Professor Michael Short travels from MIT to Central Asia—and finds that OCW is already there.

A grassy hillside with a city in the distance

A hillside outside Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Photo courtesy of notthatdark on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

In early June of this year, Professor Michael Short returned from a trip to Mongolia sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. His mission? To work with the National University of Mongolia to assess and improve its nuclear education curriculum. The university has a small nuclear science sub-department within its School of Engineering, and the administrators there are eager to update the nuclear science program.

When he got to Mongolia, Professor Short learned that the country’s educational system has a strong emphasis on theory, a legacy of its Soviet past. As he describes it:

“The lecturers blast you with theory, fill blackboards with information, and it’s up to the students to figure it out. And the professors aren’t always that accessible, either in terms of being available to answer students’ questions, or in terms of the way that they present the material. They explain it the way they know it, and it makes sense to them, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense to today’s students. The current folks in the nuclear department there recognize this. Mongolia has classically been a powerhouse of nuclear science and theory, and they want to hold on to that. But they know they want to change, though they don’t exactly know how to do it.”

A Needs Assessment

Professor Short’s goal was to help his Mongolian counterparts figure out another way of doing what they want to do, to articulate their learning objectives and see how many of those objectives they’re meeting. He guided them through an exercise to figure out what Mongolia wants out of a nuclear program. “They’re not necessarily going after a fusion program,” he says, “but they do have major initiatives for which knowledge of nuclear science can help the people.”

First, there’s the development of nuclear power. Even in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, many people burn coal in their houses, and at present most of the electricity supply is generated in coal-fired power plants. As Professor Short learned, many policymakers in Mongolia see nuclear power as a way forward.

But outside of Ulaanbaatar the population is widely scattered, so instead of gigantic, gigawatt-size power plants it would be useful to have a larger number of much smaller reactors. There’s thus a need to train people to build and operate reactors for Mongolia’s partly-urban, partly-nomadic society.

Mongolia has also suffered environmental contamination in many areas, from current and past mining and industrial activities. “Sampling soils and checking radiation contamination levels is of paramount importance for purposes of public health. The people need to know they’re safe and that there are experts trained to monitor the environment and remediate any contamination,” Professor Short says. Lastly, there are the issues of nuclear materials and nuclear medicine, both of which call for specialized training in the nuclear science curriculum.

“So we assessed their needs,” Professor Short explains. “We examined which of their courses are teaching what.”

Sharing Innovations in Nuclear Science Education

Professor Short says that when he started looking into the courses in the Mongolian nuclear science program, he noticed that the first thing on the required reading lists for many of them was MIT OpenCourseWare materials—lecture notes, problem sets, exams, and the like.

“So OpenCourseWare has already strongly influenced Mongolian science education in the older teaching system, and it’s about to do that more in the newer system,” he says.” I’m really excited that everyone at the National University of Mongolia is so forward-thinking, so interested in reaching out for help. They know what they don’t know, but they know where to get it. At first when I went on this mission I was wondering why they chose me. I’m just 35. I’ve only been at this job for six years. Who can call me an expert? But by the end I understood why they asked me. Because they saw what we’ve done at MIT, and they said, “Yeah, we want that!”

“OpenCourseWare has already strongly influenced Mongolian science education in the older teaching system, and it’s about to do that more in the newer system.” –Professor Michael Short

Professor Short’s Courses on OCW

Whether you’re a nuclear science instructor (in Mongolia or elsewhere!), a student, or a self-learner, you might like to check out Professor Short’s courses on OCW:

Professor Short on Chalk Radio

Interested in learning about Professor Short’s approach to teaching at MIT? Click to listen to his conversation with Dr. Sarah Hansen on Chalk Radio, the new podcast from OCW’s Educator initiative.