University of Houston Undergraduate Petroleum Engineering Degree Program

Bill Bowers

by Bill Bowers, Exterran
2008-2009 SPE GCS Chairman


Houston, the Energy Capital of the World, has great demand for trained petroleum professionals - yet for many years there has not been an undergraduate petroleum engineering degree program in the greater Houston area. This is about to change, as the Cullen College of Engineering at the University of Houston will begin accepting students into a new bachelor’s degree plan in petroleum engineering in the fall semester of 2009. Those who follow the industry are well aware of the experience gap created as the industry’s workforce moves into retirement age. The new degree plan at UH is intended to help replenish this workforce and to access a demographic talent pool not adequately addressed in the recent past.

Approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) on January 29, the degree program will combine the fundamentals of petroleum engineering and geosciences with economics, energy law and business. The program, along with a pre-existing master’s degree option, aims to fill gaps in the workforce and arm graduates with the skills needed to respond to the evolving industry.

Next Generation PE Curriculum

In 2002, UH founded the Petroleum Engineering Advisory Board (PEAB) to support the UH petroleum engineering program. Over four years ago, the PEAB and a number of prominent industry and community leaders began a campaign to get industry, community, and UH support for starting an undergraduate petroleum engineering program at UH. It was understood that the undergraduate program would become the springboard for offering a PhD degree in petroleum engineering, with all the associated research and development activities. It was decided that the new undergraduate program would be formulated specifically to meet the needs of tomorrow’s engineer, with emphasis on multidisciplinary engineering education, data mining and database management, entrepreneurship, innovation, project management and a systems approach to engineering challenges. The PEAB worked closely with the UH engineering department to plan the specific course curriculum to satisfy that objective.

Industry Support is Essential

The plan to build the program includes adding six faculty members over the next three years and eventually offering courses on-line to better accommodate working professionals. The program will need space for classrooms and laboratories. The initial program location will be University Park next to the UH campus (the old Schlumberger headquarters/Laboratory/ Field Test Center). There are needs for laboratory equipment and instrumentation for both the undergraduate and MS/PhD programs.

The funding challenges for the program include:

  • Leadership/Administrative Support - $2 million
  • Senior Faculty - $3.5 million
  • Junior and other faculty - $1.5 million
  • Space (renovations at University Park) - $1.5 million
  • Equipment - $2 million

In July of 2008, UH obtained $1.6 million in funding from Devon Energy Corp. and Marathon Oil Corp. Marathon pledged $600,000 over three years with no restrictions – the funds are to be used to address the most pressing needs of the new degree program as it develops. Devon committed $1 million to the program over three years. Devon’s funding is earmarked for scholarships and books for students pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in the new program, materials for faculty and other needs of the program.

SPE GCS Funding Proposal

The SPE Gulf Coast Section’s ad hoc Education Committee was made aware of the UH Petroleum Engineering initiative in 2007, just as we were expanding our support for K-12 and University-level education programs within the Section. At that time, the SPE GCS Board of Directors approved the UH PE program as a “contingent” funding opportunity, pending approval of the new program by UH administration and THECB. The budget for this contingent budget item was set at $250,000. The Gulf Coast Section has sufficient current reserves to fund both the UH initiative and to fund current and future liabilities associated with the SPE GCS Scholarship programs.

An Endowed Professorship provides a significant incentive assisting UH in recruiting high quality, senior level faculty. It also provides a mechanism to permanently associate SPE GCS with the professorship, and is the preferred approach of the ad hoc Education Committee.

Options for SPE GCS funding include:

  • Unrestricted grant
  • Targeted grant
  • Endowed professorship, with balance of funding to be paid in future installments
  • Endowed professorship, with balance of funding to come from other contributors

The leadership of SPE GCS plans to bring the UH Petroleum Engineering funding initiative to a vote at the April 16 meeting of the Board of Directors. The ad hoc Education Committee and the GCS Board believe this is an excellent vehicle for placing a portion of our discretionary funds that is consistent with furthering our Strategic Plan and Mission Statement objectives while making a permanent impact on our industry and community. SPE’s support would lend additional legitimacy and credibility to UH’s ongoing fundraising efforts. It would also be the largest funding in GCS history to a single entity and purpose. Therefore, we greatly want to hear your questions, opinions, and ideas prior to that important vote.

Bill Bowers