Tech Starts Distance Ed Engineering Alliance in Northern Iraq, Oct. 31, 2008

By Thomas Guengerich Bretz and Hepler

Right: New Mexico Tech petroleum engineering professor Dr. Robert Bretz (left) and Rob Hepler, distance education technology manager at Tech, pose in one of the university’s studios.

SOCORRO, N.M., Oct. 31, 2008 – New Mexico Tech is forming a new alliance with a Kurdish university based in the northern Iraq city of Erbel.

Khosrow Bazrafshan, a 1989 Tech graduate and a native Kurd, returned to Socorro last summer looking for faculty to help launch the University of Kurdistan-Hawler.

He found two willing takers – petroleum engineering professor Dr. Bob Bretz and distance education technology manager Rob Hepler.

The two-man Tech contingent departed Saturday, Nov. 1, for a week-long trip to the Middle East, to help set up a distance education program for petroleum engineering in Erbel, a city known by the Kurds as Hawler.

Bretz will offer one class to Kurdish students beginning in January, while Hepler will help implement the technology needed to conduct distance education. Hepler, who is also a videographer, aims to create a documentary about their trip to northern Iraq.

“Khosrow came to New Mexico Tech this summer looking for people to teach courses … right now,” Bretz said.

Bazrafshan earned a doctorate in geochemistry at Tech. He is in charge of the Hawler university’s petroleum technology master’s program, but he wants to convert the program to petroleum engineering.

“The main idea behind my efforts is to help the government and the petroleum industry educate people from the region and to facilitate the development of our vast petroleum resources,” Bazrafshan said via e-mail.

He returned to his homeland a year ago and quickly realized that the region urgently needs trained professionals and technicians to help the country develop its natural resources. The country has plenty of qualified students lining up for a college education, but limited expertise.

“They have no faculty,” Bretz said. “That’s why he came to us.”

Bazrafshan also gravitated toward New Mexico Tech because of his familiarity with the programs and people.

“I am a Techie and I believe New Mexico Tech could play a major role in educating scientists, professionals and researchers in petroleum fields,” he said via e-mail. “Helping the University of Kurdistan-Hawler is one way that Tech could get involved in these efforts. We need all the help we can get.”

Dr. Peter Gerity, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Tech, said the new relationship in the Kurdish region fulfills the university’s mission to act globally.

“Anything we can do to strengthen friendships around the world is vitally important,” Gerity said. “It’s not just educational outreach, but also putting an emphasis on friend-making.”

The first class to be offered by New Mexico Tech in Hawler will be “The Physical Properties of Petroleum Fluids,” or PETR 245. The course focuses on the fundamentals of petroleum engineering. Bretz has taught the class via distance education before. In recent years, he recorded his class lectures for a class of four students that included three distance learners – in Norway, Kazakhstan and Houston.

“The class works well as a distance course,” Bretz said. “Students who have taken the class since we recorded it really like it. They can replay the lectures and that helps the learning process.”

A significant challenge to interactive distance learning is the limited bandwidth capabilities northern Iraq. Hepler said Tech would be able to offer more classes to students in Erbel if the region had stronger Internet capabilities. Among their top priorities while abroad is examining the bandwidth capabilities and using existing technologies to set up a distance education classroom.

“With the right software, all we would need is high-speed connectivity,” Hepler said. “We’ll teach them what equipment to use and how to project the video and audio.”

Another top priority is developing working relationships with university leaders.

Bretz sees this new relationship as an opportunity for New Mexico Tech to add to its portfolio of international partnerships and an opportunity to attract new, qualified graduate students.

The Kurdish government is eager to develop academic and industrial relationships, including the sale of oil and gas concessions in the region. The government is paying for all of Hepler’s and Bretz’s expenses for their trip.

The university was formed in 2006 and offers degree-track programs predominantly in humanities and social sciences. The secular, English-language university offers free education and espouses equal opportunity to students of any ethnicity, religion or gender. With its vast petroleum reserves, the government wants to add engineering programs to encourage Kurdish young people to pursue careers in engineering.

“When he was here in Socorro, Khosrow said the region has lots of petroleum; they have petroleum seeping out of the ground,” Bretz said.

He was a bit skeptical at first – but his skepticism lasted less than 24 hours. The very next day, Bretz read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the oil and gas glut in the Kurdish region.

“I saw this picture from Kurdistan of a pool of petroleum,” he said. “The report said that the entire geologic formation extends from Iraq into Turkey and Syria and has 100 billion barrels of oil.”

The region known unofficially as Kurdistan includes portions of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. At 390,000 square miles, the greater Kurdistan region is larger than Texas and smaller than Alaska. The Kurdistan Autonomous Region – the only recognized autonomous federal region in the world – includes only the portion in Iraq.

The oil reserves in Iraq proper contain another 100 billion to 120 billion barrels of oil. Together, the region rivals Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves of 280 billion to 300 billion barrels, Bretz said.

“That’s a tremendous amount of petroleum,” Bretz said. “This is a unique opportunity for New Mexico Tech.”

– NMT –