Monday, June 30, 2014

University of New Orleans Hosts Shell Energy Camp

For the fourth year running, UNO researchers introduce area high schoolers to STEM topics, the oil and gas industry and the CERF facility

Twenty high schoolers interested in studying science, mathematics, engineering and technology joined a special camp in early June hosted by Shell Oil and the University of New Orleans.

Now in its fourth year, the annual summer energy camp for minority STEM students is designed to expose area high schoolers to STEM concepts, as well as resources and opportunities within the oil, gas and energy industries.

"The thing I like about the camp is that it does two things: It reinforces or introduces some important science concepts and it also introduces kids to career opportunities, particularly those offered by Shell," said Gill, a geoscientist who works as a science education coordinator in the University's College of Education and Human Development. "And they get a really tremendous opportunity to visit Shell facilities that give them an inside look at how energy companies use their science and energy people."

Dipping Their Oars in the Water

Camp begins each year with a series of team-building activities, hard hats and safety goggles, as well as science-building activities involving energy principles from a variety of standpoints, Gill said. Enjoying exercises such as the "Egg Drop" and the "Pipe Roll," or building a windmill and solar house, the campers learn how to work as a team and think about how to complete an exercise in the most efficient way.

Students also spend a day at Shell Oil's corporate headquarters at One Shell Square on Poydras Street in downtown New Orleans, Shell Oil's Robert Training Facilities on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and the Norco Oil Refinery in St. Charles Parish. They meet petroleum engineers, geoscientists, technicians and other oil and gas industry experts, who talk to the students about various jobs and careers in the industry.

A highlight of the trip is a visit to New Orleans Ninth Ward, where the Global Greenhouse Project demonstration project in the Holy Cross neighborhood is designed to be extremely energy-efficient and use sustainable resources.

And, students put their oars in the water at the University of New Orleans Shea Penland Coastal Education and Research Facility (CERF) located near a national wildlife refuge about 30 minutes from campus. By starting their summers on the Louisiana wetlands, the young students from inner-city New Orleans embark on an adventure of scientific discovery that UNO researchers hope will last a lifetime.

At the CERF facility, students head out in canoes, some of them stepping foot on a boat for the first time, said Gill. They see the beauty and landscape of wetlands, paddling through the marsh and surrounding canals. On boats and at the shore, they collect plankton and water samples using fine-mesh nets.

Following the "plankton tow," students head inside to examine the specimens they have collected using microscopes, Gill said. The exercise introduces students to phytoplankton — tiny plants that range from protozoan organisms invisible to the naked eye to the more familiar seaweed and algae — and zooplankton, which are animals, including tiny fish and crustaceans, such as krill and small jellyfish, and are more likely to frequent deeper, darker waters where sunlight doesn't reach.

Researchers introduce the organisms to students as an essential part of biological cycling and the forming of carbon compounds that become hydrocarbons in oil and natural gas, said Gill. The ecological exercise sets the stage for the week as students explore careers and issues surrounding oil and gas resources.

"They get a chance to collect their own samples. They get a chance to see different environments that are unusual for most people from the city to be exposed to," said Gill. "They get experience paddling their own canoes and take a short trip out into Lake Borgne on a vessel from the University's Earth and Environmental Sciences Department."

Many of the participants have never been on a boat before and the trip out into deeper water, which shows them how the Chef Menteur Pass and estuary open out into open water leading to the Gulf of Mexico, "just really gives them a feel they wouldn't get any other way." Gill said. "I think the kids really like that. It's a short trip and they really look forward to it."

Engineering Growth in the Industry

David Esquibel, a Shell representative present at the event, explained that there is a shortage of engineers across the industry.

"We are producing about 50 percent fewer engineers than we've ever had," he said, adding that studies show that young students are not showing the same interest in engineering careers as they have in years past.

The American Petroleum Industry (API) conducted a study in which researchers asked students their perception towards engineering careers—the results were shocking, he said. The study revealed that very few people are considering engineering as a career path and it is mostly because of lack of understanding.

"They just don't understand how the industry works," said Esquibel.

Esquibel explained that Shell is aggressively trying to fight this phenomenon. Since 2005, Shell has devised programs that introduce high school students to engineering-related activities hoping to increase their understanding of the industry and motivate them to decide to pursue a career in engineering, but the challenge gets harder, he said.

Esquibel pointed out that even those high school students who move on to study engineering in college may not necessarily stick to his original decision.

"We find that a lot of people who start studying engineering switch to other careers once they get to hard math and sciences classes."

For this reason, Shell has expanded its outreach initiatives to offer college students opportunities to engage with the community of engineers and prevent them from switching careers.

High school students who participate in these programs are also encouraged to stay engaged by joining Shell's community of innovators, he said.

"We have a website called 'Energize your careers,'" said Esquibel. "On this website, we are constantly posting information about engineering career paths, job openings and internships."

The current shortage of engineers could have serious consequences in the industry, he said. A second API study reports that by 2020 the Oil and Gas industry will require 800,000 workers and by 2030 the number will increase to 1.3 million workers.

Changes in demographics also affect Shell's approach to community outreach programs, said Esquibel. Minority outreach programs are focused on recruiting individuals from the Hispanic and African-American communities, due to an increase in population from these groups.

"We are also trying to include more women in our industry," said Esquibel.

Since 2005, Shell has implemented programs to engage with high school students in Louisiana and Texas—since most of the industry's growth is expected to happen along the Gulf Coast—and according to Esquibel, the energy giant is already seeing results and expect more to come.

"We're planting seeds and we hope to harvest strong talent in the future," he said.


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