Sept/Oct 2008

Student Life

The university-industry symbiosis: an international student’s perspective

By R. Ritter

Robert (right) with fellow student preparing oil sands for cyclic tests 

As an international student from Germany attending the University of Alberta on a one-year student exchange program, I have been introduced to the Canadian mining industry and its great potential. One of the things my experience has taught me thus far is that my field of study offers one of the most valuable and competitive degrees available, which bodes quite well for future career opportunities.

Consider the following. In 2006, the mining industry accounted for six per cent of Canada’s economy. In Alberta, production of oil sands reached 1.3 million barrels per day in 2007, representing 50 per cent of Canada’s total crude oil production. Canada exports over 28 million tonnes of coal each year to more than 20 countries, generating an accumulated profit of $5 billion. Currently, Alberta’s oil sands companies invest $75 to $100 million annually in research and development, and these numbers are predicted to rise. It is, therefore, no wonder that the industry targets the University of Alberta’s mining program. The future of the mining industry rests in the hands of the current students.

The mining industry is indeed closely allied with the university. Not only do they seek to hire University of Alberta mining graduates, but they also aim to improve their prospective employees’ learning of the newest techniques in research and technological advances. In supporting the education of students by helping pay for professional laboratory equipment, computer labs and other facilities, the industry actually invests in a future driven by professionally trained, highly capable employees.

Students at the University of Alberta are offered an enriched educational experience. The industry provides outstanding opportunities for employment — summer jobs, co-op and research programs in their fields of study — a critical component of advanced technical education. Students value and benefit from the opportunities to apply their theoretical knowledge in the field as it enhances their competencies and future employment prospects. At the same time, the educational gains students make eventually flow back to the industry, making its involvement with the faculty a concrete investment. To quote a fellow student: “Without industry’s involvement with our faculty, our program would fail miserably.” As the pieces tie together, industry depends on students and faculty for future exceptional employees, and the students and faculty depend on industry for a complete higher education experience.

In this dynamic relationship, industry’s extensive participation is directly visible to students at career fairs, conferences, guest lecturers and industry nights — events that bridge the gap between engineers-in-the-making and “already-made” industries. Industry partners also provide the necessary “in kind” resources that build a foundation for research. These include samples of oil sands, suspensions, dragline ropes, tires and core samples for hands-on undergraduate and graduate studies. The research experience students gain gives them a taste of the real challenges they will encounter as full-fledged professionals. At the same time, they are able to develop new designs and techniques that could solve some of today’s pressing industry issues.

The University of Alberta offers the degree while the industry provides the practical knowledge and support needed to make the mining program possible. This synergistic partnership, along with the industry’s generous contributions, are what make for an above-average level of education, producing mining engineers who will lead mining’s flourishing future.

Of course, such opportunities are only possible with strong support and guidance at the program level. I have had the privilege of working under the mentorship of Dr. Tim Joseph, who has had a profound impact on both my current and future career goals. I was fortunate to encounter industry partners while volunteering at the CIM Conference and Exhibition, which allowed me to find out more about myself, my ambitions and dreams for my future. After my year in Canada, I’m excited about heading back to Germany this fall to complete my degree and to the many opportunities that lie ahead. Whether my choice is to continue with innovative post-graduate studies or to go to work in Canada’s vibrant mining industry, I know that options are plentiful and that nothing is impossible!

Robert Ritter is a fourth-year economical engineering exchange student majoring in mining. His program includes an eight-month school term and a four-month work term as a research assistant at the University of Alberta. His hobbies include travelling, soccer and photography.

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