Nuclear Weapons

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Students will be able to ask questions about nuclear weapons.

Big Idea

Nuclear weapons are a fascinating way to hook students on the concept of nuclear technology.


Unit Overview: This unit, called Passion, Power, and Peril, is an inter-disciplinary unit between two classes—English and Chemistry. In Chemistry class, students will learn about nuclear chemistry, but they will also research a specific aspect of the nuclear power industry. They will use this research in three ways. First, they will write a one-page paper for a Chemistry grade that explains how nuclear chemistry connects to the research topic. Second, students will write an informative/explanatory research paper that answers your research question by showing the complexity of the issue for an English grade. Finally, students will use their research and writing to create a piece of artwork for a multimedia art display designed to challenge the audience with weighing the costs and benefits of nuclear technology.

In this process we would like students to consider the following questions: How does society evaluate costs and benefits of a technology?  What are the costs and benefits of nuclear power plants? 

Lesson Overview: In this introductory lesson students will be able to record questions they generate after watching various film clips about nuclear weapons.

This lesson aligns to the NGSS Disciplinary Core Idea of HS-PS1-8. Develop models to illustrate the changes in the composition of the nucleus of the atom and the energy released during the processes of fission, fusion, and radioactive decay by getting students to think about what is involved in nuclear processes.

It aligns to the NGSS Practice of the Scientist of Asking questions by giving students the chance to observe a number of different videos and then asking questions about what they observe.

It aligns to the NGSS Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect by because it challenges students to  examine what is known about the smaller scale mechanisms within nuclear weapons.

In terms of prior knowledge or skills, students do not need any prior knowledge.

The materials needed for this lesson include the ability to project videos either shown from the Internet or downloaded in advance.




Do Now/Activator

10 minutes

Do Now: I start class by asking students to make a list at their table about what you know and wonder about nuclear weapons.

I reason that this is a good way to start class because as of yet I assume that most students know very little about nuclear weapons but I want to test that assumption. I also want to get students talking about the topic that today’s class is planned around.

Activator: Once students have had a little time to chat, I ask them to share out some things they talked about. Some students are quite reticent because, they explain, they do not know anything about the subject. Other students offer a wide variety of questions. How do they work? What is a nuclear weapon? What makes it nuclear? Some students note things they know: nuclear weapons have something to do with the splitting of the atom, with uranium, with radiation, with World War II. In each case, the student knowledge is quite superficial.



5 minutes

Mini-lesson: I tell students that in light of the fact that they know so little about nuclear weapons, a good place to begin may be in watching some videos about nuclear weapons, and that by watching the videos it may raise questions for them. I ask that they simply watch the videos, record a question, and if any of the videos make them want to ask a question right away, they should do so.

This instructional choice reflects my desire to get students interested in nuclear technology. This is a very low stakes activity that everyone can participate in.



25 minutes

Student Activity: During this time I show the videos listed below, and after each video I give students a chance to record and ask questions if they feel inclined. Students have a number of questions about how nuclear weapons work about their effects, and about moral and political issues related to nuclear weapons.

Here are the videos I show:

  1. A video that shows a number of nuclear explosions gets students started. Some of the injuries at the end of the clip do to. 
  2. The facts and statistics in the effects of a nuclear bomb are pretty mind boggling for students; this video exposes them to the shear power of nuclear weapons.
  3. Coroner's Report: Atomic Bomb also exposes students to the tragedy that would ensue from a nuclear bomb blast. 
  4. History of nuclear weapons testing helps clear up some questions that students have about who has and uses nuclear weapons. 
  5. Some horrifying facts about nuclear weapons is a fast-paced slide show about horrifying things that have happened with nuclear weapons.
  6. This video allows students to look inside a nuclear weapons compound.  
  7. How a nuclear weapon works is a video that explains how they work: 
  8. How to launch a nuclear weapon is a video from CNN. 
  9. Secretary of State John Kerry is reported speaking about the importance of nuclear weapons.

I want students doing this work because I believe that they should know about nuclear weapons; they are a significant characteristic of modern life that many people do not know about. I recognize that I have been a bit one-sided in my choice of videos; I could have shown more videos that talk about nuclear deterrence. However, what I want students thinking about is that nuclear weapons are incredibly powerful and they have some unique characteristics because of their nuclear technology. I should note that I teach 11th graders and they were able to handle the graphic nature of these videos, but i did warn them in advance.

Catch and Release Opportunities:

After each video we stop to discuss whatever students want to discuss. I encourage students to record a question after each video. These are samples of the kinds of questions students recorded: student work sample 1student work sample 2student work sample 3. What I like about this approach to class is that each student brings their own perspective to the questioning process. I plan to return to their sense of wonder when they are struggling to conduct research on nuclear power plants.



10 minutes

To wrap this lesson up I ask students to turn in their questions. I also check in with them about how they felt today's class went. Many students were challenged by the content--they found the subject of nuclear weapons somewhat depressing. However, other students were fascinated by the subject. Students in this video self-selected as being particularly interested in the topic. I kind of butcher (and recover) the concept of vaporization, but the excitement that the students and I have in this brief talk is palpable. From that perspective, I felt like the lesson went well.

I was also pleased with the questions students generated. I compiled all of their questions that could just as easily be asked about nuclear power plants. Later on, when they are struggling to ask questions while researching nuclear power plants, I will show them these questions with the hope of helping them further develop their research. I also love these questions because so many of them are questions I plan to cover in this unit.

Here are their questions:

  • How much radiation can the human body take?
  • What are the health risks of radiation?
  • Is nuclear power necessary?
  • What is radiation made of?
  • Why are nuclear reactions so powerful?
  • Are there treatments for radiation poisoning?
  • How do nuclear power plants work?
  • How does radiation relate to cancer?
  • How does radiation go away?
  • How much damage can radiation do?
  • Do people in nuclear power plants wear protective gear?
  • How are nuclear power plants controlled?
  • Are the effects of radiation hereditary?
  • How fragile or sensitive are nuclear power plants?
  • Isn’t radiation used to cure disease? How can it cause it too?
  • What is nuclear waste?