Upending Training in Metallurgy: Metcelerate Interview
The privilege of being part of a very select group of individuals who understand a complex topic, particularly one whose importance is growing as the world strives for carbon neutrality, is not lost on Diana Drinkwater. However, the Chief Executive Officer of Metcelerate—a specialist online school dedicated to the training of metallurgists—is eager to welcome larger cohorts of young engineers from all over the world to an expanding range of increasingly specialized courses.
Drinkwater and her team are developing an innovative new approach to “post-undergraduate” education that borrows from academia’s short-course format, as well as the on-the-job mentorship relationships from decades past. In this way, Metcelerate might just be leading with a revolutionary model where advanced topics are made approachable while still respecting their difficulty. Or maybe the model is thriving because of its respect for metallurgy.
Arguably, this is only possible after a lifetime of interactions with world-leading, yet warm and passionate experts; a series of experiences revealing the rights and wrongs of specialized training in university and corporate settings; and a shared understanding and appreciation for the power of technology and design put to the service of highly challenging courses. It’s an effort that has also involved leaders, experts, clients and sponsors, and the team at eCreators, the Melbourne, Australia-based content development arm of Open LMS led by Kristian Terry.
In our conversation, Drinkwater takes us deep into the—figuratively and literally—groundbreaking world of metallurgy. She also touches on the value added by the training, the new challenges posed by a world that’s transforming entire industries and ways of living, and why she’s thrilled to be at the forefront of the ensuing upskilling revolution.
1. Metallurgy: A 2-minute Introduction to the Value of the Trade
Drinkwater is pleased that our conversation first focuses on value. “The Mineral Processing Value Chain” is in fact the current curriculum’s first topic. Within the massive scale of global mining operations, metallurgists play a relatively small, yet fundamental role in sourcing the minerals that sustain our way of life.
“When we look at the metal in our phones, that ultimately comes from a mining operation.” explains Drinkwater. “Metal is dug out of the ground, carried by trucks or conveyor belts as broken rock. That rock is 99% or more waste material. The valuable metal is only a very, very small proportion of what's in the rock that comes out of the mine. Something like 2% of all the power generated in the world is used to break rock.”
“Mining engineers are involved in digging out the rock and bringing it to the surface. Metallurgists take over from that point.”
“A metallurgist is responsible for treating the rock to produce metal that can be sold: Copper, silver, gold or whatever it is. They also deal with disposing the waste material responsibly, a big part of the job.”
“You can imagine these are very complicated processes. At least one exists for each metal and source. There are different ways you can find copper in the ground, for geological reasons you need to be aware of. As a metallurgist, you need a solid background on physics and chemistry, including things like fluid mechanics, as well as the geology of rocks and minerals, mineralogy, and also a practical understanding of the modern diagnostic tools that are available to do their jobs better.”
“So a good metallurgist needs to know all of this.”
“At any one mining operation, there's usually a small team of metallurgists, led by a senior metallurgical manager and middle managers depending on the scale of the operation. And there's always a few juniors. This is the group our program is targeting.”
2. Teaching a Groundbreaking Subject: The Metcelerate Model
“[Metallurgy] is a very technical subject.” Drinkwater continues, “All the people who join our program are already engineers. So it's almost a post-graduate level course. We cover specialized content that you don't get in most undergraduate degrees.”
“As far as our mission is concerned, it's very important that people learn skills that they can use in their jobs. We don't want to stuff their heads with theoretical knowledge, and we must make it happen with an online course! Which is quite challenging.”
For Drinkwater, a sound metallurgic education requires an understanding of the value of the role, both as legacy and industry change. It necessitates a workplace that enables constant peer interactions, where training turns into new practice the fastest. She knows this because this was the way she was brought into the profession.
“I spent ten years of my working life in operating plants. I got a very good feel for the practical side of the business and for the sort of things that people working in these operations have to deal with.”
Traditionally, metallurgy training happens over the course of years, through a mix of on-the-job training and short university courses. Drinkwater experienced both, including a few years teaching.
“There used to be a number of good undergraduate metallurgy courses. But they were always small. I remember taking a class with seven people in it. In today's university, this is not sustainable. It is a big commitment in money and time.”
“After I had a family, because of my connections I ended up working just a couple of days a week as a university professor. I ended up teaching short courses in the university system. The sort of things we now teach at Metcelerate, only face-to-face. I became a specialist in the design of short courses for the industry.”
She soon learned how difficult it was to maintain a stable offering of courses at the university system with a generally low attendance rate that would swing depending on the economic cycle and the price of commodities. During downturns, programs would unceremoniously close. It would take tremendous effort to get the support and funding to open them back up.
“About ten years ago, we identified that only 25% of engineers employed in the profession came from a specialized program. Most metallurgists are chemical engineers who learn on the job or take a patch of small short courses. For a long time I've heard the industry say, ‘there must be a more efficient way.’ After all, everybody needs to know the same thing.”
“Plus, now we have this amazing online learning technology, why aren't we using that?”
In 2019, Drinkwater began working with a group of like-minded colleagues to launch her own venture. Joining her as directors of this organization were Bob Seitz, a veteran engineer with nearly 40 years of managerial experience, based in Arizona; and Professor Jan Cilliers, lecturer from the United Kingdom and Professor of Mineral Processing at Imperial College London for over 16 years.
Together, they knew the ins-and-outs of the metallurgic practice. They knew what worked and what didn’t in academia, along with the tools and practices that would make for a more dynamic model. Furthermore, they possessed and appreciated the industry connections that would allow the project to take off and stay relevant by catering to the industry needs.
Drinkwater explains: “Metcelerate was created to address these concerns. We see ourselves as a lower cost, more flexible, easier to manage alternative towards professionalization.”
“We started by sitting down with a group of industry clients and identified the most important topics from their point of view. We built our program based on that.”
“At the moment we're still working directly with mining companies. These are large organizations based in Australia and the US with international operations. They were tightly involved in the design of the program. During the 12 months it took us to develop the program, they were very interested in helping us get things running. When we presented the final version to them, they provided the funding for us to start building it.”
“Right now it looks very linear because we're still in the first stages of development. Going forward, we're looking to build more modules on other topics, and allow users to pick and choose.”
Metcelerate first started as a series of workshops in 2019. In mid-2020, the first training cohort launched while the program was still being built. Then the pandemic struck, which only affected the idea of hosting a few face-to-face sessions throughout the run of the program. The content development was also in the works, but it would only find its footing when eCreators came in to replace the previous partner, picking things up by the end of 2020.
“We made the decision to go online before the pandemic. We envisaged that we might have face-to-face moments during the course of the program such as workshops, but then the option disappeared. After running two years online, I think this is the way it's going to go for now.”
“We started with a different partner. The reason we came to eCreators was that we found the previous team could not cope with the high-level technical content. They kept trying to "dumb it down" to the point that all technical meaning had been lost. We said, our students, they have engineering degrees already, they understand complicated graphs. You can show them equations and they will be able to make sense of them.”
“Of course, we still get feedback from our sponsors about upcoming courses. I don't believe I should make the decisions about what people need to learn, people on the processing plants should. It's very important to us that we're delivering the skills our industry needs. Ultimately it's all about adding value, and delivering the knowledge that would lead to that.”
“I believe in Metcelerate's model, which can be scaled up or down and can hedge those downturns better than how universities are doing it.”
3. Renewables: Metallurgy's Greatest Upskilling Challenge yet
A metallurgist is the modern day equivalent of a stonecutter. As we marvel at ancient buildings, monuments or artifacts still standing, the product of a craft that takes us back in history, we realize how they also represented innovation at the time. Metallurgy today is a continuation of the problem-solving process that’s present in virtually every industry, with a special role to play in carbon-neutral fields like solar and wind energy, electric cars and batteries. Sourcing metals and alloys in volumes orders of magnitude higher than ever, and doing so with smaller carbon footprints, is a unique gem of a challenge.
Drinkwater elaborates: “Our model is ideal for cohorts who are part of the same organization. Clients send their program takers, usually young graduates in their first six to twelve months of employment, some of whom are in different parts of the world, some in the same place. We offer them an opportunity to develop international bonds between peers who get to meet and study online. We host group sessions, live tutorials and discussion boards, all inside our Open LMS platform in order to encourage interaction.”
In the two years and the few cohorts already hosted, change has become a constant, a reflection of the new roles the profession is set to play. As the world turns to renewable energies and carbon-neutral industry outputs, new elements come into focus. In turn, more and new metallurgy is expected, in more parts of the world.
“Technical knowledge is more important than ever. For example, if we all switch to electric cars, we're going to need to produce three times as much copper as we do currently. To minimize the environmental impact this needs to be done with a much smaller carbon footprint. While mainstream techniques are being reviewed, some new ones start appearing still in limited capacity: Electromagnetic pulses and soundwaves for example. Metallurgists are going to need strong technical skills to work effectively in this challenging new environment.”
“There’s all kinds of outstanding technical challenges that are now in front of young engineers.”
4. The Instructional Design of Industry Change
“Because I was part of the university system for such a long time, I was exposed to really good pedagogical instruction, some wonderful teachers, researchers and specialists” remarks Drinkwater. “I learned to appreciate the value good instructional design can bring, how important it is. It's not good enough to know your topic. This appreciation I developed is a central part of Metcelerate's offering. We always knew we would need an expert instructional design team for support.”
Metcelerate finds itself at a critical juncture, where the appreciation for design and technology to the service of complex educational challenges can chart new paths. Innovations which are becoming needs for change, if they aren’t already.
“The industry is becoming more technically sophisticated, there is a lot more pressure on these young professionals. Environmental, social and other broader issues must increasingly be taken into consideration while they do their job. The knowledge they need continues to grow and get more important.”
“At the same time, we need to continue to listen to our clients and sponsors, and make sure that we deliver on what they request from us. Which I would summarize in one word: practicality. Keeping things "packed tightly" to bring kids up to speed more quickly, but preserving the difficulty. We face this challenge through higher efforts in engagement. We make things fun, mixing "hard" moments with light-hearted ones, and fostering live connections at every opportunity.”
5. What It Was Like to Work With Open LMS and eCreators
Finally, Drinkwater explains Metcelerate’s working process with Open LMS and eCreators: “To build our program, we start with the framework developed with clients and sponsors on the workshops. We nominate an expert for each main topic, who takes the framework and adjusts it according to available resources and their personal tastes. They develop the content, we review it for style and consistency. Then we give it to eCreators.”
“We knew of eCreators via a common partner. We got in touch, and we realized they could do the work for us. They know how to produce quality content, and they understood what we needed. We're all still learning, I try to get better at the way we give them source materials. I know our content can be hard to make sense of. At the same time, they’re learning different ways to present the content in interesting ways.”
“I think it is quite difficult [for the eCreators team] because the framework is dense and technical. But they do an amazing job. It was a lengthy process, but we are all learning how to be better at doing that.”
“We engineers tend to over-complicate things. But some things need to stay complicated. It’s a matter of striking the right balance. We love working with eCreators because they don’t shy away from the challenge of explaining complexity, but they find ways to deliver it more efficiently each time.”
“I think the model of designing an online curriculum for what I call ‘post-professional formation,’ where we focus on honing a professional practice that requires deep dives on a day-to-day basis, has a lot of promise. It used to be done on the job, when I was a youngster we were taught by gray-haired engineers with a lot of time to spend around young people, but the workplace has changed and those people aren’t around anymore. So I believe we can help accelerate it—hence the name, Metcelerate. This model has potential in a lot of branches, in engineering and other fields. And it’s something that universities and their focus on broad, foundational content has a hard time providing.”