Interdisciplinary alums solid in industry
It’s a unique, interdisciplinary degree that prepares students to work in industries ranging from energy and environmental remediation to mining, excavation and construction.
At UW-Madison, geological engineering undergraduates receive not only rigorous training in mechanics and in fundamental engineering, but also a strong geoscience education. “What industry people tell me is that our geological engineers understand all of these things and are able to do them well,” says Wisconsin Distinguished Professor Craig Benson, chair both of geological engineering and civil and environmental engineering. “They really like our geological engineers and want more of them.”
Take, for example, Barr Engineering, a Minneapolis-based engineering and environmental consulting company that serves such industries as fuels, power, mining, manufacturing and natural resources. “We specifically recruit from the UW-Madison geological engineering program for interns and full-time employees,” says Sara Gaffin (BSGLE ’99), a senior geological engineer at Barr who manages personnel for a multidisciplinary department of approximately 170 people. “I see the value of the degree and I know how it really prepared me for my career in consulting—and it’s easy for me to make the pitch for us to target geological engineering students.”
One aspect of the UW-Madison geological engineering undergraduate educational program that differentiates it from its peers is the rigor of its curriculum. While some geological engineering degrees focus primarily on the geosciences, UW-Madison students get a healthy dose of both geology and engineering. “There’s also a diversity of perspectives in how to look at problems,” says Benson. “And students meld that together through their training. They get experience from both sides and that provides them with their well-roundedness.”
That breadth and flexibility serve geological engineering graduates well at Shell Exploration & Production Co., says David Schaper (MSGLE ’02), a petrophysical engineer whose unit includes a mix of geological engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, geologists, physicists and others. “For petrophysical engineering, there’s not a degree,” says, Schaper, who serves on the UW-Madison geological engineering board of visitors. “We tend to bring people in from various backgrounds and then do lots of classroom and on-the-job training. I think it’s an easier transition for geological engineers because they understand both sides of the equation. They come in with a very strong geology background.”
Beyond the UW-Madison geological engineering core curriculum, courses are design-centric and application-driven and immerse students in hands-on laboratory, fieldwork and research experiences, including geologic mapping, assessment of natural landfill capping, or a deep geothermal well system. “When I’m talking to the students, I’m amazed at the diversity of projects they’re working on,” says Schaper. “And students are hearing about each other’s projects and learning from that.”
Faculty work in applied areas and, in the case of engineering, also are licensed professional engineers. “There’s a real practice orientation in our design courses so that students get fundamental engineering science and pragmatic application of real-world principles in real projects,” says Benson.
In the end, students earn, in one 125-credit program, bachelor’s degrees in geological engineering and in geology and geophysics. They also leave UW-Madison prepared to contribute at high levels in a variety of industries and positions, but also able to learn the basics that will enable them to succeed in those settings. “To have the background in both of those very different focus areas helps them to be able to relate to many different people, and we see the value in that,” says Gaffin. “A science degree prepares you to look at data, while engineering is focused on problem-solving. A geological engineer understands those two critical components, and as a result, can develop the best solutions for our clients.”