NSE - Nuclear Science & Engineering at MIT

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Bridging the classroom and the real world

Zach Hartwig, MIT

“That process of going out and finding problems may be one of the most important things we try to teach,” says instructor Prof. Zach Hartwig

Photo: Gretchen Ertl

Team SAFE, MIT

Undergraduates Samuel Solomon, Colt Hermesch, Jane Reed, Warner McGhee, and Thomas Strei pitched their product and design: the System for Automatic Fuel Evaluation (SAFE).

Photo: Gretchen Ertl

SAFE, MIT

SAFE uses a camera and machine vision to search for imperfections in nuclear fuel pellets in order to prevent flawed fuel from causing problems in nuclear reactors.

Photo: Gretchen Ertl

Undergraduates showcase a novel and consequential application of nuclear science and engineering


Most of the time, students finish the semester with little but a grade as the tangible product of their time in class.  The five students of this year’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Design class (22.033) committed themselves to producing something more from their efforts. On December 11th, they welcomed the members of the NSE community for the unveiling of a prototype.

Undergraduates Samuel Solomon, Colt Hermesch, Warner McGhee, Jane Reed, and Thomas Strei pitched their product and design: the System for Automatic Fuel Evaluation (SAFE). In an engaging presentation complete with demonstrations and a working prototype, the SAFE team explained a problem with the way nuclear fuel is inspected before use, and put forth their new way to solve it.

Creating a Solution to a Real Problem

The group revealed their SAFE prototype to the audience, a small device that sat on a desk behind them. SAFE uses a camera and machine vision to search for imperfections in nuclear fuel pellets in order to prevent flawed fuel from causing problems in nuclear reactors. Pellets are automatically loaded up to the camera, rotated to be viewed at multiple angles, and sorted into one of two piles, one for perfect pellets and another for flawed ones. The SAFE team explained how their design is  an improvement on the manual inspection that is the industry standard, and shared their plan for how SAFE could be scaled up in a cost-effective way.

After explaining and demonstrating their product, the group shared some insight into what it was like to solve a problem in a way that no one had done before. Solomon explained, “We didn't know there would be a solution, we didn't know it would be viable until we built it.” This design project compelled  the team to mix their technical skills with creativity, in order to develop  a unique solution out of an infinite number of possible approaches. The students  emphasized the open-ended nature of this project, calling it “self-driven” and “holistic” and how this design process simulated what happens in the real world, helping them prepare for their future careers.

Teaching Design and Innovation

“This is a course which in general is a little different than our usual courses,” the instructor, Professor Zachary Hartwig, said as he laid out his vision for this class. He explained that the focus of this class is design and innovation, covering strategies for successful development of technology like risk retirement and minimum viable products. "It fills a three-part need that our engineering students have — academics, research, and design and execution” said Professor Hartwig. 

While academic rigor is not lacking in MIT courses, and research experiences are readily available to students in lab courses and in research labs, growing students’ design skills requires a more creative approach. For the past four years, 22.033 has been taught in a design-oriented format, with students being given the responsibility to prototype a product and develop a business model to match it. This new format has yielded a series of innovative solutions to real-world problems, from ultra long-life nuclear batteries for space travel to portable X-rays for tuberculosis detection in remote, impoverished areas.

Filling an Educational Gap

Talking with the student presenters, it is apparent that the approach to learning in this class filled an important gap in their education, and provided an experience that is not met by traditional classes alone:

Hermesch said, “In this class, you learn so much about physically building and designing a system from the ground up.”

“I learned a lot about how you actually engineer products, rather than just learning the theory,” explained Solomon.

 “I had never really made a product before,” said Reed, “I learned how to implement my knowledge in a deeper way than taking an exam.” 

Along with the skills and experiences they gained, the student’s excited testimonies highlighted how their instructors, Professor Hartwig and Professor Bucci, built a dynamic and engaging atmosphere for learning. Innovative courses like 22.033 push students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and lead to a deeper, more impactful learning.  The success of 22.033 is one of the many ways in which the Nuclear Science and Engineering department demonstrates its commitment to educating the next generation of leaders and innovators to better meet the needs of society in an ever-changing world.


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Written By Steven Jepeal. Photos by Gretchen Ertl.
December 2019

Department of Nuclear Science & Engineering

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Cambridge, MA 02139
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