By Syd S. Peng
Mining engineering programs, as compared to other engineering programs such as civil, electrical, mechanical, chemical, etc. in university education, are unique because they are small both in the number of faculty and student body. They serve a single industry, i.e., mining, which is notoriously cyclic. Consequently, student enrollment is also cyclic, closely following the up and down of the mining industry. The curriculum is designed to emphasize regional mining interests.
These features make the mining engineering program hard to manage in modern doctoral universities, to which most of the nation’s mining engineering programs belong. Universities and in particular college administrations tend to apply a uniform standard and demand similar level of performance for all programs, especially in the area of research funding and student enrollment.
The features more or less define the following five functions for managing the mining engineering program: faculty mentoring and teaching, development of sponsored research, student enrollment management, curriculum management, and external development. In order to carry out these functions and keep the program current and relevant, it is desirable to establish an advisory committee consisting of active influential representatives from academia, government, consultants, manufacturers, and mine operators, for advising and advocating, promoting, and assisting in developing the program.
Faculty Mentoring and Teaching
In a doctoral institution, faculty is required to perform and be evaluated annually in three areas, teaching, research, and service. Unless a special arrangement is agreed upon, the normal split of assignments among the three areas is 40%, 40%, and 20%. In this assignment model, a faculty normally teaches one to two 3-credit-hour courses, depending on the amount of sponsored research projects. Service assignments include administrative duties for the program, college and university communities. It also includes service to and leadership in professional societies.
Faculty is the key to a successful program. Therefore, it is essential to assemble a group of well-qualified professionals for the program. It is important to note that in doctoral institutions, faculty mission has expanded from teaching only to include research and services. Ideally, the faculty body should have a good mix of teaching-, research- and service-oriented members. However, due to its small size both in the number of allocated positions for the program and the total number of available faculty in the nation, the great majority of mining engineering does not have much choice in selecting the ideal mix of faculty expertise. Experience showed that this problem has little impact on undergraduate mining engineering education because the course contents for undergraduate courses are introductory and general, most faculty could be self-trained to teach them and become good at it after a few rounds of offering, although this may divert or dilute the faculty’s attention from concentration on developing his/her own areas of expertise.
The ironic part of teaching in a university setting is that almost all university engineering faculty do not receive formal training for classroom teaching and yet they are assumed to have prepared for and known the art of teaching. It turns out some faculty are very good at it, some learn and improve with recurring teaching assignment, and others need mentoring in various aspects, especially the method of classroom presentation and communication with class. Therefore, the program chairman must monitor diligently faculty teaching performance and its effectiveness. This involves review of course outlines, interviews with students, and attendance of classes. The results of the evaluation must present, in terms of strengths and rooms for improvements, to the faculty at the minimum once a year at the annual performance evaluation meeting.
Normally mining engineering faculty is only responsible for course instruction in mining engineering. Since most undergraduate students work in the mines in the summers, they tend to seek knowledge relevant to mining operations in the classroom lectures. Therefore, in addition to theoretical background, faculty lectures must be related to mining operations in order to keep students focused.
Teaching for graduate courses on the other hand should emphasize in-depth analysis to inspire creativity and independent thinking.
The program chairman must create environments conducive to faculty development and will mentor the junior faculty, guiding and helping them to establish themselves in the three areas of performance, in particular, the newly-hired junior faculty who must receive tenure prior to his/her sixth year appointment.
Since university administration is faculty self-governing and for moral building toward a common goal, program management should be transparent. All major program projects should seek faculty input and be discussed thoroughly so that every faculty member knows the objectives of the projects and the importance of their individual role in the success of the projects and program goals. A regular faculty meeting should be held and all meetings must have a solid agenda and completed within scheduled time frame.
Research to discover new knowledge is one of the major emphases of university missions in part due to the publicity and recognition generated by any new discovery in the professions. On the other hand, continuing research must be maintained for faculty to keep up with developments in his/her field of expertise.
Applied research relevant to mining engineering is encouraged because the results of research can be transferred to classroom settings immediately and the faculty is kept abreast with current developments in the industry.
Faculty is evaluated on how many research proposals are submitted, how many projects are funded, total funding received, and how many graduate students supported and graduated annually. Federal and private research programs on mining research for the past three decades have been dismal, as compared to other engineering programs. This puts a lot of pressure on a program chair to perform in order to pare with other engineering programs for maintaining status quo, much less new resources. Under this condition, the program chair must constantly and aggressively develop and maintain contacts in government agencies and private organizations for potential funding sources. Any new developments should convey timely to and encourage/assist the faculty for proposal development and submission.
Number and quality of publication are equally, if not the most important, in research performance evaluation. Quality of publication is generally represented by whether or not it is peer-reviewed or refereed. For mining engineering, there are few refereed journals, and if successful, it takes on average two years to publish a paper in a refereed journal. For this reason, one way to reach the minimum number of publications within a set period for tenure and promotion is to encourage research cooperation, whenever feasible, among faculty within and outside the program and share authorship in publication. The same principle applies to project funding and proposal writing. This approach will also improve communication among faculty, leading to full utilization of faculty resource.
The department chair must provide adequate facilities, mainly laboratories, to assist faculty to secure and engage in their fields of research. The chair must also make sure that every vacancy when available is filled with a well-qualified candidate and thus maintain a group of well-qualified faculty in the department.
Student enrollment and annual graduates dictate the existence of a program, because state codes stipulate the minimum number in both categories for program continuance. Since mining engineering programs serve only a single industry, the mining industry, which is notably cyclic, student enrollment goes
up and down following the industry trend. When mining industry is down, jobs are scarce, the freshman class is small and even some of the upper class may transfer to other majors. Conversely, when the industry is booming, the reverse is true. To complicate the situation, a bachelor of science in engineering including mining engineering requires on average four and a half years to complete. During this period, any shifting trend in industry will affect the enrollment. Therefore, education requires long range planning.
Enrollment management consists of two parts: recruiting of high school seniors to inspire their interest and apply and select mining engineering as their major, and retention of students enrolled in the program from failing grades or transferring out of the program. In the past three decades, poor publicity on environmental issues against mining, especially coal, has generated public misconception about mining engineering professions and high school students are reluctant to seek a career in mining engineering. In order to maintain consistent enrollment, a well-designed public education and freshman recruiting program must be developed and implemented. The program must include visits to all high schools in the surrounding states and present seminars to students regarding the importance of minerals in daily life and its role in human civilization, past, present, and future. Follow-up to those interested in mining engineering must be pursued diligently and tirelessly until they come on campus and enroll. Many high schools seniors are not well-informed about individual majors and can be persuaded by maintaining consistent contacts with and counseling them.
The technique of telemarketing in retail sales may be borrowed for student recruiting. For example, when I took over freshman recruiting in the mid-1990s, I first sent a letter to counselors in every high school in the state asking them to provide a list of seniors who might be interested in a mining engineering major. I then used these lists to call those seniors weekly and followed their thought process until they finally made the selection of major. With this process, I was able to recruit 18 to 20 freshmen every year after 400 to 500 phone calls. The most rewarding part of this recruiting method was that I got to know many parents, and due to my frequent calling to their houses, many of them became my best friends. Through the phone conversations, I got to know our students before they enrolled, which facilitated advising after they arrived on campus.
Enrollment management does not end with recruiting. After enrollment, proper student advising is equally important. Students need various assistances, including academic, personal and financial. Some seniors from rural areas were not well-prepared for engineering majors and were required to take remedial courses. Some need to foster new study habits for the new environment. And others must adjust emotionally to large campus environments. Further, many are looking for financial assistance to pay for school expenses.
Student retention involves helping students deal with these problems and the successful completion of the program within hopefully four years as programmed. Academic problems lie mainly in math and basic science courses and I found that finding a classmate or classmates to work with the needy student produced the best results. For financial issues, we worked with coal companies to establish the largest scholarship program on campus, for which all qualified mining engineering students received various amount of scholarships based academic achievements. We also worked with them to find suitable summer jobs for all students who desired so. For those needed, part-time jobs during the school year in coal mines surrounding the campus were also arranged.
However, in order to have a successful retention program, faculty or the student advisor must get to know students well such that they would open their mind to you, and you can anticipate and hopefully prevent problems in advance. Therefore, it is important to maintain constant contact with the students. I found that individual student problems can be identified far in advance if individual student performance is a routine item discussed at the faculty meeting. With this approach, the graduation rate for mining engineering students was far above all of other engineering majors.
Since faculty depends on graduate students to carry out research projects, recruiting well-qualified graduate students is the pre-requisite for high-quality research products. In this respect, to ensure success, graduate student recruiting should emphasize personal contacts with well-known researchers both in United States and throughout the world, recruiting their top students and staff. Graduate student enrollment enhances program student body, thereby reducing head-count pressure, especially when the mining industry is in the down cycle.
Mining engineering curriculum in the U.S. can be roughly divided into two categories, hardrock and coal. The programs located east of the Mississippi River emphasize coal or industrial minerals, whereas programs in the west emphasize hardrock mining for metals and precious minerals. This is because the state-supported mining engineering programs are designed to serve a regional interest. Therefore, the curriculum or course requirement is catered to the industries in the state and region.
For this reason, course requirement changes over time to reflect technological changes in the industry. In reality, course content of individual courses reflect very much the background of instructor, and due to various reasons, course content changes over time. It is therefore desirable to review the course contents periodically so that the overall program objectives can be achieved as designed. Most importantly, due to technological advancement and government regulatory requirements, new subjects are often recommended by the industry and need to be incorporated into the curriculum to reflect its current nature. In my 28-year tenure as program chair, I revised the curriculum eight times. It must be noted that changes in curriculum including new courses, courses dropped, and course change must be approved by the university senate which is a lengthy, often cantankerous process.
Since 1936, accreditation by ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) and its predecessors has been accepted by engineering majors including mining engineering in the U.S. as a minimum standard for curriculum quality. Criteria 2000 emphasizes assessment of program educational objectives and outcomes. However traditional criteria still embedded in the assessment program, i.e., detailed requirements on number of faculty and courses on basic, engineering and humanity and social sciences, and minimum number of subjects covered in mining engineering. With the national trend to generalized program and minimizing the number of course requirements, satisfying both ABET and industry requirements presents a real challenge. However keeping accreditation by ABET is a symbol of quality program and consequently the major goal for curriculum management.
As stated earlier, mining engineering programs are very small as compared to other engineering programs in the college of engineering. As such it is difficult to compete for resources under limited state funding environment. In many cases, the retired faculty positions may not get replaced and due to limited research funding resulting from limited research funding programs, laboratory spaces are constantly under scrutiny and may be reallocated for research projects in other programs for “full utilization.” Consequently, external support is essential to the vitality of mining engineering program.
The objective of external development is to seek external support, including moral and monetary. Moral support refers to contribution of quality time such as student recruiting and counseling, development of donors, etc. Moral support, just like monetary contribution, is extremely important because it demonstrates clearly to the university administration that the program has strong support from alumni, friends, and industry.
To be effective, the program chair should recognize that they are the major representative between the program and the mining industry, not relegating that role to the college dean or university president, such that contributions from mining industry should first benefit the mining program rather than the college or university in general.
The key to this program is to build a “relationship” with alumni, friends, and mining companies. One must recognize that a meaningful relationship is built through time and requires consistent long-term effort. Relationships can be established by frequent courtesy calls; timely congratulation of milestones
achieved by alumni and friends by monitoring media reports of individual news; keep connected with “donors”; publish bi-annual department newsletter that covers not only faculty and student news, but most importantly alumni and friends’ activities; establish a lecture series inviting lecturers like those alumni and friends whose accomplishments would serve as a good role model for the students. Above all, remember to “thank” any donors and volunteers, no matter the size of the contribution.
All mining engineering programs are state-run, so the state legislature controls the budget of the program. Therefore, state legislature is the rightful place to secure additional permanent funding. Since civil servants are prohibited to lobby, one must work with alumni and industry supporters who are familiar with the state political process to develop/direct targeted funds for the program.
Peng is the Charles E. Lawall Chair in Mining Engineering for the Dept. of Mining Engineering at West Virginia University, located in Morgantown, W.Va. He can be reached at 304-293-7680 (or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)