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Developing a Concurrent Majors ProgramDepartment of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering

The Challenge: Increasing Undergraduate Enrollment in the Nuclear Engineering Program

By the mid 1990’s, the undergraduate enrollment in nuclear engineering across the nation had significantly decreased such that many nuclear engineering programs and departments were discontinued or merged into other units. Some of the mergers resulted in the eventual disappearance of nuclear engineering curricula.

A similar undergraduate enrollment situation existed at Penn State, which has one of the oldest nuclear engineering programs in the United States. Discontinuation of the major was not considered as an option due to the large percentage of nuclear-generated electrical power within Pennsylvania (40%) and the large corporate and federal nuclear organizations within the state, which contribute significantly to the state employment and revenue.

The Solution: Merging the Departments of Nuclear and Mechanical Engineering and Developing A Concurrent Majors Program

The approach taken at Penn State was to merge the nuclear engineering department with the mechanical engineering department into a single Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Department (MNE) in 1998. Part of the rational for the merger of the two departments was that there are several commonalties between the two programs and that there was hope that nuclear engineering might be able to attract undergraduate students from mechanical engineering, which was over-subscribed. After the departments merged, a team of faculty members from mechanical and nuclear engineering met over the period of several months in the spring 1999 to study the feasibility of developing a “concurrent majors” curriculum that would allow undergraduate students to receive two separate, but integrated, BS degrees in nuclear and mechanical engineering.

The Process for Establishing Concurrent Undergraduate Majors:

  • Review and Analyze Data
  • Assess Commonalities and Reduce Redundancies
  • Benchmark
  • Reach Decisions Collaboratively
  • Document Results
  • Assess Outcomes

The team of faculty members from mechanical and nuclear engineering began by closely examining the individual programs in detail for commonality. It was found that there was significant overlap between the two curricula and the same detailed material was sometimes being taught in both programs, but in separate courses under different titles.

The team discovered that both undergraduate programs have the first two years nearly in common since the students in each are required to take the same mathematics, physics, chemistry, and English courses. In addition, the nuclear engineering students also take the same engineering mechanics courses as the mechanical engineering students.

When the team benchmarked against peer engineering programs at other universities, it found that the commonality of the nuclear and mechanical engineering undergraduate curriculum in the first two years is unique to the Penn State engineering offerings.

The significant difference between the two programs, the team learned, only occurs in the final two years when the students specialize in a particular discipline. But a required course from one degree could be used as a technical elective in the other major. This reduces the total number of credits required to complete the two degrees.

In fall 2000, as a result of the detailed analysis of course content, a collaborative decision was made to develop concurrent majors. The program takes advantage of the large degree of course and content overlap as well as the large number of electives that were allowed in each individual curriculum. The concurrent majors program grants two separate, but integrated, BS degrees in nuclear and mechanical engineering.

Results and Conclusions

The merger of the two departments has been a success and the enrollment in nuclear engineering has significantly increased over the last five years. The enrollment increases are due to active recruiting of high school students and the success of the concurrent majors program. In fall 2000, the first year that the MNE concurrent majors was promoted, eight students entered the program. In the fall 2004, the enrollment had grown to 39 students. Eighteen students have graduated with the MNE Concurrent Majors. The increase in the enrollment is shown below in Figure 1.

The rise in the nuclear engineering enrollments at Penn State corresponds to the merger of the nuclear and mechanical engineering departments. The recovery of the nuclear engineering enrollments at Penn State was two years ahead of the national recovery. Although the national enrollments have increased only slightly since 2000 (8 percent), the Penn State enrollments have more than doubled. In 1997, Penn State had 5 percent of the students enrolled in nuclear engineering nationally. In 2002, 10 percent of nuclear engineering students were at Penn State, attributed in no small part to the concurrent majors program.

The success of the program (measured on several dimensions, including its graduate placement rates) will continue to be assessed in the coming years.


Figure 1. Junior and Senior Nuclear Engineers at Penn State
In fall 2000, the first year that the MNE concurrent majors was promoted, eight students entered the program. In the fall 2004, the enrollment had grown to 39 students.

 
Richard Benson
Richard Benson, Department Head of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering
"It is evident that the availability of the dual degree has been a strong contributor..." more
Laura Pauley
Laura Pauley,
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Professor-in-Charge of Undergraduate Programs in Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering
"The team of faculty members from mechanical and nuclear engineering examined the individual programs at Penn State..." more


Sponsors:
   Richard Benson
   Jack Brenizer
Leader:
   Laura Pauley
Members:
   Robert Edwards
   Lawrence Hochreiter

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