How a team of wannabe oil and gas barons blazed a trail through the trade

9th October 2009 at 01:00
PetroChallenge is an online competition designed to get S5-6 pupils thinking about a career in the energy sector

Most people have daydreamed about what they would do if they won pound;1 million in the Lottery. Few can fathom what it would be like to have hundreds of times that amount at their disposal.

An annual online event lets S5-6 pupils play at being oil barons - with a budget of $200 million (pound;121 million). PetroChallenge is run by Opito, the Oil and Gas Academy, and is designed to get more young people thinking about careers in the energy sector.

School teams run fictitious oil and gas companies and strive to outdo each other. In an intense and sometimes frantic atmosphere, they explore for oil and win by getting the best financial return.

The Scottish heat was held in Aberdeen last month, with more than 300 pupils taking over the ICT rooms at the Robert Gordon University for two days.

Blair Paton, a design and technology teacher at Aberdeen's Bankhead Academy, said he and his colleagues preferred longer projects, since events held over one or two days tended to be dominated by lectures rather than activities, and could have questionable impact on pupils. But PetroChallenge was different, in that pupils took the reins rather than teachers, and their ideas about the oil and gas industry were often fundamentally changed afterwards.

The youngsters' enthusiasm for the project was clearest during bidding processes, when the 82 teams of four had to get out of their seats - each was installed around two computers and a map showing a fictitious oil field - and beat off competition for the best deals.

"There was a hell of a lot of noise - it was like the London Stock Exchange," said Mr Paton.

The educational resource, which took years to complete, gave companies a plethora of options and risks to weigh up. They had to decide whether to assess the environmental impact of their work, study seismic surveys, farm out shares of licences to other operators, compete for rigs, issue contracts, and where to drill.

Each member of the Bankhead team, Blazer Oil, was doing technological studies at Higher or Advanced Higher. Yet they were unaware of the wide- ranging career possibilities in the industry. "Everybody knows they could grow up to be a policeman, a nurse or a teacher, but nobody knows about some of the jobs in oil and gas," he said.

PetroChallenge had a big impact, he explained: "The industry will be delighted to know that the four guys all got a huge buzz from taking part and are quite keen to pursue a career in oil and gas."

The winning team, from Mearns Academy in Aberdeenshire, will travel to London in January to compete for the world title after beating 81 opponents, thanks to a 3,000 per cent increase on their investment.

The team - Peter Anderson, Callum Leask, Ross MacLean and Kirsty MacDonald - was accompanie by Ranjit Fernandez, support services co-ordinator at the Laurencekirk school and enterprise development officer for Aberdeenshire Council. He said they thrived because the contest touched on some of the best aspects of A Curriculum for Excellence: teamwork and enterprise and was closely connected to the real world.

Mearns Academy, which only entered one team while other schools sent several, has also embraced other projects from the Oil and Gas Academy, which has its Scottish base in Aberdeen. It came fifth in an ROV challenge earlier this year, in which teams had to design a remotely-operated underwater vehicle. Mr Fernandez was delighted, as his school was the only one without access to a swimming pool. Pupils overcame this handicap by taking home their robot to try it in the bath (it measured about 16 square inches).

Energise your Future, an annual industry careers event has also been popular. It demystifies the industry by allowing pupils to chat with representatives from about 40 companies and, every second year, when it coincides with the Offshore Europe event in Aberdeen, letting them get their hands on technology such as underwater robots and helicopter simulators.

Close links to the oil and gas industry in the north-east have resulted in most Scottish Petro-Challenge teams coming from Aberdeenshire; organisers can encounter blank looks when they bring up the oil and gas industry with schools elsewhere in Scotland.

But Mike Duncan, Opito's skills and learning development director, said organisers were exploring whether to introduce competitions outside the north-east next year. He could sway the unconverted by pointing to Katy Primavesi.

The second-year mechanical engineering student at Edinburgh University took part in PetroChallenge two years ago, at Aberdeen's Cults Academy; her team went on to win the global final in January 2008. She was interested in maths and science but knew nothing about the oil and gas industry. Katy credits PetroChallenge with setting her on a career path she would never have considered: "I'd like to become a chartered engineer and work offshore."

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