STEM Education For Tomorrow's Petroleum Workforce

Only a short time ago, many in the oil and gas industry were concerned about the potential shortage of workers needed for a growing industry and a wave of retirements.

Obviously, the demand for petroleum geologists and other oil and gas industry professionals has since dropped. However, we know it will go up again, and when it does, concerns about having technically qualified workers will return.

Two recent studies highlight the challenges to getting a degree in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – potentially part of our industry’s workforce concerns.

Petroleum geology has special educational and occupational demands, but generally follows trends that affect all STEM careers.

Most federal data does not differentiate geology from other STEM subjects, so this column will quote data on college and university education concerns across all areas.

The American Geosciences Institute does track geoscience education trends, though. At the end of this column is their snapshot of employment choices for 2014-15 geoscience graduates.

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Only a short time ago, many in the oil and gas industry were concerned about the potential shortage of workers needed for a growing industry and a wave of retirements.

Obviously, the demand for petroleum geologists and other oil and gas industry professionals has since dropped. However, we know it will go up again, and when it does, concerns about having technically qualified workers will return.

Two recent studies highlight the challenges to getting a degree in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – potentially part of our industry’s workforce concerns.

Petroleum geology has special educational and occupational demands, but generally follows trends that affect all STEM careers.

Most federal data does not differentiate geology from other STEM subjects, so this column will quote data on college and university education concerns across all areas.

The American Geosciences Institute does track geoscience education trends, though. At the end of this column is their snapshot of employment choices for 2014-15 geoscience graduates.

A few statistics from the National Academies of Science (NAS) help define the problem:

  • There is great interest in STEM careers: In 2010, nearly 40 percent of entering students at two and four-year postsecondary institutions indicated an intention to major in a STEM subject.
  • However, about one-half of students with the intention to earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM subject and more than two-thirds of those intending to earn an associate’s degree in a STEM subject fail to earn these degrees within six or four years, respectively.
  • The completion rate is lower for STEM students than for students in many other fields, which raises questions about the quality of the educational experiences for STEM students.

Other studies, including a 2014 study by IHS for the American Petroleum Institute, have shown that women and minorities will occupy a larger share of the future petroleum workforce. These underrepresented groups are highlighted in the studies discussed below.

Two recent reports help define the STEM student population, as well as obstacles for students, especially minority and non-traditional students, seeking STEM degrees. (Non-traditional students may be older, working full time, a single parent or a transfer from a community college.)

The reports also recommend ways that academic institutions, federal and state agencies, and disciplinary societies such as AAPG can help aspiring STEM students get a degree.

  • The 2015 report, “Revisiting the STEM Workforce: A Companion to Science and Engineering Indicators 2014” by the National Science Board (NSB), finds that there are multiple pathways to a STEM career, and particular roadblocks for minority and non-traditional students.
  • “Barriers and Opportunities for Two-Year and Four-Year STEM Degrees: Systemic Change to Support Students’ Diverse Pathways” (January 2016, Board on Science Education and Board on Higher Education and the Workforce of the National Academy of Sciences, NAS).

The study committee’s premise was that “all students who are interested in a STEM credential should be: enabled to make an informed decision about whether a STEM degree is the right degree choice for them; afforded the opportunity to earn the degrees they seek with a minimum of obstacles; and supported by faculty, advisers, mentors and institutional policies ...”

The NAS report identified some of the barriers to achieving a STEM degree:

  • The culture of STEM workers and industries views student ability as inherent or natural and thus not open to improvement. This may be a barrier to underrepresented groups.
  • The use of gatekeeper courses, such as introductory math or science with highly competitive classroom environments, discourage women and minority students.
  • Universities’ inflexible rules for accepting transfer credits increase the time and cost of getting a STEM education. The NAS report quotes data showing that about half of STEM graduates attended a community college at some point and need to transfer credits.
  • STEM degrees may take longer and therefore cost more because of the need for developmental courses, tight course sequencing, limited availability of courses and differential pricing of STEM courses by some universities.
  • States that reward universities based on graduation rates discourage universities from accepting non-traditional students, who might take longer to finish.

The report recognizes that disciplinary societies such as AAPG contribute to the quality of STEM education by:

  • Improving teaching by providing resources such as peer-reviewed journals, publications and courses to faculty.
  • Supporting student chapters that build community among members, connect them to STEM professionals and develop disciplinary identity.
  • Providing students with technical conferences, scholarships, career guidance and networking opportunities.

The reports recommend that:

  • Academic departments can and should improve their effectiveness by adopting teaching innovations, and providing individualized advising and mentoring, undergraduate research or internships and informal student-faculty interaction.
  • Academic institutions, states and federal policymakers should better align educational policies with the range of student goals.
  • There is need for additional monitoring, data collection, assessment and research into the pathways to STEM careers and the risks and challenges to students.
  • Accrediting agencies, states and institutions should improve the transfer process for students.
  • Institutions of higher education, disciplinary societies, foundations and federal agencies should better coordinate their STEM support strategies, programs and policies.

A final note: The American Geosciences Institute (AGI), an association of about 50 geoscience associations including AAPG, recently released the results of its latest (2014-15 academic year) student exit survey.

One (perhaps not unexpected) result is that for the first time since the survey started in 2008, the environmental services industry hired more graduates with a bachelor’s degree than the oil and gas industry did.

The oil and gas industry continued to be the dominant employer for geoscience master’s degree recipients, and graduates with a doctorate primarily went to work in academia.

  • STEM degrees may take longer and therefore cost more because of the need for developmental courses, tight course sequencing, limited availability of courses and differential pricing of STEM courses by some universities.
  • States that reward universities based on graduation rates discourage universities from accepting non-traditional students, who might take longer to finish.

The report recognizes that disciplinary societies such as AAPG contribute to the quality of STEM education by:

  • Improving teaching by providing resources such as peer-reviewed journals, publications and courses to faculty.
  • Supporting student chapters that build community among members, connect them to STEM professionals and develop disciplinary identity.
  • Providing students with technical conferences, scholarships, career guidance and networking opportunities.

The reports recommend that:

  • Academic departments can and should improve their effectiveness by adopting teaching innovations, and providing individualized advising and mentoring, undergraduate research or internships and informal student-faculty interaction.
  • Academic institutions, states and federal policymakers should better align educational policies with the range of student goals.
  • There is need for additional monitoring, data collection, assessment and research into the pathways to STEM careers and the risks and challenges to students.
  • Accrediting agencies, states and institutions should improve the transfer process for students.
  • Institutions of higher education, disciplinary societies, foundations and federal agencies should better coordinate their STEM support strategies, programs and policies.

A final note: The American Geosciences Institute (AGI), an association of about 50 geoscience associations including AAPG, recently released the results of its latest (2014-15 academic year) student exit survey.

One (perhaps not unexpected) result is that for the first time since the survey started in 2008, the environmental services industry hired more graduates with a bachelor’s degree than the oil and gas industry did.

The oil and gas industry continued to be the dominant employer for geoscience master’s degree recipients, and graduates with a doctorate primarily went to work in academia.