Nuclear Forum

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In this lesson students will be able to take notes at a forum about nuclear power.

Big Idea

Nuclear power plants are a controversial topic. Outside experts are a great way to help students explore different opinions.


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 lesson students listen to anti-nuclear activists and a nuclear power plant engineer discuss the costs and benefits of nuclear power plants. A moderator asks the panel a series of questions, but the students also ask some of their own questions.

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 because the forum on nuclear power plants is grounded in these ideas.

It aligns to the NGSS Practice of the Scientist of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information by giving students the opportunity to gather information about nuclear power in the form of notes. Students also found themselves naturally evaluating the information based on how the forum participants communicated their ideas.

It aligns to the NGSS Crosscutting Concept of Systems because the forum focused on whether nuclear powers benefits outweigh their costs. While the nuclear engineer argued that these can be designed to cause a desired effect, the opponents noted many undesired effects.

In terms of prior knowledge or skills, my students had some background knowledge about fission and fusion, and they had already started to conduct research on various aspects of nuclear power plants. These prior experiences probably helped them to relate better to the knowledge that the experts presented.

There were no special materials needed for this lesson, but finding people with extensive knowledge about nuclear power plants is necessary. I contacted a local activist organization and a nearby nuclear power plant to find people willing to participate in this event.

Do Now/Activator

10 minutes

Do Now: I ask students to look at the Nuclear Forum Notecatcher.

I have chosen this approach because I want them to familiarize themselves with the document so when I begin talking about it they will have some frame of reference. The experts have already seen the document prior to the forum.


Mini-lesson and Guided Practice

15 minutes

Mini-lesson:  The entire junior class participates in this lesson. Each 11th grade teacher delivers this lesson to one fourth of the junior class:

At the start of B block, please share this information with students:

The nuclear forum is a chance for students to hear from experts in the community about nuclear power plants. The experts are:

  • Dr. Andrew Larkin, member of the Nuclear Free Future Coalition. He is a medical doctor and he is opposed to nuclear power plants.
  • Ms. Paki Wieland, member of Shut It Down affinity Group. She is an activist who is opposed to nuclear power plants.
  • Mr. Joseph Lynch, Vermont Yankee Government Affairs Manager, Entergy Corporation. He is an employee at Vermont Yankee, the closest nuclear power plant to Springfield.
  • Mr. Dennis Menard, Engineer, Westinghouse Electric Company. He has worked with nuclear power plants for decades.

These people are all coming to our school on a voluntary basis. Please treat them as guests.

Here is the forum format:

9:05 – 9:17  Opening statement from each participant (3 minutes each):

  • Who are you and why did you decide to be here today?
  • What experience do you have with regards to nuclear technology?
  • In your opinion what is the most interesting thing about nuclear technology?

9:17 – 10:00 The Forum: Each panelist will be asked to respond to the questions below. The moderator’s role will be to elicit thoughtful responses, to ensure that all panelists’ voices are heard, and to make time for each of the questions. The event is a forum, not a debate per se, but respectful conversation is encouraged amongst the participants.

Part 1: First round of questions for panel (15 minutes)

  • What are the benefits of using nuclear power plants?
  • What are the costs of using nuclear power plants?
  • Who benefits from nuclear power plants?
  • Who pays for the costs of nuclear power plants?


Part 2: Questions from the Audience (10 minutes)

Part 3: Second round of questions for panel (15 minutes)

  • How do these benefits impact the people in this room?
  • How do these costs impact the people in this room?
  • In your opinion, do the costs outweigh the benefits or vice versa?

The student’s job during the forum is to take notes using a note catcher that I will hand out in a moment. It is organized based on the questions of the forum. You will hand in your notes for a grade in Chemistry, and you will get these notes back within a day or two.

The questions in part 2 are from you. Today, before the forum, please take a moment to think about your research project. Do you have any burning question that you would like to get more information about? Please take a moment to write it down in the margin of your note catcher.

During all of the questions, take notes about what the speakers say about each question. Pay special attention to key words or ideas that you could use as you conduct your research.

Finally, pay attention to the values that each speaker shows. What do they most care about? These values will be behind the answers to their questions. Record notes about this in the last row of the note catcher.

This approach sets behavioral expectations and explains what the student role will be during the forum. 



25 minutes

Student Activity: During the forum students take notes and ask questions. I quietly circulate around the auditorium to answer student questions about how to complete their Notecatchers.

Some students have a difficult time completing the Notecatchers for a variety of reasons. For some, it is hard for them to listen to the speakers, process what is said, and write the information. Other students had difficulty because they were so riveted to the interpersonal dynamics between the opposing viewpoints that taking notes was an afterthought. Still others had difficulty because the speakers often talked about what they wanted to talk about, rather than answer our questions directly. It would have been better to just let students take notes. We thought that the note catcher would be helpful, but it actually served to distract students.

However, some students were able to take good notes, and even those who were not able to take notes remembered a lot of what was said afterwards. Here are some examples of student notes: Student work sample 1Student work sample 2Student work sample 3, and Student work sample 4. There is a variety of note quality as exhibited by this work, which is why the next session of the lesson is important.



10 minutes

To wrap this lesson up I conference with students back in the classroom. I check in with each student to see how the forum related to their research topics. For some students, the forum did not touch much on their topic. For example, the link between terrorists and nuclear power plants was not discussed. However, many of the topics inevitably did come out during the hour-long forum. Here is a video of what those conversations look like.

Ending class this way allows me to have conversation with each student about their research topic. Throughout the unit I try to find ways to relate the day’s work to their unit-long research project.