May 2008

Breaking new ground

Looking towards the future in mining education

By M. Eisner

McGill mining students at Agnico Eagle's Goldex Mine

The mining industry offers a wide range of exciting and lucrative professional opportunities inside Canada as well as internationally. However, recent trends at the nine mining schools based in Canadian universities indicate that enrollment at the undergraduate level may not be growing to meet the anticipated needs of the future.

Nonetheless, educators investigating ways to attract more students to the fold are confident that numbers will increase.

Hani Mitri is the director of the mining school at McGill University in Montreal. He estimated there are 2,600 students in McGill’s Faculty of Engineering. While only 65 are mining students, he said this number has been growing over the years. “We went from 32 to 65 mining students in five years; we’ve doubled,” said Mitri. “We project that in three years’ time we’ll have 100 students in the mining program at McGill.”

The school, whose mining department originated in 1871, has been experimenting with new initiatives to attract a wider range of students into the program.  One innovative approach that was introduced two years ago was the option to pursue a minor in mining, which is open to all non-mining engineering students at McGill. After students take a prescribed set of basic mining courses, they become eligible for a work term in the mining industry.

“The engineering student stays in his or her major — whether it’s mechanical, civil, or whatever — and does a few additional courses to obtain a minor in mining,” explained Mitri. “This has already attracted 12 non-mining engineering students.” The idea is to expose engineers to the industry, so that when they graduate, it will open another door for them and provide a prospective worker for the industry.

Another way to address the dearth of students, said Mitri, is for the mining industry to take a more active role in the educational process. “The mining industry needs to step in and show its commitment to education, for example by funding new initiatives by the schools,” he explained. “Industry should look at it as an investment in its own community and this is one good way of showing university administrators how important mining education is to Canada.”

Paul Hébert, executive director of the Federated School of Mines, agrees that industry needs to take a greater interest in mining education. “There’s a role for everybody to play,” said Hébert. “There’s definitely an opportunity to tighten up the relationship between business and education. The sectors need to be working in lock step. We don’t have the luxury of waiting two or three years for education and training programs to catch up to industry needs.”

Hébert said schools need to develop innovative ways of teaching as a way to step up to the challenge. Some of the alternatives already in place at the Federated School of Mines are aimed at taking education out of the traditional arena and bringing it to a wider audience. This is being achieved by distance training and education delivery, video conferencing and online learning.

Hébert also feels that advancements in technology offer another way to address the training issue. “We need to reorganize how the work gets done and that drives innovation in terms of technology and automation,” said Hébert. “But we will always need people to build, operate and maintain the equipment. If we can’t find all these people and we have to look to new ways of doing things, we have to train people to use new technologies.”

For Hébert, education in mining is a good news story, with the prospect of so many jobs on the horizon and a positive outlook for Canada. And he is confident the industry will step up to the challenge.

“Miners are problem-solvers,” he said. “The industry, by definition, is one that goes out and breaks new ground, so they are used to being creative. Having been involved with miners, educators and industrial partners for a number of years, I’m confident that we can collaborate to make this work for the Canadian mining sector."

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