Growing Student Interest in Nuclear Studies
Ever since my own days in college, I have been following with some interest trends in student enrollment in various subjects. I have watched enrollment in aeronautical engineering rise and fall with the changing fate of the SST (supersonic transport, for those too young to remember) and the space program, enrollment in business programs rise with the explosive growth of the dot com era, and enrollment in environmental engineering rise with the emerging interest in climate change.
To put it briefly, just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because "that's where the money is," students flock to certain fields because that's where they think the jobs will be.
This juxtaposition of thoughts is certainly not intended to condone robbing banks! Nor is it intended to insult the way students choose fields. On the contrary, in the case of the students choosing career paths, to me it reflects the ability of college-age students to take a long view when making such crucial decisions.
Thus, I was pleased to have an opportunity this week to visit Virginia Tech and to meet with professors and students involved in the new nuclear option there. What is particularly remarkable to me is the rapid growth of student interest over a very short time period. The program started only a couple of years ago, and there are now over 200 students who are connected in some way with the new nuclear option. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that Virginia Tech doesn't even offer a degree as yet. That must be approved by the State of Virginia. Therefore, the students pursuing this option will, at present, receive a degree in another field of engineering and will get only a certificate in nuclear engineering. Needless to say, the current faculty is overwhelmed and the school is recruiting new faculty for the program.
I am aware that this trend is mirrored in other schools around the country, and perhaps around the world. This is the first time I have had an opportunity to see it firsthand.
One other element of the Virginia Tech story really struck me. I am currently completing a book on milestones in nuclear history. When I looked at educational programs, I learned that Virginia Tech had one of the early nuclear programs in the early 1950s. (It didn't quite make the cut to be included in the book, as other university programs had preceded it. However, it was among the leaders in establishing such programs.) Like many other academic programs around the country, it was phased out in the mid-1980s. Thus, the revival of a program at Virginia Tech is truly a sign of a renaissance of interest in the nuclear field.
I should not neglect to mention that the rebirth of the Virginia Tech program has been helped significantly by a grant from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This award was one of a number of grant awards in several categories administered by the NRC that are clearly having a significant positive effect on the ability of universities to meet the growing demand for trained nuclear engineers.
If student interest is any indicator, the coming generation is optimistic about the future of nuclear power. That should be an encouraging sign for all of us.