09/11/2013 02:45 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

Where Online Education and Nuclear Science Meet

While most might imagine future nuclear engineers training exclusively at plants across the country or spending their time memorizing key components in a laboratory, the next generation is adapting to an ever-more-common learning model: the online classroom.

At Florence-Darlington Technical College (FDTC) in Florence, S.C., a grant from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allowed administrators and academics to create new models to support workforce development in the regional nuclear power field. The prototype physics course "Power Up: High Tech Online" allows faculty and students alike to concentrate on nuclear energy and innovation without stepping into a classroom. The program, still in its pilot stage, had several specific goals. Working students can have increased difficulty in getting to class and abiding by lab hours, so the FDTC team hoped to address their needs and schedules. Additionally, they hoped to attract a more diverse student population. Because nuclear engineering is traditionally a predominately white, male field, the focus of the course would be more diverse, in hopes of increasing the appeal to a variety of learners.

"We know the importance of using the online forum as a way to create a global environment, honing in on the global learner," says William Beston, an instructor at FDTC.

Although the pilot program hit some bumps along the way, Beston notes that every issue raised presented an opportunity to continue to improve the course. Students recognized the need to see actual students working with the equipment and programs in the actual work environment. With assistance from the University of Missouri at Columbia, students enrolling for the spring 2014 semester will see a variety of videos produced specifically for the course, as well as nuclear education clips from YouTube. Beston recognizes that "students have changed and increasingly have become more reliant on visual learning models."

One of the benefits of modifying some nuclear education programs for online practice is the constant development of the nuclear energy industry.

"It is important for students to understand the global impact that nuclear energy has had and continues to have," says Donald R. Hoffman, president of the American Nuclear Society. "The exciting part of having nuclear engineering academic programs that include online-based learning is the possibility to share these advances in the academic setting. Discussions and projects that are able to keep pace with the modernization of applications and changing policies in nuclear will better prepare students for real-world situations."

The range of matters that current nuclear engineering students will face, such as national nuclear infrastructure, safety, and advances in medicine, requires that their training incorporate best practices from professionals across the world. The American Nuclear Society supplements educational programs, such as FDTC, by connecting students with professionals outside the classroom walls. Connecting students and nuclear professionals within the course allows students to have specific questions regarding the current chapters and lessons that they are studying addressed. Beston hopes that the shared environment creates an enriched knowledge of the applications and deepened conversations on the discussion boards.

Beston believes that programs similar to FDTC are leading the way with regard to how not only nuclear engineering programs but other components of STEM education will be practiced throughout the world.

"Eventually those who support STEM education will learn to adapt to the online environment," he said. "We have to take careful notice of students' learning styles and create a variety of components that don't overpower each other, and apply those practices digitally."

A report on the FDTC program and several other grant programs funded by the NRC will be presented at the American Nuclear Society's 2013 winter meeting in Washington, D.C.

"This is a chance for the industry to have an open dialogue on the developments that will change the future workforce," says Hoffman. "As a learning organization we are a champion of cross-sector interaction, most importantly when it comes to the benefits of our students. My mission is to give them the best opportunity to educate themselves, show useful application, and continue to become leaders in this industry."