Exploring Nuclear Energy

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SWBAT explore fission and create a flow chart explaining the system of nuclear fission in a nuclear power plant.

Big Idea

What is fission and how can nuclear power plants help our energy crisis?


15 minutes

My strategy is to start with an explanation of nuclear energy by United States Energy Information Administration Energy Kids site.  My students have been taught atomic theory and have had experiences with the structure of atoms. I ask them to read the short article. My strategy is to introduce the concepts and explain the concepts later in the lesson with a demonstration. To help students focus on important vocabulary I ask them to answer three questions:

  1. What is the difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission?
  2. Why do scientists use U235 in nuclear power plants?
  3. Where does the USA get its uranium?

Although these questions hit the lowest level of thinking, by adopting a multi-sensory approach to concepts, students have a better chance of remembering important base information. I ask the students to write the answers in their notebook because I am a pragmatist. When a students doesn't remember, I say, look in your notebook and see what you wrote. By looking back, students sometimes remember what they wrote. For the students who are still confused, I re-teach, using examples of former activities. Sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn't.  I promote independent learning by giving students the resources to go back to if they need help. 

SP1- Asking Questions and Defining Problems; to clarify and/or refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.

RST.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.


15 minutes

My strategy is using a model to describe and predict abstract phenomena. I include a demonstration of nuclear fission. I have had a business partnership with the American Nuclear Association and I tweak their lesson What is Fission? for this activity. 

I need some Balloon Equipment. I buy several long balloons and I have a balloon foot pump I bought at a party store. The activity is very simple. I blow up the balloon, pinch it in the middle, and hold the balloon with two sets of fingers. With scissors, I ask a student to cut the middle between both of my fingers. I explain how the balloon is an atom and when a neutron is fired at an atom, it cuts the atom in two. This is fission.

I let the balloon sides go and they take off. I ask students to find a partner and conduct a Talk About. My strategy is for students to talk about the energy released, the speed of reaction, and the balloon waste. 

I ask, “How can this energy be used to turn a turbine?” My social learning strategies kick in as I ask the students, "Who remembers how a turbine generates electricity?" The students who remember jolt the brains of the others and I remind them of the demonstrations in my previous lesson  Law of Conservation of Energy. 

I ask the students, “How can nuclear power plants help our energy crisis?”  My intention is to determine that nuclear energy does not burn a fossil fuel and does not contribute to climate change. 

I ask, “Why is this probably not a good model of nuclear fission? Does it help you understand the process?” (SP2: Developing and Using Models: Evaluate limitations of a model for a proposed object or tool.) My intention is for the students to generalize their understanding of nuclear energy from the demonstration to real world nuclear energy. In addition, I can easily assess student understanding of the nuclear energy process as the students discuss the limitation of our data. 


15 minutes

My strategy is Acting It Out. I want to allow students the opportunity to demonstrate fission but with the added component of a chain reaction. I explain that we are going to do the chain reaction in slow motion. I give groups of students balloons and ask them to demonstrate a chain reaction. We collect the balloon pieces.

Students respond to the question, “What do you think is a negative effect if the chain reaction is not properly controlled?” My intention is for students to generalize the information and explain how it may get too hot. Sometimes students do not get the connection and I explain, “If the reaction is not properly controlled, there may be too much energy given off. This creates a very dangerous effect and the nuclear reactor can have a meltdown.” I explain that radiation is released and could harm humans and this potential harm is a reason many people are against nuclear power plants. 

Its time to consider the balloon waste. I ask, "What part of the nuclear reaction do you think this is?" Students understand waste and I explain how the waste is radioactive and needs to be stored safely. 

SP1- Asking Questions and Defining Problems: to clarify and/or refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.



10 minutes

I had asked students to keep the spent balloon pieces. Now, I ask the students, “What do you think this is?” I try to get them to tell me that it is the nuclear waste. I ask, “Is there a lot of nuclear waste compared to the energy?” My strategy is to use questioning techniques to think deeper about scientific content.  I explain the material in the waste is radioactive and is very dangerous. I ask, “What should be designed to get rid of nuclear waste?"  My intention is to allow the students the opportunity to think discuss how waste is disposed.


10 minutes

My strategy is Flow Chart. I use flow charts to promote student understanding of the steps to a process using visual learning. Students create a Nuclear Flow Chart in their notebooks and draw and label the steps to nuclear fission.They draw the waste as the final part of the flow chart. I explain that I want them to represent both the negative aspects of nuclear energy in their flow charts.

Having been taught the Exploring Kilowatt Lesson, I ask students to apply their knowledge of how kilowatts are measured and to consider the following population scenario. I say,

"Think about the electricity you use in your home. Now think about the electricity used in your neighbor's home. Think about all the kids in your elementary school. What about all the families at our school? Now think about all the students at your high school. Now think about all the families of Chicago. Now consider the population of Illinois."

By this point there have been some audible gasps and "Wow!" 

I say, "Do you think the the population of the country increasing or decreasing?" Students usually say the population is increasing. I say, "What will the energy needs of the future be? Should nuclear be the energy of the future?"

I ask students to use data from the activity to defend one of these positions:

Nuclear is the energy of the future or Nuclear is not the energy of the future. 

MS-ESS-3-4 Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth’s systems.

Crosscutting Ideas: Cause and Effect

SP2: Developing and Using Models: Develop and/or use a model to predict and/or describe phenomena.

WHST.6-8.8.1b: Support claims with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic using credible sources. 

My Science Literacy: Nuclear Energy is great partner to this lesson.