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UND's Petroleum Engineering Department waits for the upswing in the oil and gas industry

Jon Stoeckman, (right) superintendent of the site gives a tour of the high bay lab to Phil Brennan, the UND project representative and Deb Austreng, UND Public Relations. The lab will house a "slurry loop”will be installed for studying the cuttings transport during drilling vertical and deviated wells. The large space allows the loop to be in the vertical position when needed for testing.. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Construction continues on the Solberg atrium as UND expands the engineering college with a Collaborative Energy Complex. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Despite a slowdown in the oil and gas industry, those at UND's College of Engineering and Mines aren't worried.

Almost one year ago, the Herald reported those in the Petroleum Engineering Department weren't concerned about the oil market. The industry has yet to bounce back, and Chairman Vamegh Rasouli said academia has continued to build, waiting for when prices inevitably improve.

"This cyclic nature of oil prices is very common," he said. "This is nothing new to us."

Dean Hesham El-Rewini said he wants his college to be the prefered choice for those studying engineering and agreed that the oil industry would undoubtedly grow in the future.

In the meantime, "this is the time for training, for education," he said.

Since the petroleum engineering program's inception in 2009, it has grown to offer certificates, as well as master's and doctoral degrees.

Full- and part-time enrollment increased from a four students at the outset to 326 for the fall semester, according to data provided by the department's administrative assistant, Cassandra Van Dell.

Only this spring did enrollment drop for the first time with unofficial enrollment totaling 272 full- and part-time students, but Rasouli attributed that to more stringent admission standards implemented for transfer students.

"We have put the bar a bit higher in terms of the quality of students we are bringing," he said.

This is part of overhauling the undergraduate curriculum to be more hands-on, something Rasouli said employers want in UND graduates.

A recent North Dakota State University study found more than 80 percent of nonresidents working in the state's oil and gas industry didn't want to stay, and Rasouli said employers tend to prefer graduates from in-state colleges for that reason.

"They need graduates from North Dakota who are hands-on and can learn quickly," he said.

High hopes

Jobs in petroleum engineering jobs were projected to increase 26 percent from 2012 to 2022, but oil prices are a "major determinant of employment growth," according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As oil prices declined, though, layoffs in the oil fields became a reality, and the companies that had historically given financially to UND's petroleum engineering endeavors slowly stopped doing so.

Rasouli said that instead, while the market remains in a slump, the private sector has stepped up in other ways and the school has turned to federal and internal grants for funding. For example, Rasouli said the college's Industry Advisory Council increased from 10 participating members at a meeting last May to 17 in November.

"Also we try to offer more courses, a wider range of courses, including electives, so students from other universities are able to take it," he said.

In fact, 38 percent of enrolled petroleum engineering students are distance students, and Rasouli said many are nontraditional in that they've worked in the field. Despite taking the majority of their coursework online, distance students still have to spend at least a few weeks during a summer working in UND's labs.

"I think this is the future direction for most other universities," Rasouli said.

Enrollment totals for the college as a whole are up, increasing by 144 percent in the last decade from 753 students in fall 2005 to 1,841 in fall 2015, according to data from the Department of Institutional Research.

"People have options for undergraduate and graduate education, and I'm hoping what we offer here will convince those people, whether they are a high school senior looking for college experience or a college graduate looking for graduate school, to choose us because of what we value here, which is a rich academic educational experience."

To that end, a connecting building is under construction on the south side of campus that will become the Collaborative Energy Complex. It will house high-tech lab space for several departments within the college.

Both El-Rewini and Rasouli said collaboration, which will play a big role once the building is complete, is a priority.

"The high-tech classrooms will allow us to be more advanced in the way we deliver our content to everywhere in the world," El-Rewini said.

The fundraising goal for the CEC is $15.5 million, and El-Rewini said the school just started an "Open the Door" campaign to raise the final $1 million, something he's confident will be accomplished by December.

Rasouli said an important part of sustaining the petroleum engineering program while the private sector isn't able to support it would be keeping enrollment numbers steady.

"This shouldn't discourage any students who want to take petroleum engineering," he said.

El-Rewini echoed that, adding the downturn in oil prices is nothing new.

"This is a cycle this industry goes through every now and then and history, and the recent past, taught us just to stay the course and things will rebound and we'll be fine," he said.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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