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UND petroleum program gears up despite industry downturn

GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota Petroleum Engineering Department has a tight industry focus, which means instructors push students to get hands-on experience in the field.

Normally that would mean a trip west to the Bakken oilfields. But after a series of major investments in the department's home in the university's Collaborative Energy Complex, a piece of the oilfield can come to students right in Grand Forks.

Department leaders opened up their space in the complex Thursday, Oct. 12, for an open house to show off a series of facility upgrades installed over the past summer. Chief among the items on display were two high-tech learning areas designed to emulate the western oil fields in Grand Forks—a full drilling and well control simulator in one room and, a few doors down, the Hess Virtual Reality Lab, an immersive space for students to run through 3-D virtual scenarios.

Department Chair Vamegh Rasouli said the simulators are part of his office's push forward even as the oil and gas industry remains at a lull, cutting the funding his department might otherwise enjoy.

"This is full-scale, has exactly the same setup as what (students) would see," Rasouli said of the rig simulator, "and the virtual reality is the same in that they can do anything you want, any kind of operations. They can try it here, not just in the field, and get a sense of the real world."

The showcase comes about a year after the UND College of Engineering and Mines dedicated the 37,000-square-foot energy complex, a $15.5 million investment funded largely by private donors in the North Dakota energy sector. The simulation rooms are part of a row of labs that also include a drilling and fluids lab and a space known as the Hess Innovation Lab. Like the virtual reality simulator, the innovation lab is named after the Hess Corp., an international oil and gas producer that has been a major benefactor of the college and its petroleum engineering programs. Rasouli estimated the lab installations to date represent as much as $3 million in facilities guided by the specific needs of the industry at large.

Those needs, which are conveyed to the school by way of its advisory council, don't only affect the equipment installed at the school. They're also not the sole way in which the industry environment trickles down to the UND campus.

Low oil prices have slowed the once-frenetic activity in oil fields across the country. With producer revenues at a more subdued level, so is the demand for a petroleum engineer workforce. Would-be students have reacted to that by turning away from specializing in the field, and Rasouli said petroleum engineering programs have seen a national enrollment drop of as much as 60 percent.

At UND, he said, the program had about 300 undergraduate students in fall 2015. It's now at about 240 undergraduate students, a number Rasouli said "isn't really bad" given the circumstances. He estimated roughly 40 percent of those undergraduates are enrolled in online programs, with the rest of the on-campus students typically hailing from North Dakota. Many of those who attend class digitally do so from Houston or other petroleum hubs, and are already working in the industry. Since 2015, the school has also added a graduate program that enrolls about 35 to 40 students. That advanced group consists almost entirely of international students and more or less covers the gap in undergraduates.

For the time being, Rasouli said enrollment is right where the school's industry partners recommend it should be. They say a higher number of undergraduates could result in fewer UND graduates landing jobs after completing their degrees.

Rasouli is pleased with the work being done in his corner of the engineering college and says the department is "filling out nicely."

Even still, the state of the global oil market is taking its own toll in higher education.

"It's a very difficult time for us, but fortunately we've been able to make all the labs so far to a level which is good for teaching—for research, we need more and more equipment," he said.