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New KU Geoscience Facility 'a Dream Decades in the Making'

A new facility at the University of Kansas – and the philosophy behind it – are already generating new ideas and programs.

The $78.5 million, 140,000-square-foot Earth Energy and Environment Center opened for classes in January and was formally dedicated in April.

The state-of-the-art facility continues the university’s embrace of a philosophy of integration in education, industry outreach and research in energy and environment, said Robert Goldstein, provost’s special adviser on campus development and Haas distinguished professor in the Department of Geology.

The design of the complex is open and transparent, bringing students and instructors closer together on a regular basis. Petroleum engineering and geoscience faculty and students in energy-related studies work together in the new facility.

In addition to fostering interdisciplinary classwork, the university engages with industry to further prepare students for their careers, Goldstein said.

Industry-standard software is incorporated, including a full suite of Schlumberger software, such as Petrel. Students also use Petra, SMT-Kingdom Suite, DionisosFlow and CMG, Goldstein said.

“We have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Schlumberger-NExT to design and jointly offer a one-year non-thesis interdisciplinary master’s degree focused on petrophysics. Development is happening rapidly and we expect this degree program to go live within the next year. This degree program represents a new interdisciplinary partnership between industry, and the KU departments of geology and chemical and petroleum engineering,” he said.

Interdisciplinary Approach

Goldstein said the plans for the degree program were hatched from interactions between engineers and geoscientists which were facilitated by the EEEC. Other emerging plans include joint summer internship programs.

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A new facility at the University of Kansas – and the philosophy behind it – are already generating new ideas and programs.

The $78.5 million, 140,000-square-foot Earth Energy and Environment Center opened for classes in January and was formally dedicated in April.

The state-of-the-art facility continues the university’s embrace of a philosophy of integration in education, industry outreach and research in energy and environment, said Robert Goldstein, provost’s special adviser on campus development and Haas distinguished professor in the Department of Geology.

The design of the complex is open and transparent, bringing students and instructors closer together on a regular basis. Petroleum engineering and geoscience faculty and students in energy-related studies work together in the new facility.

In addition to fostering interdisciplinary classwork, the university engages with industry to further prepare students for their careers, Goldstein said.

Industry-standard software is incorporated, including a full suite of Schlumberger software, such as Petrel. Students also use Petra, SMT-Kingdom Suite, DionisosFlow and CMG, Goldstein said.

“We have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Schlumberger-NExT to design and jointly offer a one-year non-thesis interdisciplinary master’s degree focused on petrophysics. Development is happening rapidly and we expect this degree program to go live within the next year. This degree program represents a new interdisciplinary partnership between industry, and the KU departments of geology and chemical and petroleum engineering,” he said.

Interdisciplinary Approach

Goldstein said the plans for the degree program were hatched from interactions between engineers and geoscientists which were facilitated by the EEEC. Other emerging plans include joint summer internship programs.

“Classroom spaces all use the engaged learning design, so there are no spaces that look like standard lecture rooms,” Goldstein said.

“One of the classrooms has 162 seats, and two have 63 seats. All use round tables with technology that allows students to work in groups on projects and then share results with the class and faculty. This engaged learning model promotes higher levels of learning among students and promotes development of reasoning, integration and communication skills. There are also class laboratories in the building used for teaching, including computational labs and reservoirs labs. Once fully booked, these classrooms will handle about 1,500 students per day,” he said.

The interdisciplinary approach works, he said.

“Our past experiences with interdisciplinary courses indicate that the students find them highly challenging, but in a positive sense. Students with diverse backgrounds must first find a common language and framework for problem solving and interacting as team members. This is interesting, as it sometimes results in a little resolvable conflict that really help the students to work hard and learn. Once they get out in the workforce and find themselves working in similar integrated teams, it is familiar territory, and they are well prepared to contribute successfully,” Goldstein said.

Faculty members use a “flipped classroom” approach, which had already proven effective, and have found additional benefits.

“The flipped classroom strategy is most commonly applied in the large introductory classes but has also worked its way into much of the geology curriculum. Professors Jen Roberts, Alison Olcott-Marshall and other faculty made a major revision of the approach to teaching our intro students and turned the class meeting time into one where students did group work and solved problems,” Goldstein said.

“Interestingly, they turned this course transformation into an experiment to evaluate the impact on student learning, and particularly, the impact of the new approach on student success by gender and minority group.

“They found that this new approach made a significant impact on success of students in general, but in particular, it improved performance of women and students from historically minoritized populations. The result of this teaching innovation was recently presented at the Earth Educators Rendezvous annual meeting, along with co-authors N. McClean, G. Baker and A. Moeller. To highlight the widespread approach to these teaching innovations in EEEC, we will host the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous there this summer,” he said.

The center’s two buildings are connected through walkways and tunnels. A large atrium provides visibility into the offices and labs. Everything is connected through transparent walkways and many meeting rooms are fully transparent.

The center is designed to serve as a crossroads for people and ideas.

“If you are a professor, you can see your graduate students and see into the labs.If you are a graduate student, your professor has to walk through your space to get to the office, you can see into their office, and that promotes interaction,” Goldstein said.

An Expansive Project

The EEEC is something of a dream, decades in the making, Goldstein said.

He said the need to upgrade the Department of Geology’s historic home in Lindley Hall was first noted in 1971, while the discipline of geology continued to evolve over the years, requiring sophisticated analytical, geophysical and computational resources.

“At a planning retreat that started my term as chairperson of the Department of Geology in 2004, the faculty gave me my marching orders: Find the funds, plan and build an addition to Lindley Hall with modern facilities capable of housing the department,” Goldstein said.

The project grew from a relatively modest $12 million addition into the ambitious and innovative new center with the construction of Ritchie Hall and Slawson Hall. Both new buildings are still connected to historic Lindley Hall, where many of the great figures of petroleum geology once roamed the halls, Goldstein said.

“The project evolved through synergy and support. Scott and Carol Ritchie and their family business, Ritchie Exploration, first stepped forward as committed donors and proved that the project was feasible. They encouraged us to think big, reflect the historic legacy of KU and the Department of Geology, and to be as inclusive as possible of diverse disciplines at the intersection of geoscience, energy, environment and engineering,” Goldstein said.

“Our university got a new provost who began a strategic planning initiative focused on interdisciplinary research collaboration. Out of that came a major strategic theme for the university, ‘Sustaining the Planet – Powering the World,’ and our goal for EEEC became fully aligned with university strategic goals,” he said.

“The family of Donald C. Slawson (of Slawson Exploration Co.) then stepped forward and encouraged us to make EEEC the most highly-integrated university facility of its type in the nation. Thanks to their help, we were able to greatly expand the project and were fully able to integrate the geosciences, petroleum engineering, energy and environment. Robert M. Beren (of Berexco) helped in a major way by allowing us to incorporate a training, education and outreach center that encouraged integration of our faculty and students with industry and others from outside of KU through educational programs. Finally, our Geology Associates Advisory Board chair, Steve Dixon (of Tapstone Energy), was a tireless proponent for the project.”

Ongoing Uses

The EEEC is designed to house the offices of 22 faculty members, the Department of Geology support staff, building support staff, staff of the Tertiary Oil Recovery Program, a Kansas Geological Survey outreach geologist and a staff member focused on industry outreach and tech transfer. Those faculty and staff members have their laboratories in EEEC and those with offices in adjacent buildings also have labs in EEEC. There is permanent office space for approximately 100 graduate students and post docs, and desk space for collaborators and drop-ins. There is additional meeting and office space for industry visitors and collaborators. They can be assigned office, desk and meeting space in the building.

The new facility is meant to engage the public as well as students.

The Kansas Geological Survey has a geologist-in-residence at the EEEC available to answer questions from the general public. KGS’s mission includes training courses useful to industry, legislators and regulators.

The Tertiary Oil Recovery Program has a major component of outreach and tech transfer as part of its mission. The program works with the petroleum industry at large to provide workshops on relevant topics, technical assistance, field tests and demonstration projects.

The building hosts multiple workshops and events during the year focused on the STEM disciplines. These range from events such as a “Girls in STEM” workshop for secondary school students to a “Digital Rock Physics” workshop for professionals.

The exterior is as inviting as the interior is open, Goldstein said.

“The building is designed for outreach with educational exhibits to invite the public in to learn about geology. The façade of the building is inspired by the geologic cross section of Kansas; there is a dynamic display of vertebrate fossils from the Niobrara western interior seaway; there is a geologic park, with large boulders telling the geologic history of the U.S., and there is a rock garden, where visitors can harvest specimens to take home with them,” he said.