Weather Forecast


UND school's growth spurt fueled by oil

Instructor Scott Johnson teaches an Introduction to Petroleum Engineering class with 50 students and 35 others at distance learning sites recently at the University of North Dakota's Petroleum Engineering Department on the Grand Forks campus.

GRAND FORKS -- The rapidly growing demand for the University of North Dakota's petroleum engineering program, which will turn 3 years old this fall, is the driving force behind a $10 million expansion that could be fully funded as early as next year, according to the dean of the College of Engineering and Mines.

Hesham El-Rewini said that, with about 50 to 70 new students expected in the program this fall, and other UND engineering programs also seeing more students, a new space was essential.

"Even with the 135 we have today, we cannot meet their needs with labs at this point," he said.

The Petroleum Engineering Department began in fall 2010 with seven students, said department Chairman Steve Benson. "Who knows what we're going to have next fall? We don't know."

Heightened oil drilling in western North Dakota is one reason for the growth, he said, but so is the massive retirement in the next few years of baby boomers in the oil and gas industry, representing half of the workforce, he said.

His department is the only petroleum engineering program in the state and one of fewer than 20 accredited programs of its kind nationwide, he said.

The new building, called the Collaborative Energy Complex, was pitched by university officials in 2011 to private donors, including alumni and members of the oil industry.

Their own labs

The 30,000-square-foot building would be on the campus' southeast corner between Leonard Hall and Upson Hall I, connecting the engineering buildings.

El-Rewini said it will feature student spaces, multipurpose teaching centers, several laboratories and a "creativity gymnasium" with computers, white boards and "anything you need to discuss an idea with students or faculty."

"People can go there and wrestle with ideas," he said.

The new building would be available to students and faculty from other engineering programs.

For the petroleum engineering department, lab space has become the biggest challenge -- its students rely on equipment from other departments -- and it needs to be ready to add staff and classrooms as it grows.

In the meantime, the department continues to share space on the third floor of Upson Hall II, attached to Upson I, and hunt for more space in other departments, El-Rewini said.

Raising funds

So far, the university has raised 30 percent of funding needed, and he said he thinks the rest will be covered by next year.

"It's a goal for myself, and I'm very optimistic about it," he said. "It's an ambitious goal, but I think we can get it done."

Over the past four years, the College of Engineering and Mines has raised more than $20 million for other engineering projects, he said.

Benson said the oil industry has helped support the program since it started, and both he and El-Rewini anticipate some funding will come from the state, too. A provision in Senate Bill 2003, the higher education funding bill, awards one dollar for every two raised by universities and colleges within the North Dakota University System.

"If that's approved, I think it will make it a lot easier for us to meet this schedule and be able to break ground in a year," El-Rewini said.

Promising field

Careers and salaries related to the oil industry have been booming in North Dakota's Oil Patch and beyond.

Benson said the median salary for petroleum engineering graduates nationwide is $85,000 per year, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the annual mean wage in the western part of the state is $176,120, or $84.67 per hour.

"If you're in the field of engineering, you're going to work long hours," he said. "But if you get through the first five years of those long hours, there's significant rewards, as I understand it."

Those kinds of incentives have made his department's search for three new faculty members easier. A few years ago, there were few good applicants, but this year 36 passed the initial screening process.

"We're bringing several of those on for campus interviews," Benson said.

Job security likely won't be an issue for graduates, either.

The first four UND graduates already have jobs in North Dakota or elsewhere, Benson said. And with more than half of current students hailing from the state and Minnesota, he appreciates that the university is educating local students who would be more likely to stay in the region, he said.

Benson, a native of Twin Valley, Minn., graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead.

He said the field is also exciting because most petroleum engineers have an international perspective and can travel the world.

"I think they have an excellent future in North Dakota and wherever they want to go, because there's a need for petroleum engineers globally," he said.