When Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology instructors teach their students how to use a piece of equipment or a particular technique, they can be reasonably sure they're keeping pace with the industry.
If they weren't, the industry would let them know, said Roy Achemire, division chair of OSUIT's heavy equipment and vehicle institute.
Oklahoma education and commerce officials said Wednesday they hope to see similar collaboration become more common across the state's higher education system.
Officials discussed the higher education system's role in developing the state's workforce at a conference Wednesday at Oklahoma State University — Oklahoma City. The conference was held jointly by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, the Oklahoma Association of Community Colleges and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
During the conference, Achemire outlined the relationship between OSUIT's natural gas compression program and the natural gas industry. The relationship began in the late 1990s, when the institute began working with several industry organizations to develop a curriculum that fit the industry's needs.
The program is two years long, and includes two semesters per year of classroom-based work. The students are then placed in internship positions with gas companies during the summers.
During the classroom portion, instructors teach students basic safety skills and the mechanical and electrical skills they'll need. But most of the learning takes place during the internships, he said.
“When they go out on the job and apply it, that's where it really sinks in and where it really makes a difference,” he said. “Internships are where they learn the most.”
John Biggs, district manager for Chesapeake Energy subsidiary MidCon Compression, said the internships also give industry leaders the chance to see how the skills students are learning match up with what the industry needs. If the instruction is outdated, industry officials can discuss their needs with leaders at the institute, and OSUIT can update the program accordingly, he said.
Jeff Downs, the Oklahoma Department of Education's executive director of science, technology, engineering and math, said it's important for education officials to make sure students are learning what they'll need to succeed in the workforce.
The state is headed for a situation in which the graduates it produces don't have the necessary skills for the jobs that exist in the world. To change that, he said, the state needs to focus on science and math instruction not just at the higher education level, but from the students start kindergarten.
Today, students tend to have a large amount of science instruction in 4th and 5th grades, but less in middle school, he said. By the time students reach high school, the students are again exposed to science after several years without learning it.
The education system also needs to place greater emphasis on thinking and innovating rather than test-taking ability, Downs said. For students to succeed after they graduate, they'll need critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that tests don't reflect.
“We are actually trying to educate a group of people to solve problems that aren't even invented yet,” he said.