The Student Education Program is held several times a year in various locations around the globe. This year's annual meeting hosted the North American Student Education Program, featuring 30 of the brightest young minds on the continent, many of whom were able to attend thanks to ExxonMobil travel grants.

ExxonMobil/SEG Student Education Program

An education program with a practical edge

Mick Swiney, SEG Staff

"One of the things you're going to learn as a geoscientist is that most of the time you're wrong; it's just a question of how wrong you are," ExxonMobil geophysicist Brian Sabin teases the room full of Masters and Doctoral students in front of him. "You get a bunch of small pieces of information, and you'll have to use them to put together a geological story."

Meet the ExxonMobil/SEG Student Education Program, an educational experience for geophysics students unlike any other – not least because many of these students aren't geophysics students at all. Here geophysics students pair up with geology and engineering students to analyze real-world geological sectors and formulate strategies for building them into oil fields… just as they ultimately will in their careers in oil and gas.

"When we set up the program, we were trying to address a number of needs," says program founder and ExxonMobil geophysicist Mike Loudin. "First, we noticed that a lot of the education options set up through SEG were for people who were already in the business, and we wanted something for students. Secondly, we wanted to offer something that would bring geophysics together with geology - after all, that's the role of geophysics in the business, to understand the geology. And lastly, these guys have gotten plenty of theory through their university programs, but they need a practical way to apply what they've learned."

That's exactly what the Student Education Program offers. Over the course of three days these students will select blocks of land to bid on, analyze seismic maps, and engage in a variety of cross-disciplinary exercises to answer that critical industry question: to drill or not to drill?

The best part? It's all real. From the data subsets to the regions analyzed, the materials and challenges these students encounter during the course of the program are all drawn from real-world data. One study target, for example, is drawn from an actual ExxonMobil oil field actually worked by one of the instructors. "They're getting real world experience, and it's practical experience across the cross-functional dimensions of the upstream," says ExxonMobil's Alana Robinson, one of five program instructors. "Last night, for example, we analyzed a seismic survey and drilled three wells."

More real than anything else, however, is the often maddening reality facing every geophysicist: not having all the information you need.

"We're trying to find an oil or gas field," Loudin adds. "And that often means you either don't have the information you need, or that it's very expensive to get. Eventually you have to decide whether or not to drill based on the available information. And that judgment is essential to our business."

As a result, a geophysicist in today's oil and gas industry requires skills that go beyond the science. SEP gives them a chance to begin to develop these skills by having students state their cases into microphones, practicing not only public speaking, but also presenting their analysis and recommendations and defending that analysis and recommendation against challenges, being assertive, taking risks - and above all, translating the complexities of their science into something their colleagues can understand. "We care about things in feet or meters, but we're getting our information in time," says Ms. Robinson, explaining to the students how seismic data translates to engineering strategies. "And you can't just tell an engineer, ‘just drill for about three seconds'."

These issues are exactly what the Student Education Program seeks to address: not only does the program pair geophysicists with geologists and engineers, but it deliberately seeks to bring highly accomplished young minds from different schools, backgrounds, regions, and even nationalities. The program then challenges the students to work together in pairs with people they've never met in order to apply the skills and knowledge from their diverse backgrounds.

And then? The initial pairs are shuffled, and the students have to adapt to new partners.

ExxonMobil's sponsorship is critical to the program. In addition to financing the program in partnership with SEG, ExxonMobil also provides the materials, real-world data, and monetary sponsorship that makes the program possible - not only for SEG, but for many students who would not be able to participate otherwise (22 of this year's 30 participants were provided with travel grants to provide the support they needed to attend).

Even the instructors are seasoned professionals able to spice their lectures with real-world experiences and anecdotes. ExxonMobil capitalizes on its resources by pairing instructors like Ms. Robinson, two years out of school, with industry veterans like Mr. Loudin and Mr. Sabin, each with over 30 years of experience. This session's team is rounded out with the extensive operational experience of professionals like David Olgaard and Payson Todd. These 2012 Las Vegas program instructors are only five of the thirty ExxonMobil industry professionals who have participated in the Student Education Program during the last five years.

And yet the instructors' passion for the science makes them far more engaging than many of the instructors students see in their university programs, enabling them to create a comfortable, yet exciting atmosphere unlike any classroom. And this passion is addictive, as evidenced by the students who, with only minutes left to complete their exercise, still rush to extol the benefits of the program.

"I would definitely recommend this workshop to all the students I know, it's so useful and so fun," says Dawei Mu, a geophysics student from the University of Wyoming, before dashing off with his partner to sit on the floor, where they will spread out their seismic sections and maps and attack them with colored pencils.

"It's so cool to see these sideswipes," says Ashlee Henig, a doctoral student from the Scripps Institution in Oceanography, taking a moment to point out the faint outline of a geological feature hidden between the seismic lines of a structure map. "You learn the theory behind them, and then you actually get to see them."

SEP students
Geophysics students work together with geology and engineering students to develop real-world oil fields.

Even at break time, when students have a precious opportunity to stretch their legs and get coffee before a lecture, a cluster of students forms around Ms. Robinson to interrogate her for further explanation of the outcome of the last exercise.

"We tell them right at the beginning, we want them to have fun," says Sabin. He and his colleagues make good on that promise by creating fun and challenging activities like the "Seismic Store", where students get eight seismic lines to start, but they can only "buy" two of the remaining four lines needed to complete their interpretation. Not only do they have to pick which two will best aid their interpretation, but they have to back up their choices with solid justification in order to get what they need.

But the true rewards of the program are in the benefits it brings both to the students looking for experience and to the companies looking for new talent. "I've interviewed with 8-10 oil companies, they all ask about your seismic interpretation experience," says David Bierman, a geophysics student from the University of Utah. "That's exactly what we're doing here, the whole process, from A to Z, from the alpha to the omega. I've never seen anything like this."