By Sarah Bass
College graduates, as with most industries, are the future of nuclear engineering. How university programs are structured, the professors’ involvement in the field, and the opportunities available at the undergraduate and graduate-level are fundamental to the continued growth of nuclear engineering.
Recently, Assistant Professor Dr. Kathryn Huff in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering (NPRE) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was interviewed on the YesCollege Podcast. Dr. Huff explained what nuclear engineering is, debunked several myths, talked about what typical nuclear engineering degree programs are like, and what can be expected for the future of nuclear engineering.
When asked what kind of qualities students should have to be successful in nuclear engineering, Dr. Huff responded with, “The most important thing that I see our most successful students having is …that they really want to save the world.”
While she admits that answer may be a bit corny, it is absolutely true. Nuclear power is one of the cleanest and safest forms of power we have, and especially with carbon-emissions back on the rise, we need the future of nuclear engineering to be in the hands of students who have a passion for making a positive impact on the world.
Students enter their academic careers with this fervor, and it’s essential for the university and its faculty to support their goals by providing a multitude of research opportunities for them. And the earlier, the better.
In this interview, Dr. Huff explained that 50% of the undergraduate students in the NPRE Department are participating in research, with the goal being to have 100% of the students involved in some way. Many of the students are able to interact with and conduct experiments in basic plasma physics with the stellarator, HIDRA, on campus, which she describes as a magnetic fusion device “with a little twist.”
Not all nuclear engineering programs have the ability to immerse their students in this way. However, having 100% of students participating in research should be the gold standard for every university offering this degree.
Nuclear engineering departments can offer more passive research opportunities to students. Dr. Huff provides one example, which involved students strapping radiation detectors to their iPhones for a month as they walked around the campus each day to create a radiation map. Being able to participate in research makes the nuclear engineering principles presented in textbooks tangible and real.
What I did learn from Dr. Kathryn Huff’s interview, is that students who are passionate about saving the environment, can do so through this exciting field of nuclear engineering. It is then the job of the educators, both inside the classroom and out, to foster that passion so they may have a better chance at making nuclear power increasingly more efficient, safer, and accepted.
Listen to the full interview with Dr. Kathryn Huff on the YesCollege Podcast.
Sarah Bass is the Senior Editor at YesCollege.com, a podcast and a website dedicated to helping others achieve their academic goals, including those interested in studying nuclear engineering. Sarah holds a degree in education and has over 10 years of experience working in academia and publishing. Follow YesCollege on Twitter.