It's hands-on for students

04 September 2006

Engineers in the making: Chemical engineering students spent a week getting hands-on experience at Xstrata mining plants. They were photographed with with Eric Ratshikhopa (front), Xstrata executive director of corporate development

ll second-year undergraduate chemical engineering students got a taste of life as professional engineers when they spent a week of their mid-year vacation at a range of industrial plants across the country.

The field visit was part of the UCT - Xstrata Development Programme, a R1,25-million partnership with funding from the global mining company.

The main objective of the programme is to increase the success rate of students in the field, particularly black students. This will be done primarily through mentoring students and through hands-on experience of engineering at for instance various Xstrata plants.

It is the culmination of a common objective by the academic staff at the chemical engineering department to expose undergraduate students to industry as a value-added aspect of their degree.

Eric Ratshikhopa, Xstrata executive director of corporate development, who played a central role in bringing the programme to fruition, said at the launch last Wednesday: "One of the things on which we pride ourselves is that we respond to the socio-political environment in which we do business. Unemployment and a dire skills shortage are rife out there, and business in general does not reflect the country's demographics."

He said that Xstrata was delighted to have a partner in UCT because, as a national asset, the university has the opportunity to address these problems, and it was doing so through programmes such as the student development programme.

A group of students who spent their time at the Xstrata plants at Boshoek and Rustenburg gave an upbeat report-back of their experience.

Activities included safety induction, gaining on-site experience of chemical engineering skills, the logistics of running a plant and mining processes. They also learnt life skills such as teamwork ("It's like the wheels on a cog. If one wheel isn't working, the whole machine comes to a halt"), as well as communication and time management.

They concluded by saying: "Prior to our week at the plants, only our heads were in chemical engineering. Now having had the Xstrata experience, our hearts and minds are in it."

Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Njabulo S Ndebele, also attended the launch of the Xstrata Development Programme.

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