Challenging energy engineering undergraduates with diverse perspectives on nuclear power

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Rogan, Fionn
Daly, Hannah E.
Deane, Paul
Glynn, James
Leahy, Paul G.
Byrne, Edmond P.
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University College Cork
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As part of an introductory energy engineering undergraduate module at University College Cork, student presentations on a zero-carbon energy plan for Ireland have shown a high preference for nuclear energy, despite a complete absence of nuclear energy from the same module curriculum. Nuclear power has never been built or generated in Ireland, is currently illegal, and faces high levels of public opposition. The origins of a high preference for nuclear energy among undergraduate student engineers is therefore unclear. In response to this high preference for, but critically unengaged view of nuclear power, the authors developed a participatory learning activity for first year undergraduate engineering students to engage with a range of maximally different perspectives on nuclear power. Four different perspectives on whether Ireland needs nuclear power were presented to this year’s class: definitely yes; definitely no; maybe yes; maybe no. These perspectives involved a number of different framings of nuclear power and ranged across a spectrum from techno-economic to socio-technical. They emphasised to a greater or lesser degree issues around risk, cost, system impacts, timing, social acceptability, and sustainability. The activity took place in a room divided into four quadrants with each quadrant representing one of the four different perspectives on nuclear power. At the start of activity, students were invited to go to the quadrant that best represented their initial views. Each perspective on nuclear power was then delivered in a short expert presentation by one of the co- authors. Throughout these presentations, students were invited to remain in or move from their quadrant as they were persuaded or not by the arguments advanced. At the start of the activity, an overwhelming majority (96%) of the students indicated a yes preference with the majority of these being maybe yes (79%); at the end of the debate the total yes share had significantly decreased (to 54%), with the largest share of the lost vote moving to the maybe no category which finished at 36% (having started at 0%). Overall, there was a greater distribution of students across all four categories than at the start. Evaluations on the activity format were largely positive. Student reasons for changing their views were mostly socio-technical points specific to Ireland that included the electricity system, overall energy needs, costs and expert availability. Closing reflections introduced the idea of a wicked problem and highlighted the importance of values to questions such as “Should Ireland Go Nuclear”, i.e. avoiding an exclusively narrow scientific framing.
Engineering education , Sustainability , Ireland , Wicked Sustainability Problems (WSPs , Zero-carbon energy plan , Nuclear energy
Rogan, F., Daly, H. E., Deane, P., Glynn, J., Leahy, P. G. and Byrne, E. P. (2021) ‘Challenging energy engineering undergraduates with diverse perspectives on nuclear power’, EESD2021: Proceedings of the 10th Engineering Education for Sustainable Development Conference, 'Building Flourishing Communities', University College Cork, Ireland, 14-16 June.