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A Brief History of Nuclear Engineering Education

Engineering has a long history of educational change. Throughout the twentieth century educational reformers in the U.S. have sought ways to reach the right curricular balance between practical design and basic science and math, while also making room for the social sciences and humanities [13–15]. An overemphasis on engineering's scientific foundations became especially prominent in the U.S. after World War II alongside the emergence of nuclear engineering [14, p. 285]. New funding opportunities for academic engineering research were created by an influx of post-World War II funding. Massive, unprecedented amounts of federal money from the military and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) triggered educational and institutional reforms that emphasized science over practice while pushing the humanities and social sciences aside [14, p. 289]. Funding from the military and the AEC favored research on jet propulsion, rockets, computers, and nuclear power, and provided institutions with enough money to support entire graduate programs, including new facilities and equipment [14, p. 289]. The educational approach exemplified in these research-heavy fields, such as nuclear engineering, stood in sharp contrast to the apprenticeship programs that had provided the training for the majority of engineers throughout most of the nineteenth century [1].

In the 1950s, the AEC began sponsoring summer seminars on the new “glamour field” of nuclear engineering that was beginning to materialize in conjunction with the development of nuclear energy [1, 16]. Efforts to formalize nuclear engineering education in the U.S. followed. Physicists, chemists, and electrical engineers populated the first programs, reflecting the important role that these disciplines had played in the Manhattan Project. Early curricula emphasized nuclear physics, the analysis of neutron transport, and the materials needed for nuclear weapons. In step with the commercialization of nuclear power, the first undergraduate programs in nuclear engineering emerged in the 1960s and incorporated elements of reactor science [16, pp. 1, 16]. Strong national support of civilian nuclear power during the 1960s spurred the growth of the nuclear industry. New opportunities arose for nuclear engineering professionals as plants anticipated increased electricity demand. By 1975, the U.S. had eighty nuclear engineering departments. Growth was fueled by developments in the nuclear power industry and by the substantial quantity and quality of fellowships and funding that was available through the AEC. In addition to supporting students, the AEC paid for nuclear reactors that were dedicated for educational and research purposes—a contribution that reflected their commitment to promoting the development of civilian nuclear power.

The expansion of nuclear engineering did not slow until the late 1970s when concerns about the environment and radiation shaped a changing nuclear market that was characterized by plant cancellations and closures. The accidents at 3 Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) fueled pubic concern about nuclear power [16, p. 16]. By the 1980s there was growing distress in the nuclear engineering community that downward trends in student enrollment, in both undergraduate and graduate programs, warranted a comprehensive assessment of the state of the field. Many institutions wanted to learn more about these negative trends with the aim of identifying possible solutions, including the American Nuclear Society (ANS), the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), the Nuclear Engineering Department Heads Organization (NEDHO), and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In response, the Energy Engineering Board of the National Research Council conducted a study to analyze: the declining numbers of U.S. university nuclear engineering departments and programs; the problem of aging faculty; the mismatch between curriculum and the needs of industry and government; the availability of scholarships and research money; and the increasing ratio of foreign to U.S. graduate students [16, p. xi].

The report's investigation centered on addressing whether current educational programs were “appropriate for future industry and government needs” and asked “What skills and education may be required for the next generation of nuclear engineers?” The committee conducted interviews and surveys across academia, industry, and government to assess the “history, status, and future” of nuclear engineering education and concluded that the curriculum was “basically satisfactory” [16, pp. 2, 5]. Rather than exploring possible curricular reforms, the report focused on strategies for dealing with the field's research shift away from new reactor technologies and with its aging faculty members. The only suggested curriculum adjustments were modifications to improve students' communication skills, and to increase their general knowledge of reactors and of the biological effects of radiation [16, p. 5].

Satisfaction with the nuclear engineering curriculum in 1990 was short lived. By 1998 NEDHO issued the report Nuclear Engineering in Transition: A Vision for the 21st Century that recommended a number of more substantial curricular changes to aid the profession through “a period of transition” in which the focus was shifting away from nuclear power to embrace a broader range of nuclear science applications [17, p. 1]. Both reports assuredly concluded that maintaining nuclear engineering as a distinct discipline was vital to the future success of nuclear energy programs. The program's curriculum was described as uniquely preparing students to address the complexities of nuclear technologies [16, p. 3]. Nuclear power and nuclear engineering were portrayed as interdependent in both the past and the future. Considering the ongoing international impact that Fukushima is having on the future of nuclear power, it is prudent for nuclear engineers to reassess their roles and to build the skills that they will need to address the challenges ahead.

Driven by the concern that engineers were not prepared to meet the demands of the future, the National Academy of Engineering published a series of reports in 2004 and 2005 titled The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century that emphasized the need to refocus and reshape the engineering learning experience to meet societal goals. The report includes suggestions about how to restructure programs, reallocate resources, and refocus faculty and professional time and energy while emphasizing the need to keep the social sciences and humanities in the curriculum [18, p. xi]. The report foresaw the ideal engineer of 2020 as someone with an understanding and appreciation of the impact of engineering on “sociocultural systems” and also the value of non-engineering jobs. As a creative leader, the future engineer would remain knowledgeable in math and science, but their design visions would be grounded in the social sciences, humanities, and economics [19, pp. 48–49]. The report, however, was researched and published well before the events at Fukushima. Would this hypothetical engineer of 2020 have been equipped to deal with the challenges of post-Fukushima nuclear engineering? Looking more closely at some of the discussions that took place at the Summer School points to unanswered questions that signify the need for more radical reforms.

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