What do university mining schools need most? Over the past few years increasing attention has been directed to the people employed to teach and mentor students at university engineering schools, with university departments mostly staffed by scientists and graduates with no industry experience.
    Emeritus Professor Odwyn Jones (OA) was principal of the WA School of Mines at Kalgoorlie and Dean of Mining and Mineral Technology at WAIT/ Curtin University of Technology for 15 years. He shares his thoughts with readers of Australian Mining Review.

UNIVERSITIES too often place a premium on engineering applicants having a doctorate with little or no mention of the merit of having some industry experience.

In doing so the teaching becomes too scientific and theoretical with academics unable to relate the subject matter to the realities of the workplace.

To create job-ready graduates, undergraduate programs must include the right balance of education and training.

These issues are most important in mining-related schools, bearing in mind the duty of care borne by managers and supervisors in such a hazardous industry.

This does however raise the very important issue of ensuring a good balance of academic staff in engineering schools which include those with a scientific and research experience and others with a wide-ranging experience of professional engineering practice.

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It is the latter that is currently, more often than not, in very short supply at university engineering schools.

This is most disadvantageous in mining-engineering schools because mining, by its very nature, is both a science and an art.

Mining environments, and particularly those underground, require employees to be keenly aware of their surroundings, relying on their senses of hearing, sight and smell to identify likely sources of hazards.

Being sensitive, for example, to the noise of moving ground, the smell of unwanted gases and changes in the fracturing of strata etc., soon become second nature to mineworkers.

Hence the importance of “work integrated learning” to mining undergraduates and the value of having tutors with a broad range of work experience readily available to bring relevance and reality to their teaching, be it mine ventilation, rock mechanics, mine drainage and/or transport, etc.

Professors of professional practice     

Emeritus Professor Odwyn Jones.

Recognition of prior learning is common practice these days and usually involves assessing a person’s knowledge and skills against a qualification.

Obviously a similar appraisal could be made of a person’s holistic knowledge and skills in determining their suitability for university professorial appointments.

Indeed, this is the background to the increasing practice of many overseas university engineering schools to appoint Professors of Practice.

They are professional engineers of some standing and experience who can bring real world experience and skills into the classroom, thereby bringing relevance and application to the study program.

For example at Texas A&M University, the College of Engineering’s Professors of Practice teach undergraduate, masters’ and doctoral level courses as well as assist in the development of new curricula that reflects cutting-edge industry technology and practice.

They also assist as mentors and research advisors and are useful in identifying research programs of relevance to industry.

Nearer home, La Trobe University claims to be the first Australian-based university employing Professors of Practice at its Business School, integrating them into the routine operation of the school: albeit this is common practice at medical schools where they employ specialists and consultants as Clinical Professors.

Currently, at La Trobe, 11 such Professors of Practice appointments are on two-year contracts, greatly enriching the university’s programs with some of them teaching in La Trobe’s highly ranked MBA.

Professors of Practice are also greatly valued at Newcastle University’s School of Architecture and Built Environment, where rather than having one professor the role was split into six fractional appointments involving internationally renowned architects who participate in all levels of teaching and mentoring.

A recent article by Cecilia Chan of Hong Kong University states that current day students are well advanced in their knowledge of social media and digital technology, and it is important that academics keep up with them and use technology to teach in a way that resonates with them.

Whereas collaboration between academe and industry commonly exist, it is rare for academics to seek industry experience whereby they gain hands-on knowledge and experience of workplaces and the skill sets that employers currently require.

As Ms Chan states, too many academics are inbred products of the university system and hence the reason many universities are seeking to rectify this disconnect by recruiting experienced and distinguished practitioners as “Professors of Practice”.

Isn’t it also time to follow Ms Chan’s suggestion that all academics should be required to return to industry every three to five years as part of their professional development and career advancement?

Requirements for future success

Mining engineers are, more often than not, destined to become future shift bosses, underground supervisors, mine managers and possibly general managers and/or managing directors of mining companies; in other words line-of-command personnel.

All the more reason why the practicalities of mine design, mine development and mineral extraction are integrated into undergraduate teaching.

While the sciences associated with of all aspects of mining are important, the art of mining is also particularly important with emphasis on the soft skills of leadership within a team of experts, good communication with all levels of employees, problem-solving and conflict resolution within a mining context and in all things being a responsible citizen.

To be a good manager, mining engineers’ study programs need to cover the entire value chain, which explains why they are sometimes referred to as “jack of all trades and masters of none”.

Add to this, the current requirement of mining engineering graduates being well informed on “the Internet of Things” (IoT), and its component parts such as big data, data analytics, sensor technology and the basis of coding etc., and one begins to wonder if the undergraduate mining engineering program needs extending to five years of full time study.

It’s also as well to remember that in order to be a well-rounded mining engineer graduates need to be fully aware of the technologies associated with both surface and underground mining of coal and metalliferous deposits.

Indeed, those intending to obtain a “First Class Managers Certificate of Competency” in WA are required to hold a Bachelor of Engineering in mining, pass an examination in mining law and have at least five years of experience in a mine with at least three years of underground experience and be a person of good character.

Hence the reason why it is vital for every university mining engineering school to have a hard core of teachers who have attained, at the very least, a “First Class Certificate of Competency” or its equivalent.

Indeed, why not make this mandatory for lectureships at mining schools with scientific research experience being desirable and not the other way around?

That apart, as mentioned earlier, serious consideration should be given to full-time academics in university mining schools being required to return to industry every three to five years as part of their professional development and career advancement.

Within this context, the sooner university mining engineering schools in Australia adopt such policies as well as attracting well experienced professional engineers and eminent industry leaders to full-time or fractional appointments as Professors of Practice, the sooner we will return to the forefront of those nations producing graduates capable of leading our minerals industry into the future.

  • Emeritus Professor Jones is a longstanding member of the Minerals and Energy Research Institute of WA, and played a significant role in developing the Goldfields Mining Expo.
    In 2006, he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal as an Officer of the Order for service to the mining industry and the broader Kalgoorlie-Boulder community.
    In 2016 he was awarded the Walk of Fame honour as part of the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s Australia Day celebrations.

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