Petroleum engineering, one of the highest-paying master’s degrees, is considered a STEM subject. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Prospective petroleum engineering students may wonder which of these disciplines is the most important in the study and practice of petroleum engineering. Each STEM subject has a place in this interdisciplinary field that focuses on the application of engineering design principles and practices to the oil and gas industry.
IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain
Science in Petroleum Engineering
Since oil and gas are natural resources found in the environment, it makes sense that the natural sciences are particularly important for petroleum engineers to learn. Natural sciences encompass disciplines like biology, the study of living organisms and geology, the study of the Earth. Geology is sometimes referred to as Earth science. Two of the natural sciences, chemistry and physics, are concerned with the study of matter, the substance that makes up the physical universe. While chemistry focuses on matters’ properties, combinations and reactions, physics is more concerned with the movement of matter through space and time and the effects that energy has on matter.
In a petroleum engineering curriculum, your science coursework might include college-level laboratory coursework in general physics, your choice of biological science, general chemistry I and II and physical and structural geology.
Technology Used by Petroleum Engineers
Today’s engineers use computer technology extensively. For petroleum engineers, this technology includes computer-aided design software like Autodesk AutoCAD, enterprise resource planning software and analytical and scientific software like MATLAB and finite element analysis software programs, according to O*NET. Project management software and financial analysis software can also help petroleum engineers manage their projects and efforts. The use of computer technology in petroleum engineering often involves modeling, simulating and analyzing engineering designs and solutions related to well drilling and completion, reservoirs and extraction methods.
Petroleum engineers should also have some basic programming skills using computer languages such as Java, R, Python and C++.
Engineering Foundations in the Oil and Gas Industry
If you would guess that engineering is the most important STEM subject for petroleum engineers, then you would be (mostly) right. Engineering revolves around the design of solutions to real-world problems and opportunities. The solutions an engineer designs can include anything from a process to a product or device. Machines are engineering designs, but so are medical interventions, software applications, physical components of machines and systems, chemical compounds and built infrastructure.
However, engineering designs draw from science and mathematical principles. If you’re lacking a strong science and math background, you won’t have the tools you need to devise, develop and analyze engineering designs.
Undergraduate petroleum engineering students should expect to devote around half of their coursework to engineering classes, including core engineering coursework and discipline-specific studies.
Mathematics in Petroleum Engineering
Math skills are so integral to the field of petroleum engineering that ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) requires accredited programs in this discipline to include specific coursework in mathematics. Students need a thorough knowledge of probability and statistics as well as differential equations. Don’t be surprised if your petroleum engineering degree program requires you to take calculus I and II, as well.
It isn’t only courses that are officially offered out of mathematics departments that will test your math skills. Chemistry and particularly physics are math-heavy sciences. Math is a vital part of the study of materials strength, thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, which are usually categorized as core engineering courses or specialized petroleum engineering courses.
You need a strong foundation in mathematics if you want to work in petroleum engineering, but a lot of the calculations you would perform in this field are done using computer programs, so math may not be as big a part of the career as you might fear.
A Balance of STEM Skills
Successful petroleum engineers aren’t strong in just one STEM area. They need to be able to draw from the concepts, theories, methods and practices of each STEM subject to accomplish their goal. In a general sense, this goal is solving problems in the oil and gas industry and achieving safer, more efficient and more environmentally conscious resource extraction, refinement, manufacturing and distribution. While the engineering part of the STEM subjects best describes what petroleum engineers do in their work in the oil and gas industry, skills in science, technology and mathematics are all necessary for creating engineering designs that work.
If your interests are limited to one of the STEM fields outside of engineering, you might consider a different career path, like petroleum geologist, statistician or computer programmer specializing in exploration & production software.