IPAA’s petroleum academies are educating the next generation.

You don’t hear quite as much about the great crew change these days, probably because a lot of those folks who thought they’d be retiring soon have had to rethink those plans due to shrinking retirement accounts.

But while commodity prices wax and wane, one thing remains constant — we’re all getting older. And by the time the industry breathes a collective sigh of relief that the economy is on the mend, we will have lost precious time training our replacements.

Fortunately, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) decided not to wait that long. About 31?2 years ago the organization, under the leadership of Education Center Director Doris Richardson, began to explore the possibility of developing “petroleum academies” at Houston high schools. These academies would require students to pass a test to get in and maintain a high grade point average while learning about engineering, geoscience, and global energy management. In return, they would receive an education in their last four years of public schooling equivalent to the better part of a college associate’s degree.

The first three academies, at Milby, Lamar, and Westside high schools in Houston, opened in 2008. More recently an academy has opened in Fort Worth, Texas, the heart of the Barnett Shale.

Given the general distrust of the energy industry, promoting this approach might seem like a hard sell. But Richardson said that students and teachers both are eager to participate. “The whole point of this is to make math, science, and technology more meaningful and relevant and to share the excitement,” she said. “The excitement for the students is palpable in the classrooms.”

In addition to classroom training, students are treated to guest lectures by industry representatives, instruction on leadership through Junior Achievement and industry volunteers, field trips, internships, and competitions. At the latter, they excel — Lamar High School students won first place at a regional robotics competition, and Milby students designed the world’s first “Lego” android. Westside ninth-graders won first prize at the IPAA/Houston Independent School District Career and Technology

Expo PowerPoint competition.

More recently the students participated in “Petro-Challenge” at the University of Houston, the first of its kind in the US. Using a simulation program created by UK-based Simprentis, teams studied seismic surveys, bid for licenses, farmed out shares of licenses to other teams, competed for rigs, contracted service providers, and chose well locations. With fanciful names like “Oil-licious” and “Young Money,” the teams were judged on their rate of return and the number of “knowledge points” they accumulated as they worked through each step of the simulation.

“PetroChallenge provides a unique platform for demonstrating not only the excitement of the oil and natural gas industry, but it also integrates the skills and career information students learn in our petroleum academies,” said Barry Russell, IPAA president and CEO. “This innovative educational competition also serves as a powerful tool to stimulate the interest of the next generation of talented energy professionals who will drive this industry forward.”

The executive board for the IPAA

academy program is made up of representatives of oil and service companies as well as industry organizations. Major sponsors include Halliburton, the Petroleum Equipment Suppliers Association, El Paso Corp., Shell Oil, the American Association of Drilling Engineers, Devon Energy, BP, Pride International, Core Laboratories, Marathon Oil, Quicksilver Resources, McDermott International, Hess Corp, Chesepeake Energy, and Houston Producers Forum. Many universities also contribute to the program, particularly in terms of teacher training.

The success of the program has many other school districts clamoring for their own petroleum academies. But IPAA plans to take things one step at a time.

“So many schools want it, and the demand is there,”

said Galen Cobb, vice president of industry relations for Halliburton and chairman of the IPAA Academy Executive Board. “But we have to be very careful that we build a strong foundation to make this transportable to other schools.”