Nuclear Chemistry Project: Starting the Research Process

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Students will will be able to use a database of articles to conduct research about a specific aspect of nuclear power plants.

Big Idea

Scientists often use databases to gather and assess information.


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. 

Lesson Overview: In this lesson students will be able to use a database of articles to conduct research about a specific aspect of nuclear power plants.

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. It does so by giving students multiple entry points for studying this material because they are conducting research that ultimately they must relate back to these core ideas.

It aligns to the NGSS Practice of the Scientist of Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information because students must both obtain and evaluate information about their research question.

No prior knowledge or skills are expected to do this lesson.  

The materials needed for this lesson include the following: access to a database of news and journal articles and laptops or tablets for every student.

Do Now/Activator

10 minutes

Do Now: Students are asked to read the Nuclear research project directions for the nuclear research project and make notes about anything that they do not understand.

I reason that this is a good way to start class because the librarian will work with us today and I want to make sure students understand the big picture about why they are doing research before they delve into the details of how to do it.

Activator: To start I ask students to name any questions they have. Here are some of their questions, and my answers:

How long will this be? I explain that they will need 10 individual note catchers, each with 3-5 quotes, from 10 separate articles.

Why do we have so long to do this work? Because we will work on the project periodically, alternating between our text book and the project.

After they ask questions, I then show them the Possible Research Topics. I ask them to pick a research question and a topic next to the question. I ask them to get in line when they are ready to sign up for one of the topics. I insert a column to the right of the research topics and add their name. Each student must sign up for their own research topic.

I have chosen this approach because I want to have a variety of perspectives about nuclear power plants, and this list, created by me and my English teacher, offers this variety. By giving students the chance to choose their own topic, I increase student buy-in about the project. A few students create their own topics—how nuclear power plants affect wildlife, and the psychological impacts of nuclear power plants were the two additions. 



15 minutes

Mini-lesson: At this point I share the lesson with our school librarian. She shows the students what is available in terms of databases that we subscribe to through our library with a website that she has constructed for this purpose. We teach the steps students should use to conduct research:

  • Understand your question and subtopic
  • Make sure your search term is broad enough
  • Try using a synonym
  • Use multiple databases
  • Skim the article using the evaluation questions

To evaluate whether the article is useful, we ask that students answer the following questions:

  1. Is the information up-to-date?
  2. What domain type is the website?
  3. Can the publisher or author be trusted?
  4. Will this information help me complete my task?
  5. Does the information make sense to me?

The librarian then instructs the students on how to use the databases to generate bibliographic information that follows APA format.

This instructional choice reflects my need to collaborate with the librarian. She specializes in these databases and can do a better job of showing the students how to use them. Research skills are an important college and life skill, and so I am glad that my students have this opportunity.



25 minutes

Student Activity: During this time students begin to work on the research process. They use the Nuclear Research Notecatcher to capture their notes. With both the librarian and me in the room, we are able to address students' questions as they arise.

Some students are not used to thinking about search terms, and so we help them to develop these. Others need re-teaching about how to use the Notecatcher. The expectation is that students can find an article and evaluate. For some students this is a challenge either because they are slow readers, they are not used to skimming articles and evaluating them for usefulness, or because they struggle with search terms. Because each student has their own individual needs, we do not stop class for a whole-class check-in, preferring instead to work one-on-one with students as they grapple with this new task.

Here is a video that shows how I act as a sounding board for one student who is struggling with an article. The article is only a letter to the editor, and so I encourage the student to find a a longer, more fact-filled source off camera.



10 minutes

To wrap this lesson up I first explain to students that we will return to this lesson tomorrow. Tomorrow’s focus will be on understanding how nuclear power plants work. I note that at this time students have very little understanding of the topic, and so evaluating their articles for usefulness might be challenging. However, I note that as we go through this unit, students will get more and more information on the topic and the task will become easier over time.

We then ask students to complete a ticket to leave so that we can identify how they are doing in terms of finding and evaluating sources. The ticket asks students to tell us what resources they found and to evaluate them. In looking at these tickets to leave, the librarian and I noticed that many students had little trouble in finding useful sources. For students that did, we put a blue star on their paper so we could meet up with them in the next class and give them some extra attention.

Students who struggled the most with this work were in my honors section. To differentiate their work, I ask that 70% of their sources come from the peer-reviewed literature. It turned out that in many of our databases it was difficult to find the narrow search terms students needed, and so we are adding the Academic One File to the list of databases.

With that said, I was pleased with the start of this project. In student work sample 1 the student has found an article that has met her seal of approval, and in student work sample 2 and student work sample 3 the students have not only evaluated the material, but they have also begun to extract and interpret quotes from articles they have read.

Most students are in good shape heading into the next day of research.