man using VR technology in front of a computer screen

New introductory engineering course aims to revolutionize nuclear energy through community engagement

Historically, energy systems have been built with very little input from the communities they serve. As more people experience the real impacts of climate change, the need for strategic collaboration between energy system designers and local communities is more urgent than ever.

Socially Engaged Design of Nuclear Energy Technologies (ENGR 100.910), a new Michigan Engineering course, seeks to address this lack of community engagement in the design of energy technologies by pioneering a socially engaged approach. The course, led by Aditi Verma, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, and Katie Snyder, lecturer in Technical Communication, prioritizes consulting rightsholders and empowers first-year undergraduates to make meaningful contributions to nuclear engineering through community participation.

“The course is novel in many ways,” said Verma. “It is the first instance (to the best of my knowledge) of a community-engaged/participatory approach being used to design an energy technology and system. The community workshops have focused on fusion energy as that was what the vast majority of student teams were interested in.”

The students engaged with community members from Ann Arbor during a series of workshops, and also conducted interviews with members of their hometown communities to learn the nuances in the ways people think about energy—how their values shape their energy preferences—and their perspectives on nuclear energy. 

The course’s innovative community-engaged design methodology has propelled these first-year undergraduates into making meaningful contributions to the field of nuclear engineering. By actively engaging with the Ann Arbor community and conducting hometown interviews with family and friends, students gained valuable insights into the diverse perspectives on energy. The workshop focused on fusion, aligning with the majority of student interests, and marked a pioneering step in implementing community engagement in the development of energy technologies.

Unveiling novel approaches to engineering education, the course employed virtual reality (VR) models of fission and fusion energy systems. Developed in collaboration with industry partners and the Visualization Lab at UMich, these VR models provided an immersive learning experience for the students. Additionally, the course embraced the use of AI image generators as prototyping tools, allowing students and community members to visualize and articulate various elements of their designs, contributing to a holistic understanding of the projects.

“We are really centering emerging technologies in this course, but we are also asking students to pause and think critically about these technologies,” said Snyder. “We’ve had some excellent class discussions about engineering design and how things like power, positionality, and language shape design work.”

Backed by an Enhancing Engineering Education (E3) level 2 grant as well as a CRLT Faculty Development Fund grant, the development of the course saw collaboration with entities such as the Emerging Technologies Group at Duderstadt, the Ginsberg Center, and C-SED. Key guest lectures from nuclear experts Katlyn Turner and Stephanie Weir added depth to the student’s learning experience. The course culminated in an ANS 2023 conference paper, a presentation at the twentieth International Conference on Technology, Knowledge, and Society, three papers at the 2024 American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), a forthcoming paper at the 2024 Pacific Basin Nuclear Conference, and an upcoming essay in Issues in Science and Technology, underscoring the course’s significance in the engineering education research community. One of the papers presented at ASEE was selected as the best paper for the Energy Conversion, Conservation, and Nuclear Engineering division.

“It’s clear that the students have truly internalized this new way of designing,” said Verma. “Across the board, the student teams noted in their final presentations that this course has changed how they will practice engineering and that they will make it a primary goal to always consult rightsholders. 

Verma continued: “It’s also incredible that a group of first-year undergrads through their work on this course have made such a momentous contribution to moving nuclear engineering forward by engaging in community-engaged design, thus bringing us closer to implementing this approach in a real-world context.”

Four students from the Fall 2023 offering—Nathan Kawamoto, Jonathan Xie, Daniel Hoover, and Jacob Walters—have continued working with Verma and Snyder to analyze the workshop findings and explore their generalizability in real-world contexts. The collaboration with the Emerging Technologies Group also continues this summer with further development of VR models led by Dari Eskandari and Stephanie O’Malley working with two student developers—Lisa Dai and Leilani Baylis-Washington.

The next offering of ENGR 100.910 will be in the fall of 2024.

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