May 2008

Reaching out by digging deep

Caterpillar Foundation invests in mining’s future

By A. Gordon


U of A engineering students visit Montana tunnels.

Through the Caterpillar Foundation, Caterpillar Canada recently made a generous pledge to the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering. “We’ve seen a real decline in enrollment in mining school programs, especially in North America,” said Caterpillar vice president of Global Mining Chris Curfman. “We feel that getting young people interested in mining is the biggest challenge our industry is facing — and it’s no different anywhere else in the world.”

The $1.5 million pledge will be paid over 10 years at $150,000 a year. “We believed that by making the donation over an extended period of time, it would help to solidify our relationship with the university and to develop a long-term association,” explained Curfman. He went on to say that the foundation’s support of educational initiatives such as the one at U of A is part of the company’s overall focus on sustainable development. “It’s a remarkable program they have at the U of A,” he proclaimed. “We’re very excited to be part of that through the CAT Foundation.”

David Lynch, dean of the Faculty of Engineering at U of A, said that the support from the foundation will be nothing short of transformative. “It’s incredible,” he attested. “There’s just no other way of describing it. The educational experience of so many students will be dramatically enhanced.” There are two major components to the initiative: $100,000 per year (for 10 years) will go towards the expansion of the school’s Discover E Outreach Program, while $50,000 per year (for 10 years) is earmarked for the expansion and renewal of the mining engineering instructional laboratories.

Discover E

Discover E is a major outreach program operated by the Faculty of Engineering. Thousands of students from the most remote corners of Canada — grades one to twelve — are given the opportunity to explore various aspects of engineering, science and technology through hands-on workshops and discovery camps. The workshops run approximately two hours, while the camps are five days in duration. In the past year, 13,076 students took part in the Discover E workshops and 1,648 in the week-long camps.

“We’ll pack up a bunch of laptops and head out across Alberta and all the way up to remote communities in the Northwest Territories such as Tuktiuktuk and Yellowknife,” explained Lynch. “And these are not demonstrations. The counselors, most of whom are engineering students, basically take over the class for that period of time. All of the participants are really engaged in what they’re doing and catch on so quickly. In the week-long camp, that experience is even more comprehensive. It’s really sensational to see.”

There are 20 different varieties of camps, each with its own age-appropriate curriculum. “Within those there are basic science discoveries and robotics,” explained Lynch, “but we also have 3D graphic development, environmentally related and forensic CSI-inspired camps.”

Lynch said that they try to balance their camps to encourage participation by all students. “We strive to accurately project that fields like engineering, science and technology are for everyone,” he explained. “So we try to ensure that the councilors are representative of the broad diversity that we see in these fields. Last year, we had approximately 35 per cent young girls participate in the camps.”

Lynch acknowledged that the logistical challenges and the costs to run such a program are considerable. “Travel and accommodation are quite complex and expensive to arrange, especially going into these smaller northern communities,” he explained.

The Caterpillar Foundation’s pledge will go towards the actual operational costs of running the Discover E Program, as well as towards bursaries for students who cannot afford to pay the small camp registration fee. “We never turn a participant away for financial reasons,” said Lynch. “These funds will help us continue this commitment.”

Mining engineering students

The second component of the foundation’s pledge will focus specifically on U of A’s mining engineering program. The rapid growth of the program — now one of the largest in the world — has pushed its facilities beyond their capacity. “We’ve begun to burst at the seams,” explained Lynch. “Sometimes we don’t even have the space to offer the classes in the rooms anymore.” The majority of the $500,000 portion of the donation ($50,000 per year for ten years) will go towards the renewal and expansion of a state-of-the-art mining engineering design and project lab. It will be named in honour of the generous support of the Caterpillar Foundation.

Full circle

Lynch highlighted that the two components of the Caterpillar pledge will touch and support mining engineering students throughout their curriculum. “It’s difficult to explain the impact of how transformative this is going to be,” exclaimed Lynch. “This helps set students on courses for the rest of their lives — showing them directions they might not have considered. From getting the six-year-old student thinking about a career in science and engineering to optimizing the educational experience of the mining engineer student, this pledge from the Caterpillar Foundation yields an impact that goes full circle by touching so many people during different stages of their lives. It helps encourage students to enter the mining, petroleum, metallurgical and chemical disciplines that are so important to the future of our natural resource development.”

This sentiment is certainly reiterated by Curfman. “Employment is by far the most serious issue our industry is facing around the globe,” he said. “There’s plenty of money and there are plenty of opportunities to mine, but the shortage of people is a concern. And it’s not something that’s going to get fixed in a year.”

Curfman emphasized that the answer lies in attracting more bright, enthusiastic young people to the industry. “It affects all of us — mining companies, equipment companies, dealers and so on,” he maintained. “We have an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of Canada’s youth and create a lasting positive impact.”

The investment in the future of Canadian mining by the Caterpillar Foundation will certainly pay dividends for many years to come.

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