highvale Mine about 50 kilometres west of Edmonton.
For the mine engineers who had planned and detonated the explosive charges to shift the overburden above the main coal seam and create good digging conditions for the dragline, it was all in a day's work. For another group of observers,13 mining engineering students from the U of A, it was a not-soroutine learning experience.
As a class exercise the students had each prepared a blasting design based on the conditions and objectives which shaped the blast they would witness, and from the individual work a "class consensus" design had been prepared. After the blast the students and their professor, Dr Ken Barron, sat down with the mine engineers and discussed how the design actually used differed from the modified "textbook design" arrived at in class.
It was a welcome educational opportunity for the students and just one small example of the way in which industry-university cooperation has revitalized a program once scheduled to be eliminated.
In February 1991 the Department of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineering at the U of A was rocked by the news that, as part of the vertical cuts being proposed to improve the University finances, it was being recommended that no new students be accepted into the mining engineering program, gram, which would disappear.
For the Department it was a blast as powerful as the one which the students witnessed at Highvale. But, as it turned out, the program has survived and has actually been invigorated. Whatever overburden of complacency there was in regard to the program was blasted away, and a rich vein of cooperation with industry has emerged.
"Being under the axe gave us a bit of a boot," recalls Barron, who is chair of the Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineering Department. "We started scurrying."
For help in making the case for their program, Barron and his colleagues turned to the mining industry in Alberta, Saskatchewan, the northern territories, and parts of B.C. and Manitoba — the area traditionally served bv the U of A mining engineering school, the only one between Vancouver and Sudbury.
"We got a lot of support," says Barron. "Industry was venconcerned about having adequate replacements for people who will be retiring in the next few years."
Ultimately a strong case was made for the program and it was given a reprieve. But an important lesson had been learned — the importance of staying relevant — and a number of initiatives have been taken to ensure continued close working relationships between the program and industry.
A first step was the establishment of an Industry Advisory Committee. Its chair is Jim Carter, vice-president, operations for Syncrude Canada, who considers the continuance of a healthy mining engineering program "vital to the large mining industry in the province." He says that when he was asked to be chair it didn't take him long to make up his mind. "I was very fortunate to have senior executives from every major Alberta mining company, as well as Don Currie, managing director of the Alberta Chamber of Resources, sit as members of the committee. Their commitment has helped a great deal in our success so far. In a relatively short period of time we've developed a good working relationship with the mining engineering faculty," adds Carter.
Barron is careful to put the committee members' time to good use, actually getting them involved in decision-making.
One of the decisions that industry representatives are currently helping make is the selection of two new faculty members for the program. While mining lost a position when it was given its reprieve, it has been able to "borrow" a position within its department, and the impending retirement of Wayne Griffin,'S8 BSc(Eng), '66 MSc, will create another vacancy. Three industry representatives are full members of the selection committee.
The Department has also recruited industry representatives for two other committees. One of these undertook a review of the program curriculum and has recommended a number of changes which will soon go before the University's governing bodies. Another committeee set to work on a strategic plan for the mining engineering program —"I think it's the first time a University department has developed a business plan," says Barron. Led by John McDougall, who holds the Poole Chair in Management for Engineers, the committee devised a 43-point plan to ensure that mining engineering thrives and survives at the University.
Central to the plan is marketing the program to students. "Mining will never be a large program — we need mining engineers but we don't need large numbers of them," says Barron, who would like to see 12 to 15 graduates from the program each year. (This number had dropped to as low as three graduates per year and Barron believes that was a major factor in putting the program "on the chopping block.")
Prime target for the marketing is the first-year engineering student not yet committed to a discipline. "Beer and pizza" evenings at which young mining graduates have talked about their jobs have proven successful in attracting these students: 17 second-year students entered mining engineering in the fall of 1991, and 14 opted for that discipline in 1992.
The business plan also commits the program to finding summer employment within the industry for its students. To help achieve this, a student liaison program has been established and its coordinator is responsible for getting resumes from her fellow students and matching them with employers. Last year 30 of 31 interested students were placed, and similar results are expected this year.
The mining engineering students also get exposure to the industry through an executive-in-residence program established to bring industry leaders to campus to lecture and consult with students.
While he cannot look back at February 1991 without recalling the blackness of the time, Barron is pleased with the developments which have since taken place: "We're going to end up a much stronger unit."
What it all comes down to is simple, says Barron: "We want to produce good students who can get jobs."
Published Summer 1993.