Kim Kearfott to develop radiation protection XR

The extended reality experience will introduce future health physicists to scenarios they will likely face on the job.

Students studying health physics will soon be able to virtually experience common issues they may face in the workplace. Radiation Protection Training Using Realistic XR, a project of U-M Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences (NERS) Prof. Kim Kearfott, has received funding through the University’s Extended Reality (XR) Initiative

The Radiation Protection Training Using Realistic XR project will give NERS students who are studying to become health physicists (or radiation protection professionals) the ability to experience common scenarios they might one day face on the job. Health physicists are often required to quickly identify spills, find lost sources, solve puzzles involving measured radiation, or identify violations in procedures or ways of reducing radiation doses. When highly radioactive circumstances arise, they must execute these operations efficiently, often while following highly prescriptive protocols or checklists.

“Maintaining a level head, communicating effectively with workers and the public, and making rapid decisions under stressful or extremely puzzling circumstances can present a performance problem,” Kearfott said. “XR tools can help provide important experience for radiation protection professionals.”

Health physicists work in a wide variety of environments in different sectors, including medical, university, military, energy, and more. When responding to an issue, they often need to quickly assess the environment in addition to the circumstance. 

“Each environment has a multiplicity of different circumstances often presenting unique puzzles,” Kearfott said. “Learning what detectors work best, what to test, and what to ask are learning problems which can be derived through an XR experience.”

Kearfott has been with the department for over a decade and has expertise in radiation protection and radiological disaster response, including extensive experience with practical radiation protection issues in both medicine and nuclear power plants.

Jordan Noey, NERS doctoral student and Graduate Student Instructor for NERS 586 (Applied Radiological Measurements), will assist Kearfott in the XR’s development. Jordan was recently given a prestigious DOE Innovations in Nuclear Technology R&D Award. There may also be opportunity for students taking NERS 586 to engage in the development of the project as testers or in the construction of scenarios. 

The Radiation Protection Training Using Realistic XR project is one of 13 that the University recently announced will receive funding through the XR Innovation Fund. In addition to an award of up to $15,000, each project will receive access to 360-degree cameras, production equipment, access to XR authoring platforms, and in-kind support for project management and learning experience design from the Center for Academic Innovation.

“There are so many ways XR can support and enhance teaching and learning, and our faculty are coming to the table with amazing ideas. We believe it is important to plant as many seeds as we can across different programs to foster that innovation and sense of community,” said Jeremy Nelson, director of the XR Initiative.

Kearfott joins another NERS professor to have been awarded funding through the XR Initiative. Prof. Brendan Kochunas is currently developing a Virtual Ford Nuclear Reactor, which will allow students to interact with the same physical systems that existed in the original Ford Nuclear Reactor, but also with systems a person cannot interact with in reality, like a nuclear reactor core. So far, Kochunas has developed a demo that shuts down the reactor and is working on several experiments surrounding the project. He hopes that students in NERS 442 (Nuclear Power Reactors) will perform two experiments as part of the class curriculum. 

“Nuclear Engineering is proud to be at the forefront of using modern techniques to both advance technology and promote learning,” said NERS Chair Todd Allen. “Professor Kearfott’s project will be a great asset in teaching the practical aspects of working with radiation.”

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