Mining program could come back to U

A bill heard Tuesday at the state Legislature would provide funds for the resurrected program.

by Kevin Burbach

After 40 years, a mining program could return to the University of Minnesota.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, brought a bill Tuesday to the state House Higher Education and Policy and Finance Committee that would provide funds for a mining program at the University.

Rukavina introduced the bill to bring mining back to the University and to prepare Minnesota students for mining engineering jobs — a sector with employment opportunities on the rise.

The bill would create a $25 million endowment that would establish a fund for a mining and metallurgical program — the study of the chemical and physical properties of metals.

Currently, there is not a mining degree program in Minnesota and there are few universities in the nation — such as South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Virginia Tech — that offer mining degrees.

Before the program could be created, the University would have to work out many of the details.

Robert Jones, the University’s senior vice president for academic administration, said the University will spend the next four to six weeks examining the program, including whether there is a “need for such a professional program in the region and in the state.”

The University will also look at the program’s potential cost and infrastructure and whether they would have the coursework, student interest and faculty necessary for the program, Jones said.

Until there are answers to some key questions, he said the University would remain neutral.

Rukavina said the University was created with a strong mining focus and that the current lack of a mining program “makes me sad.”

The closest thing to an existing program in the state is the Iron Range Engineering program, a partnership between the Mesabi Range Community College and Minnesota State University-Mankato.

IRE is a project-based program where upper-level undergraduate students work on engineering projects around the area.

Gregg Marg, a professor at Minnesota State University-Mankato, said the program is relatively new. The first graduates finished in December 2011.

Although it is a general engineering program, students can specialize in mechanical, electrical or chemical engineering.

Ron Ulseth, co-director of IRE, said students can work on mining-based projects, but cannot specialize in mining.

“We don’t have any ability to deliver a mining or metallurgical [component] in the current program,” Ulseth said.

He said the Iron Range is rich in precious metals, like gold, silver and platinum, as well as copper and nickel.

There are various reasons for the resurgence of mining. He said products like iPhones use a lot of platinum, and hybrid cars require 75 to 100 pounds of copper each.

About 55,000 new miners will be needed to meet demand and to replace retiring coal mine employees in the next five to 10 years, according to the National Mining Association.

Because of the increased need, Ulseth said companies are flocking to Minnesota.

“The Iron Range is alive and well,” he said.

But now that companies like Twin Metals have moved to the state, Ulseth said they lack qualified employees.

“These mining companies have a terrible time finding these people,” he said. “There’s no way in our state … for us to find people with this level of specialty. They need mining engineers and metallurgical engineers.”


History of Mining

The School of Mines and Metallurgy originally opened at the University of Minnesota in 1892. By 1927, it offered degrees in mining and metallurgical engineering among others.

After changing the structure over the years, the school became the School of Mineral and Metallurgical Engineering in the early 1960s.

But the next decade brought a decrease in mining. Warren Cheston, the dean of the Institute of Technology, decided to disband the University’s mining program in 1970 and put various parts of it into other schools.