Nuclear Research Project: Grounding the Research

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Students will be able to explain how a nuclear power plant works and how this knowledge relates to their research question.

Big Idea

Nuclear power plants rely on fission to generate the heat used to create the steam that drives a turbine.


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 our last class students signed up for a research question and began conducting research from databases. In this third lesson students read about how a nuclear power plant works and they must then relate that understanding to their research question.

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, and apply their understanding of how nuclear power plants work to their research question.

In terms of prior knowledge or skills, students should have some understanding of their research topic and how to conduct research on that topic.

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




Do Now/Activator

10 minutes

Do Now: Students are asked to sign out a computer from the laptop cart and go to this website. Once there, I ask students to browse the article, which is called How Do Nuclear Power Plants Work? 

I reason that this is a good way to start class because students will be using computers today. By the time I have taken attendance and settled class all students will have had time to get their technology up and running, and many will have already explored the article that will be the center of our lesson today.

Activator: I start my formal presentation with this video called Powering America. It shows how a nuclear power plant operates. I do this because I am trying to give students a mental picture of what a nuclear power plant looks like, and because I want to ease into one of the main topics of this lesson—how nuclear power plants work.


Mini-lesson and Guided Practice

15 minutes

Mini-lesson: I explain to students that I expect them to understand how a nuclear power plant works, and that it is my assumption that by understanding how a nuclear power plant works that they will be able to do a better job in their nuclear power research.

I then ask that they spend 15 minutes reading the article that they began class with and using the Nuclear Research Notecatcher, a document that was introduced last class, to answer the question “How do nuclear power plants work?”

This instructional choice reflects my desire to see how well they understand how to use the Notecatcher. I also want them to teach themselves about how nuclear power plants work. My students have a good idea about how electricity is generated because they studied this topic in their environmental science class, so integrating the use of the Notecatcher with learning how the nuclear power plants work is an accessible task for students.

Guided Practice: I then ask for a volunteer to project a student work sample. I ask the student to explain some of their choices. The bibliography was given to them, but students know how to generate this information from the database. How the student evaluates the article for usefulness is important. For this article, because students are learning about how nuclear power plants work, the article is useful. However, the student notes that the article may have a slant to it because it is produced by a corporation.

The quote box has two quotes in it, and both directly pertain to the nuclear chemistry. I note that for more lengthy articles I expect 3-5 quotes per article, and I remind students that their goal is to have 10 Notecatchers, and that each Notecatcher should capture notes from 1 useful article.

I am also pleased that the student notes that the article describes how nuclear power is created while leaving out some important information about nuclear waste and safeguards.




25 minutes

Student Activity: Once we have gone over the Notecatcher, I explain to students that they can now return to working on the research they started in yesterday’s class. I explain to them that I will be circulating around the room, and one of the things that I will do is talk with them about how their research question can be informed by an understanding of nuclear power plants.

While students are busy searching for and reading articles and taking notes, I have conversations with them. Some students need help with search terms and in understanding their research topics, but the main effort I expend is with students to see if they can relate an understanding about nuclear power plants to their research question.

If they can do this, I am confident that they understand their research question, and if not, then I know I should spend some time with them to see how I can help clarify their topic. Here is one example of this kind of conversation. I felt good about this student’s understanding of his topic and of power plants in general.



10 minutes

To wrap this lesson up I review for students some tips for research success:

  • Understand your question and subtopic
  • Make sure your search term is broad enough
  • Try using a synonym for your search word if you do not get any hits
  • Use multiple databases
  • Skim the article using the evaluation questions

Ending class this way allows me to review things that I have been discussing with students, and to also highlight things that I have noticed students doing.

Overall I feel that for many students the research process has begun. Students are getting grounded in their research topic while also thinking about nuclear chemistry. This Notecatcher from a student is a good example of what I am hoping my students will accomplish during their research.

However, I know based on conversations that in subsequent classes devoted to research I will need to help some students in identifying research terms.