The University of Houston was the first university in the U.S. to create a subsea engineering master’s degree program, spurred by a number of factors: the school’s desire to emerge as the “Energy University,” the continued industry push into deeper water and a diminishing number of experienced individuals. Apparently the school made the right decision—within three years of its formation, the program is bursting at the seams.

The school is not going it alone. It has partnered with industry giants such as FMC Technologies and KBR, and its classes are taught by seasoned industry professionals. The program offers required courses in applied mathematics, convection heat transfer and flow assurance, and it also offers a mix of “prescribed subsea elective courses” such as riser design, pipeline design and BOP design. In addition, students can take an additional four electives to complete their degrees.

E&P talked to Dr. Phaneendra Kondapi, KBR adjunct professor of subsea engineering at UH and a senior technical adviser at Granherne-KBR, about his involvement with the program and its many successes.

What does this subsea program mean to the University of Houston?

It means a lot to UH. The industry has been waiting for a long time to have such a program. It’s not just the University of Houston; the entire industry also needed this type of training badly. And the students are excited. It’s a different program for subsea because other schools do not have this program yet, and the students want to take these classes. UH is glad to have started this program to serve the industry needs with support from industry.

How do you prepare this next generation of engineers?

To replace the baby boomers, we need to train people with enough skill sets, especially because now subsea is going deeper and deeper. Previously we used to say deepwater was 1,000 ft [305 m] and then 5,000 ft [1,524 m]. Now we are going to 10,000 ft [3,050 m]. The rigs are going deeper and deeper. Not only that, the offset distances are getting up into hundreds of miles out in the sea. Based on that, we have more and more challenges.

We need to have the technologies ready to overcome these increased challenges. They’re not going to come up automatically. Who is going to create these technologies? People, right? That means people have to understand what subsea is. Without understanding, they cannot develop these technologies. So we have to prepare them, but how do we prepare? Universities alone cannot develop these technologies. Right now the need of the program is to shift the focus from concept to application. Once we are able to do that, we will be able to prepare industry-ready skilled students. Most of the students don’t have any industry knowledge. So the advantage of this program is that the people who are teaching these courses are industry professionals. That means everybody’s working in the industry, and they’re able to share their experiences with the students. That gives them some degree of understanding of what is happening in the real world. The industry has to think in that angle so that everybody can participate and collaborate with a supportive education system.

The education system has to be changed. Not the entire education system, but the courses offered to the students who are going into the industry. They need to have these industry-ready courses, especially at the graduate level because they need to understand the science, the concepts and the application. Undergraduate courses are fine, but once students have graduated or maybe are in their senior year, they need to have such courses that can orient them to the industry. When they get into a project, how can they immediately be productive? That’s my intro section of the class.

When the University of Houston asked me to come up with a course, I said it had to be a different way of approaching the students. I’ve been through so many courses throughout my educational training. But everything was more often concept, theory. So when they asked, “Would you like to teach the course?” I came up with a new concept called reverse circular teaching. Basically I give them the problem in the beginning of the class, the project, and then I teach them the basic sciences that are required to solve the problem. I try to help the students connect the dots between the theory and the real-world problem. So I give them the project, tell them the theory and then ask them to solve the problem.

So far I have had around 200 students in my class. In January 2014 alone, my flow assurance course had 120 students. A typical graduate class has 15 people, 20 people. It indicates how industry is responding to this course as well as the subsea program in general.

What about skills like preparing presentations?

I’m introducing them to the soft skills as well, such as how to write an industry-standard report and how to prepare and give client presentations, communication skills and team-building skills. The reports and presentations are completely different than what they wrote in school. When they come into the industry, they have to write in a certain format. I give them the format, and then I ask them to write the report because the project I give them is actually an industry problem that we solve daily. This exposes students to some of the best practices in the industry. When they come out of the program, they are more likely to be hired because they have more practical knowledge and exposure than other students who lack these skills.

What are some of the other key elements of your course besides technical content?

There are six different ways I prepare my students to be industry-ready, including the real-world project and the standard industry reports and presentations through my flow assurance course. Students have to use industry-standard software to complete the project, and I help them learn it in the classroom setting. Then I invite industry speakers and guest lecturers to give them an industry perspective and also to evaluate student project presentations. There are three reasons for that. Students get confident because they know that they’re presenting in front of not just their classmates but also industry professionals. That means they try to prepare themselves well. The second thing is networking, so they can get to know the industry professionals. Thirdly, if the industry people like their presentations, they might get hired. And some of my students have gotten jobs just based on their presentation.

And I also take them to industry facilities so that they can actually see what is happening in labs. I show them the actual subsea equipment videos and the animations and the pictures in the class, so they get the idea of what subsea fields and structures looks like. People may think subsea is easy. But when you’re operating 10,000 ft below the surface remotely, you can’t see much. And you have to be very precise to operate safely and reliably.

Do older industry professionals benefit from the program as well?

This subsea program is for working professionals as well as regular graduates. Even people with industry experience can enhance their skills and understanding of subsea. Often when they go to a meeting with people from multiple disciplines, when somebody starts talking, the other people watch or listen, but they don’t understand the concepts. But if they enroll in this program, they understand what others are talking about.

The subsea students leaving today will be the ones 10, 20 years from now developing ultradeep water out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Exactly. They are the ones who will manage these complex projects. The challenges are increasing because we are going deeper and further. That means more HP/HT issues, more flow assurance issues, more operability issues. And the growing technologies are subsea processing, subsea boosting and subsea separation. The vision of the industry is that by 2020, we want to achieve a topsidesless subsea facility. How do we achieve that? We need to have much better technologies. But once we have the technologies, who is going to operate the facilities if we don’t start to prepare these engineers today?