Topic and Scope

Upcoming in early 2007 is the First International Conference on Research and Education in Mining Engineering (ICREME). InfoMine is a sponsor and TechnoMine intends to follow and report on the proceedings—this is what we are about. I promised the force behind the conference, John Meeche [professor at the University of British Columbia] that while sequestered on an Iowa farm I would record some preliminary ideas on the issues to be discussed at the conference. Here are those first ideas; I order them by the sessions and questions posed by John. I advise the faint of heart that my comments may offend. I say sorry in advance, but I intend to be honest to the point of provoking debate that hopefully leads to proactive action and benefit to all.

Education for Professionals for Mining

How do we attract the “best” people into our industry through our academic programs?

I find this question elitist and narrow. What does it mean? Is the questioner trying to establish a procedure for attracting more bright students to the mining faculty of the University of British Columbia? Is the implication that if the faculty provides better academic programs, then brighter students will come? If they succeed in offering the best possible academic program [whatever that is] and hence in attracting the best students [whatever that means] then so what? How does the industry and the nation and the world, for that matter, benefit if very bright kids get educated in mining in British Columbia? I suppose the stock answer is that mining needs bright kids to become successful leaders of the industry lest it wither and die or simply blunder along inefficiently and the world suffer a decline in life style as a result of operations run by second-rate student-graduates from American universities.

Let us start by examining the premise that the brightest kids will benefit the mining industry. Perhaps we should start with the question what is “bright” in the context of a student entering the mining faculty of a university? Clearly the higher the SAT score of the student the brighter they are in the conventional meaning of the word. Of do we mean the best rounded student: the one who was the class leader at school, the all-round balanced academic and sports jock and social activist? Are we looking for future leaders, future managers, future researchers, future engineers, and future technicians? Probably all, although the technicians can be ignored for the purposes of the conference as we are focusing on university education.

No offence intended, but in my many years in the mining industry I have observed that there is seldom a one-to-one correlation between SAT-score potential (book learning intelligence) and the ability to make a mine successful. I intuit that the most successful miners are those with a dogged perseverance, with an innate optimism, and with the natural ability to get things done. And this is true from the exploration geologist to the landman, to the financier, to the community relations consultant, to the regulator, to the design engineer, to the fellow in charge of the equipment that sinks the shaft and crushes the rock and adds the cyanide to free the gold, to the environmentalist who finally closes the mine and reclaims the site, to the lawyer who argues that it is all done in accordance with laws, regulations, and the best principles of sustainable development.

What is most interesting about this list of people who find a mine, make a mine, and close a mine, is that most won’t have studied mining engineering in the first place. They studied philosophy, political science, natural science, social science, mathematics, economics, civil engineering, chemistry, physics, or they did time at the community college and in the field completing an honorable apprenticeship.

Maybe then the question "how do we attract the best through academic programs" is irrelevant to the mining industry. All that need be done is provide for the best education of all in whatever topic they choose and then let them free in the world to pursue their best opportunities, and if that happens to be mining, good, and if not then society will benefit regardless from their activities in their chosen fields. All the mining industry needs to do is support community colleges, technical colleges, training institutions, and universities in a neutral way and focus their energy on making the mining industry attractive to graduates regardless of their academic potential, success, or background.

This support can be as simple as paying taxes diligently. It may involve providing financial support to local educational institutions. It may involve scholarships to promising or even otherwise deprived students. It may involve sending mining staff to the educational institutions to lecture and help with education. It may involve summer internships and job programs—although from my experience, one summer in a mining internship on a mine is enough to chase even the most enthusiastic away.

I am nervous about supporting a proposal to select one university, one faculty, one program, on discipline and to shower mining-derived or taxpayer-derived money on it. Who needs a stream of like-minded persons inculcated with one set of ideas? I believe the future of society and the success of mining depends on the give and take of many disciplines, on the infusion of new ideas from all parts of the academic and skills spectrum, on the freshness of people from different walks of live, from different societies, and from irritating perspectives that challenge the given and move us to the new.

I hope that the discussions of the conference do not come up with a set of platitudes. You know the sort: more money for UBC mining; more money for research in mining; higher salaries for mining academics; greater job security for graduates who enter the mining industry; and so on. Rather I hope we see agreement that the mining industry pay its fair share of educating the whole population in the widest possible spectrum of disciplines and skills and then rely on good old-fashioned market forces to attract and keep those who are worthy and needed and have a contribution to make, regardless of prevailing opinions and prejudices.

What are the set of skills needed by a Mining Professional in the 21st century?

To answer this question, we first need to know what a mining professional is. It cannot be simply someone who works in the mining industry. As I note above the diversity of people who work in the mining industry is so great that there is not one set of skills that suffice to keep the industry vital and productive.

The easy answer to the question of who is a mining professional is that it is somebody who graduates from a prestigious university with a degree in mining engineering and who proceeds to get a job with a big international mining company. Let us first therefore focus on this one type of professional. My answer of course is ultimately irrelevant, for the question is then best answered by the large mining company that is seeking to employ mining professionals. What do they want? What skills are in demand in the lucrative halls and offices of mining head offices? I guess they seek somebody who has basic training in: (1) hard science including mathematics, chemistry, physics, and geology; (2) social science including law, politics, management, human and community relations; (3) economics including finance, accounting, and money management; (4) the humanities including philosophy, languages, and history; and (5) engineering including mining, civil, process, mechanical, and electrical. That is a tall order to cram into an undergraduate degree. But if you can find such graduates, and they do exist, give them a big salary and move them to Switzerland or Brazil, Toronto, Denver, Reno, or Vancouver.

Given that all the skills I enumerate in the paragraph above cannot be taught in a few short years, we wonder if there should be a focus on hard engineering skills or on soft social skills when educating those who will lead the mining industry deep into the 21st century. Maybe we should have multiple streams: one producing mining engineers; one producing mining managers; one producing mining developers; one producing mining philosophers; and so on according to your tastes.

Perhaps that degree of specialization is best deferred to post-graduate years. It is then we can train the specialist in mining history and philosophy. And he/she can proceed to formulate and answer the hard questions including: do we need mines or can we recycle to meet our needs; where should new mines be located; what is the international law of mining; why do some societies benefit from mines and some get destroyed; is the pre-eminent tenet of mining sustainability or responsible conduct; of what should a mining Environmental Impact Statement consist; international migration of labor to meet the needs of mine development [fence design]; and so on?

In the post-doctorate programs we can have teams working on nano-technology in mining, bacteria to kill viruses, robotic mining to free folk to work in social programs, broadband communication for remote mine operation and management, and the many other great advances we envisage.

Then we should establish Think-Tanks, those great institutions so beloved of United States right-wing politicians and supporters. The success of Republicans since 1994 in US politics is attributed by many to the proliferation of Think-Tanks to address conservative issues. I read the other day that 24 new Think-Tanks have been established in Ottawa since the Harper government came to minority, and the aim of these Canadian Think-Tanks is to replicate conservative success in the US. I am told Simon Fraser has a Think-Tank that does some mining-related work (I read their summary of the best jurisdictions in which to mine.) Maybe each mining house should be required, as a matter of public policy and industry largesse, to finance a Mining Think-Tank and to pay learned researchers large salaries to write erudite but readable papers on mining issues.

I can easily formulate many a paper to be produced by the first UBC Mining Think-Tank (UBC-MTT) : Canadian national policy for third-world-country mines; Oil Sands and how to overtake (take over?) OPEC; Canadian territorial fragmentation, First Nations rights, and the implications for mine development; mine reclamation standards based on geomorphic principles. The list is endless, and I volunteer to continue formulating ideas and write the first few papers for a rewarding sum.

The point of all this is that there is no one right route to the education of a 21st century mining professional. It is an ongoing voyage, a journey, and process of self-development, of societal development, and of national and international self interest.

What approaches should be used for life-long learning programs and needs–both continuing education for our graduates and opportunities to provide early education to high-school and primary school students?

This is so broad a question that I divide it into two before proffering an opinion. The two questions are:

  • How does society provide for continuing education in mining if at all?
  • Should the mining industry attempt to “educate” primary and high school students in mining?

Regarding the first question, I admit a conflict of interest. I work for InfoMine and we have EduMine. I believe that EduMine is the best and only way to provide for future post-graduation education and life-long learning for mining professionals. EduMine has it all: free market responsiveness; ready accessibility; large choice; low cost. I cannot envisage that the same can be achieved by any university, nor do I believe that any university should strive to do so—that is neither their mission nor purpose. Cobbler stick to your loom—or whatever the old saying is.

There is some room for those many organizations that wonder around the world providing real-time courses: this week in Pittsburg, next week in Perth, the following in Katmandu. We all love the visceral thrill of sitting in a class with others as ignorant as we and being entertained and educated by a charismatic teacher. It is fun and we are prepared to pay large sums to be thus entertained as compared to sitting alone at a still desk and blinking computer screen. But again this wondering pedagogue role is not for the university. Maybe the best university lecturers can be paid speakers, but he/she should never be the organizer and motivator. He/she should stick to home and teach the students the taxpayers subsidize.

As to the question of the mining industry going to the schools to promote their cause. I am dead set against this. Nobody under the age of 18 should be subject to propaganda, however well intentioned. The mining industry should stay away. If the mining industry claims the right to inculcate values in the young, why then so do the NGOs and the environmental groups and the creationist and there is no end in sight. Teach our children the fundamentals. Equip them to learn. Equip them to read and calculate, and to discriminate and to make choices and to act. But do not try to teach them to think like you. Your time is past; the future is theirs; they do not need to hobbled by your outdated prejudices.

How should the industry and our educational institutions out-reach to remote communities and indigenous populations?

Only somebody from a rich and privileged city could ask such a question. I dismiss this arrogant question by referring again to EduMine and my opinion about spreading propaganda amongst the young and innocent. If an individual in a remote community, regardless of their ethnicity or race or whatever, is interested and able, they should have access to the educational opportunities as the average Canadian aristocrat from a private school: money and the chance to attend a decent learning institution. This is easily done by scholarships, student loans, and open enrollment. If an older person in same remote community wants more education, they should be able to go to the local library, access a free internet computer, and log onto EduMine. I do that in Belle Plaine, Iowa. These issues are settled in so many parts of the world, they hardly need delay us at a conference.

What opportunities exist to develop collaborative teaching and learning approaches by industry and academic institutions?

When I was a lecturer in the mid 1970s in South Africa, these same questions were asked. The answers are simple; their implementation hard. The university professor has to get out of the tower, go down to the grubby halls of industry, and persuade the practitioner to come to the University to give a lecture, to run a course, to lead a design class. Neither the average consultant nor the average mine operator has the time, the energy, or the skills to teach. So the university professor has to seek out that small group of people in industry who can teach and he has to persuade and induce them to come. The most successful person I know in this regard is Bruce Thompson at the University of New Mexico. I still have the Hartman brief case I bought with the $500 I earned giving lectures on Civil Engineering, Environmental Considerations, and Mine Reclamation to his off-campus classes in Albuquerque, Grants, and Gallup via video. Invite him to come tell you how it is done.