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Students in NE 231: Introduction to Nuclear Engineering course work in the makerspace
March 22, 2022

Building community and shaping context: Unique new course offers real-world intro to nuclear engineering

Written By: Adam Malecek

A new undergraduate course is setting first-year UW-Madison nuclear engineering students up for success in their major by providing a hands-on introduction to technological aspects of nuclear engineering. Additionally, the unique course will help students understand the economic and sociological factors that affect the prospects for nuclear energy around the world.

Engineering Physics Associate Professor Adrien Couet developed the course, NE 231: Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, from scratch, with the support of EP colleagues Professor Paul Wilson and Assistant Professor Stephanie Diem. It launched in spring 2022 and gives students a broad overview of nuclear engineering, exposes them to many aspects of the field and provides them a strong grounding in their major from the start.

“We want this course to help build a cohort within the nuclear engineering program and foster a sense of community among the students at the beginning of their college education,” Couet says. “The course aims to give students the tools to be future leaders in advancing engineering solutions to fight climate change.”

A major aspect of the course is a semester-long project in which students work in teams on a design challenge involving the use of the UW nuclear reactor, which the students tour early in the semester.

In spring 2022, the students designed, manufactured and tested a light-sensitive detector to insert into the reactor water pool to measure the intensity of the blue light it emits when operating. The students then determined how that data correlates with the actual reactor power level.

This project requires a significant amount of hands-on work, and students meet weekly in the college’s makerspace, where they also participate in workshops that teach them how to use equipment including 3D printers, laser cutting machines, and electronics as well as computer-aided design software.

“The hands-on learning aspects of the course are very important because nuclear physics can seem a little theoretical sometimes. These hands-on activities help students better understand and engage with the technical concepts they are learning in class,” Couet says. “In addition, through this project, the students are gaining soft skills and learning how to effectively work in teams, which is an important foundation for their success as engineering students and in their careers.”

As part of the course, he also organizes roundtables with prominent alumni and others to give students insight into a variety of career paths.

Because Couet designed the course to cover a broad range of nuclear-related topics, including areas that fall under the social sciences, it includes many guest lecturers from across UW-Madison as well as from other institutions. For example, students learn about current energy markets, as well as the outlook for future energy markets, to better understand the economic context for nuclear energy. They also learn about nuclear fusion and how nuclear power could enable space exploration, as well as about medical radioisotopes production and their use to treat cancer. Other topics include ethics in nuclear engineering, including an overview of the history of the field to learn from the past and avoid repeating the same errors.

Importantly, Couet says the course doesn’t shy away from controversies related to nuclear energy, such as uranium mining in the United States and its impact on Native Americans; students also explore issues related to community acceptance of nuclear energy.

“I think it’s very important for a nuclear engineering education to address the reality that there are challenges related to community acceptance of nuclear energy, and students need to understand that,” Couet says. “However, this issue is not often talked about in nuclear engineering curricula. To my knowledge, this introduction to nuclear engineering course is the only one of its kind that really covers these important areas.”

For Couet, the goal is to prepare students to be highly skilled nuclear engineers who can effectively advocate for and advance nuclear energy to help fight climate change. He notes that while many designs for next-generation advanced reactors are being formulated, none of these reactors have put electricity on the grid yet.

“Although evidence of climate change is every day more visible, a big obstacle to building new advanced reactors remains community and political acceptance,” Couet says. “So we can teach our students to be great nuclear engineers—but if we want them to be agents of change, we need to also teach them the sociological aspects of nuclear energy and build that understanding into their educational experience.”