Energy has to be inspiring to students

Shaken up by the advent of digital tech, education is changing. There's no getting away from it: learning no longer takes place solely within four walls, for a designated period of time. Against this backdrop, Total is working with students and faculty from universities the world over to find solutions to future energy challenges, with them and for them. Inspiring and listening are two key virtues for doing so.

In 2012, David Puttnam, Ireland's then Digital Champion, wrote in Views of the Future, Dangers and Opportunities that: "Learning is no longer something that needs to happen within particular hours, in a particular place, or even with a particular group of people."

He was definitely onto something. For although from the outside looking in, all of the world's universities seem safely ensconced on their campuses, a revolution is happening outside the classroom. As you've no doubt guessed, it's a digital revolution that calls into question the very principles of education, prompting Peter J. Wells, chief of higher education at UNESCO, to remark that: "Industry employers contend that half of what students learn in the first two years of a four-year technology degree will be out of date by the time they graduate."

Classroom work now shares the stage with MOOCs (massive open online course), virtual courses, recorded university lectures on YouTube and real-time university discussion groups on Facebook. Courses are getting increasingly collaborative and ever more open to the wider world, in real time.

As a result, most of today's sought-after professions didn't exist just a decade ago! Director of ethical hacking, team building genius, data visualization expert, cognitive computing architect, organizational catalyst, digital prophet, chief happiness manager: who would even have been able to come up with such job titles in the early 2000s?

Surfing the digital-tech wave, education is evolving. It's more open and more plugged into the way the world is changing. It's also more innovative and more uncertain. Should students keep acquiring hard skills or give priority to soft skills such as dealing with uncertainty, performing under pressure, critical thinking, communicating and getting along with others, to name a few? Those are the new skills and talents the business world is looking for, putting an end to job descriptions as we've known them for decades.

For that matter, what is learning? UNESCO's Incheon Declaration in 2015 makes a down payment on the answer by articulating an aspiration: "Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and … lifelong learning opportunities for all" by 2030.

Total was a partner of the most recent Global Engineering Deans Council conference, held in Canada. The event was an opportunity to share best practices and communicate the company's education innovation and skills development needs.

In close touch with higher education

Mickaël Scherrer, international university relations project manager at Total, is fully on board with UNESCO's point of view. According to Scherrer, "It's crucial for a global company such as Total to foster quality exchanges with students from universities around the world. Because helping drive the company's growth requires bringing together skills, ideas and talent. To do that, the company needs to be appealing and inspiring." Total Campus was created with that in mind over five years ago. It was designed to be a shared space where students and members of the education community — professors, deans, researchers — can learn about the many opportunities offered by the energy industry in general and Total in particular. "We want to be an employer that attracts talented people from all backgrounds and countries," says Mickaël Scherrer. "We have to inspire them and make them want to take programs related to the energy industry. We share responsibility for teaching them with the universities."

Total implements a number of initiatives, both general and specific, sponsored by affiliates and headquarters. For example, it is a partner of the conference of the 55 members of the Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC), to share its best practices and communicate its education innovation and skills development needs. "The deans are like CEOs," says the Total manager. "They determine the direction their schools take, and it's important for Total that our voice be heard."

On the student side, the French company is close to the Board of European Students of Technology (BEST), which has created opportunities for European students to communicate, cooperate and exchange ideas since 1989. Total is also involved with the Student Platform for Engineering Education and Development (SPEED) non-profit, which organizes the Global Student Forum and aims to have an impact on the future development of engineering education and its effect on sustainability issues. Lastly, Total finances innovative projects proposed by students through Team Total grants. "You don't stop being a student once you pick up your diploma anymore," says Mickaël Scherrer. "For engineers who are already working, we've created an Oil and Gas MOOC, in partnership with IFP énergies Nouvelles (IFPEN), to enable them to update their knowledge of the oil industry by taking online courses for four weeks."

In addition to technical fields — Total's top priority — some of the 26 professorial and research chairs it endows are dedicated to more directly social issues. An example is the Ethics chair sponsored at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po) in France. "Innovation outpaces legislation and future engineers also have to think about social, not just technical, issues. Ethics especially must be understood and taught from the very beginning of the curriculum. That's one reason for our partnership with Sciences Po," says Mickaël Scherrer.

Tapping into students' impressive creativity

Though sparking students' curiosity and whetting their appetite for the world of energy is crucial, so is listening to their expectations and paying attention to their creative ideas. After all, they're the ones who will produce the energy of the future. Total's International University Relations Project Manager couldn't agree more: "We absolutely must listen to what students have to tell us. Because they have the ideas — and the keys — that will shape energy's future. When students are given a chance to speak, such as during the recent GEDC Industry Forum, you realize how often they come up with new applications and models that correspond to their own vision of energy. It's a vision that can sometimes surprise us, but is never out of touch with reality. That's what we have to embrace and tap into."

This ability to innovate is likely to be a key ingredient in the successful transition to a lower-carbon world. An example proving the point is an initiative proposed by Indonesian students, who received a Team Total grant to develop it. The students won the award — and funding — for a project to treat seawater using solar panels, to help a disadvantaged community on an island off the country's coast. Innovative students, who are also engaged no less!

The whole experience was a real source of satisfaction for Mickaël Scherrer, who notes that: "Business issues weren't the only reason for our support. The students who won in the Innovate category in turn inspired 55 of their peers and three classes of high schoolers at the 13th Global Student Forum, in Malaysia. The energy sector is always changing," he continues. "Students are among those who best embody the resilience we need. They turn problems and challenges into opportunities and solutions, for today and tomorrow. Universities can't immerse students in the ultra-complex world of energy without help. Energy is learned in real-world settings and that's the direction we're moving in."

So energy solutions of the future can come from student inspiration. Total would like to keep sparking it by effectively articulating society's current and future needs, to make them topics of study and work with universities. "The company has a 20-year ambition," points out Mickaël Scherrer, "to become the responsible energy major. For all the new fields that that involves, we have to position ourselves as an employer of choice among students and professors. Because they'll be real drivers in achieving that goal, don't doubt it for a second," he says in conclusion.

This page was paid for by Total. The editorial staff of CNBC had no role in the creation of this page.