A Global Take on Nuclear Engineering

delft maymester

After their first study abroad trip to the Netherlands, Ryan Tipps and his fellow engineering students can now say they’ve worked with a nuclear reactor.

During a four-week study abroad program focused on nuclear engineering and its applications in energy, health and the environment, 16 students from The University of Texas at Austin had access to a world-class nuclear reactor at the Reactor Institute of Delft. The students — 13 from the Cockrell School of Engineering and three from the College of Natural Sciences — also toured a research reactor in Belgium and visited the BelgoProcess radioactive waste facility. The group also participated in four experimental laboratories.

These undergraduate students were part of a Maymester program, which is one of several faculty-led programs offered by the Cockrell School's International Engineering Education office. It is hosted by the Delft University of Technology, a 165-year-old university located southwest of Amsterdam, the country’s capital. UT Austin students receive three credit hours for completing the course, titled “Concepts in Nuclear and Radiation Engineering,” offered in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“I was motivated to go on the trip because I was really interested in the class itself, but working in the lab and with a nuclear reactor was amazing,” said Tipps, a mechanical engineering junior. “It definitely makes me more open and interested in taking jobs overseas in the future.”

Thanks to the program, these students can now add nuclear engineering and global travel experience to their resumes, which will give them an advantage when they graduate.

Study abroad programs have not been as popular for undergraduate students studying science and engineering as it has been for those pursuing other degrees, but a global perspective has become critical to careers in engineering, said Sheldon Landsberger, mechanical engineering professor who teaches the course and is a member of the Cockrell School’s Applied Research Laboratories.

“Students who have had experience in study abroad programs have a competitive edge in being hired by companies that maintain international business,” Landsberger said. “It gives students an opportunity to expand their horizons.”

delft reactor

Above is the nuclear reactor on the Delft campus, where the students stayed. Their classroom was in the building attached to the reactor. Photo provided by one of the students on the trip.

This is only the second year for UT Austin’s nuclear engineering study abroad course, which introduces students to nuclear and radiation engineering and physics, covering everything from the history of nuclear development to nuclear security and health physics to nuclear medicine. This year, the program grew slightly with students from across all seven Cockrell School departments represented as well as natural sciences’ Department of Physics.

“The main focus is to give students an opportunity to know about nuclear engineering and all that it entails in their everyday lives,” Landsberger said. “All of this is augmented by a field trip — a visit to the research reactor in Belgium.”

Mechanical engineering junior Eric Yao said his most rewarding educational experience on the trip was touring a nuclear waste processing plant and underground storage facility at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre.

“It truly gives an idea of how much work and care is put into the incredibly complex procedures and techniques of storing nuclear waste,” Yao said, adding that he was equally as impressed by Landsberger’s course. “He is one of those great professors that someone might have once or twice in their college career, who knows exactly what they're teaching as well as how to teach it.”

In addition to Landsberger, the institute’s researchers also served as guest lecturers. And Cockrell School nuclear and radiation engineering graduate student Joseph Graham significantly helped out as a teaching assistant in course preparation, lecturing and grading.

The students applied the knowledge they gained from lectures in executing hands-on projects in laboratories on the Delft campus. In one lab experiment, the students utilized the nuclear reactor to treat a sample with radiation, which they then analyzed.

But the program wasn’t all work for the student travelers. They also had time to play soccer together, interact with locals and take mini-trips around Europe as a group.

“You go into this program knowing just a few people at best,” Yao said. “Yet, there is something special and exciting about this that allows everyone to bond with each other in such a short time and become good friends.”

Students interested in applying for the 2014 Maymester should contact Helena Wilkins-Versalovic in International Engineering Education for application details. The deadline is Nov. 1.