A Dynamite Degree
Missouri S&T leads the nation in explosives training
Underground in Rolla, five students decked out in boots, hard hats and protective eyewear are preparing to advance a mine tunnel.
This drift of the Missouri University of Science and Technology Experimental Mine is not very deep, but it takes a turn that blocks most of the sunlight that comes from the entrance. Headlamp beams cut through the blackness, illuminating the dust and water vapor swirling in the air.
The jackleg drill starts up, and the roar of the motor reverberates through the mine. With ear protection on, you have to shout to be heard. Dr. Kyle Perry, an assistant professor of explosives engineering at the university, gives occasional direction but mostly just observes as his tunneling class gets to work.
In addition to this mine, the property holds a class and office building, a second underground mine for research, and two surface sites for blasting research.
“There are other mining engineering programs that have experimental facilities, but none that are within a five-minute drive from campus,” said Perry. “So that makes us unique that we can hold classes out here without really interfering with the students’ schedules.”
As the drill spins and flushes the holes out with water, a supporting leg extends gradually to drive it further in. The excess water has already turned the floor to mud. It is a tough, grimy task, but the students seem to enjoy getting their hands dirty. Next week, they will fill the holes with explosives, detonate them, and muck out the debris.
Perry notes the importance of underground tunnels to modern transportation and how they enable subway travel and roads through mountains.
“There are different ways that a company or a person can make a tunnel, and one of those ways is with explosives,” said Perry.
Missouri S&T was the first college in the nation to offer explosives engineering undergraduate and postgraduate minors. It also offers undergraduate and postgraduate certificates. And it is the only U.S. school to offer advanced degrees in explosives engineering, with a master’s added in 2010 and a Ph.D. in 2014.
The program’s newest degree, a master’s in explosives technology, is slated to launch this fall. It is tailored for those without an engineering background, such as people in government agencies or the military.
“Not all of them have engineering, but there was a big desire for them to get explosives training with an advanced degree without having to take all the math and physics and chemistry that’s required to become an engineer,” said Perry, who designed the degree.
Since its start in 2005, the explosives engineering program has awarded four doctorates, 71 master’s degrees, and over 300 minors and certificates.
“This is the place to be if you want to learn about explosives and have a really hands-on experience doing it,” said Perry.
Greg Failes, a senior, said he comes from a farming background and chose mining engineering to be outdoors and get involved in day-to-day mining operations.
“I originally started as a civil engineer and found out you spend a lot of time at a desk, and that’s not what I wanted,” he said. “Mining engineering is hands-on.”
Every year, explosives consumption in the U.S. is about 7 billion pounds. And about 85 percent of those explosives are used by the mining industry.
In 2017, the National Mining Association ranked Missouri ninth in the U.S. for nonfuel mineral production. The association also reported that Missouri’s mining industry generates more than 31,000 direct and indirect jobs and contributes more than $2.6 billion to the state’s GDP.
“The saying kind of goes, ‘If it can’t be grown, it’s got to be mined,’” Perry said. “So anything from limestone to coal to gold to platinum to all these other precious metals that you need for all the electronics we use today, it’s got to come from somewhere.”
While blasting is undoubtedly the coolest part of the job, it is also the part instructors take most seriously. Every student who takes an explosives class must pass a background check and be a U.S. citizen or have clearance from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“It’s something we require of them and the regulatory agencies require of us,” said Perry. “As long as everybody passes the background check, they get hands-on experience with explosives.”
Within the program, there are required safety and regulations courses, and safety is constantly reinforced in every class. All that training proves critical when graduates enter the field.
And the job market for new graduates in the field is booming. Starting salaries for Missouri S&T’s explosives engineering graduates average more than $71,000. It is common for them to get multiple offers and have a job lined up before they even walk across the stage.
“After graduation I’ve got a job down at Doe Run in Viburnum,” said Joshua Williams, a senior. “I’ll be a mine engineer doing a bunch of engineering work. After that, probably going to be a mine supervisor.”
Failes also has a position waiting for him post-graduation.
“They’ve got more people retiring than they can hire right now,” he said.
Getting students interested at a young age is important for closing that workforce gap, said Perry, and Missouri S&T hosts several programs to showcase opportunities in the field. At its Summer Explosives Camp for high schoolers, anyone 16 years old and up gets to actually handle explosives.
“It’s a good time to introduce them to explosives and tell them about all the math and science that’s required to be an engineer,” Perry said.
After all, Perry’s own interest in explosives began at a young age.
“Back when I was a kid, I would buy fireworks and bury them in the ground and blow up the ground. It was just always very fascinating to me,” Perry recalled. “It’s just a niche I’ve never been able to get away from and it’s something I really enjoy doing.”
His students definitely share the sentiment.
“Blowing stuff up is fun,” Williams affirmed with a grin.