Students Embracing ‘Barrel’ Challenges

We want in!

That was the opening statement of the University of Wyoming’s Imperial Barrel Award (IBA) Competition Team – my team – at last year’s event in Long Beach, Calif. The team over the previous weeks had:

  •  Studied their basin (onshore Australia).
  •  Worked what they could of the data.
  •  Become hooked on the potential of the area.
  •  Developed some exploration strategies.
  •  Were now ready to convince “management” (the judges) on why this basin was so economically prospective.

The team members were nervous but confident their analysis of the basin was accurate, and their excitement and enthusiasm were palpable.

It was not always so.


The IBA, a competition concept developed by Imperial College (London) in 1976 as part of its MSc petroleum geoscience program, is a competitive, exploration-based project that requires teams of four to five students to:

  • Demonstrate evidence of rigorous and creative technical evaluations.
  •  Work to a strict deadline.
  •  Work effectively as a team.
  •  Make decisions based on limited data.
  •  Give lucid, 25-minute oral presentations to a panel of senior industry experts.

Last year AAPG took the competition global and opened it up to universities worldwide with graduate level geoscience programs. Seven schools – the University of Aberdeen (Scotland); Imperial College; the University of Oklahoma; Gubkin Russian State University (Moscow); the University of Houston; California State University (Long Beach); and the University of Wyoming – took on the challenge of participating in the inaugural global competition. When Steve Veal (AAPG’s European Office director and the force behind AAPG taking the Barrel Award global) first mentioned it and asked if the University of Wyoming would want to participate, I told him “absolutely.”

Then I had to follow through and put together a team.

I was concerned that a short time fuse, a high level of uncertainty about exactly what this “competition” consisted of and student schedules that already were full with classes, research and teaching responsibilities would make selling the concept to my students a bit difficult. I knew however, it was an awesome opportunity.

In order to pique their interest I used a strategy that is nearly always effective in luring students to meetings – free pizza. Out of the 20-plus students who attended the organizational meeting, five committed to forming a team: Cat, Beth, Jen, Liz and Phil (who the team jokingly referred to as our “token male”). For all of them, this was their first exposure to exploration.

For three, including our lone geophysicist, it was their first exposure to petroleum geoscience.


The competition was slated for March 29 – the Friday before the AAPG Annual Convention in Long Beach. Our team received our data set and instructions Jan. 23, and was set to go (we thought).

Oops, need to learn some petroleum geology fast.

Oops, our geophysical software license expired.

Double oops, the faculty contact for the software company is on sabbatical.

Triple oops, that faculty member does not want his students taking time away from their research for this project (our lone geophysicist is working “on the sly”).

When the geophysical software issues were finally resolved (about three weeks before the competition), the students still had to learn the software before they could begin analyzing the data.

At times the logistical hurdles seemed impossible. The learning curves were steep; the camaraderie among team members grew strong. Although they had started out a bit overwhelmed, nervous about expectations, fuzzy on outcome and frustrated with software difficulties, with each passing week they got more and more “into the game.” They went on the offensive analyzing what data they could, strategizing about what plays might be present, and about how they could leverage their knowledge of emerging Rocky Mountain gas play concepts in evaluating their Australian gas prone basin.

By the time of the competition they were ready – they knew their basin, they utilized what data they had, they had play concepts, they saw potential, they “wanted in.”


I believe the IBA has the potential to be one of AAPG’s strongest student programs. I don’t know all the difficulties other teams had in completing their projects, but I’m sure they were many and varied.

The Gubkin University team (from Moscow, Russia), for example, had to present in English – not an easy task for them. The Long Beach team consisted of undergraduates.

Each team pulled together, however, and overall gave very professional presentations. The sense of pride and accomplishment in “having met the challenge” was obvious on each of the student’s faces at the completion of their presentations.

The event culminated with the announcement of the winning teams during the student reception. All the students, not just the IBA students, were intensely focused on the announcement.

We are the champions: The members of the University of Aberdeen’s Imperial Barrel Award team, winners of the top prize in 2007. This year’s competition will be held during the AAPG Annual Convention in San Antonio.
We are the champions: The members of the University of Aberdeen’s Imperial Barrel Award team, winners of the top prize in 2007. This year’s competition will be held during the AAPG Annual Convention in San Antonio.

First place: Aberdeen (applause, whooping and hollering).

Second place: Imperial (more applause, whooping and hollering).

Third place: University of Oklahoma – an unbelievable response. It was like a pep rally. OU must have brought in a busload all chanting “OU, OU, OU!” You would have thought they placed first, not third – and you would have thought it was football, not petroleum exploration.

The atmosphere was electric and the whooping and hollering went on for a long time.

Enough from me; here are some thoughts from my students:

 “I found the experience very rewarding. I came into the process not knowing much about petroleum geology and left with significantly more knowledge. ”

 “It was really cool to be in a ‘real-world’ kind of situation where we had to be responsible for everything on our own – making our own decisions about what was important and how to tackle problems. That gave the project a very different perspective than most group work done in school ... ”

 “The competition allowed for great corroboration among students from all different disciplines of geology, allowing everyone ’s input to be an important part of the final product.”

 “Having to stand up before ‘management’ and defend our findings was a very intense situation, and I think it’s an invaluable practice for all of us going into the industry, as we WILL be doing this often as a part of our job.”


As predicted, interest in the IBA has skyrocketed to the point that regional competitions are necessary to determine which teams will compete on the international level just prior to AAPG’s Annual Convention in San Antonio.

You can help by encouraging your company to contribute money, software licenses and/or data.

You also can help by offering seminars/workshops in petroleum and/or software training to your alma mater or to a school in your area.

The IBA is a powerful magnet that will draw geoscience students to us and make them think, “we want in” to this profession – and “we want in” to AAPG.

Please give it your support. 

Editor’s note: See this month’s Regions and Sections column for more information on the Imperial Barrel Award competition.

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