Nuclear Debate Involves Emotional and Intellectual Issues, WPI Graduate Finds

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WORCESTER, Mass. - This year, Patrick J. Kaplo of Manchester, N.H., finished a project on a topic that has bedeviled the world for more than 50 years: the nuclear debate. A member of the class of 2000 at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Kaplo was required to complete an Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) to graduate from this 135-year-old university. An IQP examines the impact of science and technology on the greater world. Kaplo chose to examine what seems to be an inescapable global issue.

"The bleak reality is that a rapidly developing world economy continues to demand more energy," he said, noting that fossil fuels are polluting the earth and altering the ecosystem. "Public opinion about nuclear power is volatile. The subject is both controversial and, to many, an emotional and symbolic issue about the direction in which technological societies are headed."

Kaplo, the son of Joe and Rita Kaplo of Hampton, N.H., served as co-captain of the 1999-2000 men's varsity cross-country team and received the 2000 Kranich Prize, awarded to an engineering or science major who best integrates humanities and arts into the academic experience. Kaplo credits the honor in part to his dedication to fine-art photography. He took several classes in black-and-white photography at Clark University through the Worcester college consortium.

"Most of these classes did not count toward my undergraduate degree," he said. "My academic interests in photography culminated with a 12-piece exhibit at the WPI Gordon Library."

That accomplishment, along with the work he completed with his IQP, helped win the Kranich prize. In "A Contemporary Microcosm of the Nuclear Debate," summarized in a 106-page report, he sought to find the point where knowledge and opinion collide on this controversial issue. To do so, he offered a nuclear technology curriculum unit for eighth-grade students at Lancaster (Mass.) Middle School, where he studied how learning styles and gender differences affect the way information is processed and opinion is formed.

"Pat's project is one of the neatest studies in educational research at the class level that I have advised at WPI," said project advisor and associate professor of social science and policy studies John Wilkes. "It is certainly the best in the last five years that involved a study of a curriculum concept, learning styles and an enrichment intervention."

Sixty-four students at the Lancaster school took part in Kaplo's unit on nuclear technology. Kaplo says the curriculum lessons were neutral in scope, dwelling both on the promise and the problems, the good news and the bad, concerning nuclear power. In addition to classroom instruction, he organized a field trip to the WPI Reactor Facility, where the students observed a small working nuclear reactor in operation. To show the potential problems of nuclear power, the PBS Nova program, "Suicide Mission to Chernobyl," offered critical insight into the 1986 disaster, providing real footage of the dangerous and sometimes fatal clean-up efforts.

"The footage provided a powerful anti-nuclear message by exposing the 'worst case' catastrophe," Kaplo said.

At the end of the unit, teacher Brian Cote, whose science classes hosted Kaplo, commented on the experience.

"I think the unit touched upon the positive and negative aspects of nuclear energy," Cote said. "But (the results) also depend on the people presenting the unit, and their ideology of nuclear energy."

Kaplo collected a multitude of statistics, but the final analysis showed a surprising overall result. The eighth graders had a seven-point mean increase in average science scores during the five-week course compared to their previous grades. On a scale from 0 to 5, they also raised their level of understanding of nuclear power by 78 percent.

"This gain in knowledge was accompanied by an even larger (86 percent) shift in opinion (from negative to positive) from 2.1 to 3.9 on the same 5-point scale," Kaplo said. "An almost identical change in both knowledge and opinion raises the possibility of a strong relationship between these two factors. Previous research had suggested that no such relationship existed."

Kaplo also found that an unexamined antinuclear stance often correlated with lower grades on tests of factual material. "There is a strong possibility that one's negative connotations about a subject are sufficient to prevent him or her from learning as much about it," he concluded.

"Pat's project is interesting research on many levels-and as an experience for him," said advisor Wilkes. "Sure, it was a service project to revise and deliver some quality science education to 64 eighth graders, but it was much more than that. It was one of the best studies of knowledge and opinion we have ever done in the IQP program-and the first one where we got serious about not just measuring the knowledge variable, but manipulating it in an experimental design."

The nuclear debate is not just a matter of technical data, Kaplo says, but also one with political and emotional aspects.

"The fate of the technology really depends on a question beyond what science and engineering can answer," Kaplo said. "The real question is, will the American public approve and support the rejuvenation of the nation's nuclear industry regardless of whether or not it is the 'right' decision in terms of environmental and efficiency criteria?"

Since graduating from WPI this spring with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering with high distinction, Kaplo has been hired as a technical project manager in the Customer Network Engineering Group at Verizon Communications in Manchester, N.H. He looks back on his experience at WPI with a combination of achievement and gratitude.

"The typical undergraduate engineering student does not have the opportunity to reach this far out of his or her academic track," Kaplo said. "The IQP accomplishes more than exposure to the humanities-my experience unveiled parts of me that I was previously unfamiliar with. I discovered an appreciation for the link between psychology, curriculum development and eventual deployment into the school systems. And I witnessed the personal challenges and rewards of everyday teachers."

WPI, founded in 1865, is renowned for its project-based curriculum. Under the WPI Plan, students integrate classroom studies with research projects conducted on campus and around the world.