May 2009

Ask the experts

U of A mining engineering students learn decision-making skills from industry executives

By P. Caulfield

Guest lecturer, Jim Carter (former president & COO of Syncrude) addressing U of A class

In December 2008, Tim Joseph, associate professor of mining engineering at the University of Alberta’s School of Mining and Petroleum Engineering, was faced with a challenge. He needed to create a final-year course in mineral economics in a hurry. The professor who normally taught the course had gone on leave and it fell to Joseph to take over her course, which was set to commence the following month. “I hadn’t taught mineral economics for ten years and I didn’t have any materials on hand,” explained Joseph.

Out of that necessity was born the invention of an innovative course that invites mining experts with experience in different facets of the industry to address the students and introduce them to the real-world challenges of decision-making. The executives’ participation exposes the students to the mining industry as it actually is and gives them a learning experience beyond the conceptual, previously received from their text books.

Time for a change

Joseph said the circumstances were ripe for a novel approach to teaching mineral economics to mining engineering students in the last semester of their final year.

“There was an opportunity to take a new approach to teaching the subject,” he said. He was assisted by retired mining engineer Jim Popowich, former president and CEO of Elk Valley Coal (now part of Teck Coal), and past president of CIM.

Joseph said he wanted to create a course for his 25 final year students that went beyond number-crunching and got into the real world of decision-making, something he felt the mining engineering curriculum needed to address more.

“Students need to learn there are many intangible considerations in decision-making,” he said. “I want to make them think about what types of information they need, where that information is and how to obtain it. Buying a facility or a piece of equipment in the Northwest Territories or Northern Alberta is different than when it is in Africa or New Guinea.”

Expert input

Joseph invited 10 mining industry experts to address the class. The first speakers were Popowich and Michael O’Shaughnessy, senior financial analyst with Teck Coal in Calgary, who spoke for one hour on commodities and commodity cycles.

“We discussed how all commodities are subject to cycles,” Popowich said. “We also talked about how government regulations can affect commodity cycles.”

Popowich and O’Shaughnessy explained that commodity cycles can actually be learning opportunities. “During down cycles you really learn how things work and what drives costs,” Popowich said. “Any down cycle is a time for learning, because history really does repeat itself in commodity cycles.”

Popowich spoke again later in the course about operating costs and how to minimize costs and maximize profit. He also discussed the importance of communicating clearly with local communities, which are important sources of labour and supplies to mining companies.

Among the other speakers was Chuck Edwards, director of metallurgy at AMEC Americas Limited in Saskatoon. Edwards spoke about economic evaluations of extraction and processing plants. “We discussed what information you need in order to perform an economic evaluation at the different stages of a project, from concept to prefeasibility to feasibility to definite design,” Edwards recalled. “You need different types of information at each stage in order to proceed to the next. You gradually get a clearer picture and so you’re able to perform a better project evaluation as you move along.”

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