Online course invites nuclear engineering pros

LeClair says she expects more women to enter Excelsior's nuclear engineering technology program.

There aren’t any 18-year-old freshmen in one of the country’s only accredited nuclear engineering technology courses, but there are plenty of industry experts who can finish the intensive curriculum in less than two years.

Instead of facing a classroom full of teenagers with little or no background on a subject, instructors at online institution Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., teach students with lengthy military resumes, said Jane LeClair, dean of the School of Business and Technology who oversees the college’s nuclear engineering technology program, the only accredited online nuclear engineering technology program in the country .

“Some of our students have equal knowledge to the instructors,” said LeClair, who first came to Excelsior in 1988 as a nuclear industry adviser and was named dean in January 2010. “Those students bring a wealth of knowledge to our program … because they’re in the field every day, gaining experience.”

Excelsior’s online nuclear engineering instructors, LeClair said, understand that a class full of professionals requires a nontraditional approach.

“In the traditional college classroom with the traditional … students, they see the instructor holding the majority of knowledge and imparting it to them – here there is more interaction, sharing, and collaboration,” she said. “I would venture to say it is more challenging for our instructors to teach these very experienced students so they are always on their toes.”

Excelsior students’ experience in nuclear engineering translates into degrees earned in a hurry: the average nuclear engineering technology student takes 2.4 years to finish Excelsior’s program. And for military service members, it’s even less: 1.9 years, according to the college.

Students with workplace experience, LeClair said, aren’t able to breeze through the nuclear curriculum in four semesters; rather, they enter the program with a load of college credits from their time in the military.

About six in 10 Excelsior nuclear engineering technology students are in the military, about two in 10 are minority students, and nine in 10 are men – a gender discrepancy LeClair credited, in part, to the disproportional number of men serving in the Nuclear Navy.

“It’s very technical, and I think it’s a field women are moving into,” she said. “But women haven’t been traditionally” in the nuclear engineering field over the decades.

Active-duty and reserve service members specializing in nuclear technology, LeClair said, are “realizing some of their lifetime goals” because those courses are available online and don’t require several trips to a classroom or lecture hall every week.

“It does give them an opportunity to move forward … and we really do encourage and develop a community online,” she said, adding that online learning skeptics should take note that even complex subject matter like nuclear engineering can be taught in a web-based setting. “What you know is more important than how or where you learned it.”

Excelsior’s nuclear program is one of only four in the U.S. to receive accreditation from ABET, an organization that reviews and accredits science, computing, engineering, and technology education.

Other accredited programs are Lakeland Community College in Ohio, Three Rivers Community College in Connecticut, and the University of North Texas, according to ABET’s website. However, the Lakeland and Three Rivers nuclear engineering programs are associate degree level, making Excelsior one of two bachelor degree nuclear programs.

There are 11 colleges and universities offering nuclear engineering technology programs nationwide – accredited and unaccredited — according to College Board.

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