Nuclear Research Project: Sophisticated Google Searches

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Students will be able to target their searches forinformation about nuclear power plants using Google.

Big Idea

Google, and other search engines, can be used in a sophisticated way to increase the quality of search results.


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: 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 students are conducting research about nuclear power plants, which employ fission. Nuclear power also has a number of radioactive decay issues associated with the safe handling of nuclear fuel and waste, and future nuclear power plants may incorporate fusion as the method for extracting nuclear energy from the atom.

It aligns to the NGSS Practice of the Scientist of Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information because students will learn how to obtain information about their research topic and they will have to evaluate it for relevancy once they obtain it.

In terms of prior knowledge or skills, my students have already had a lesson working in the nuclear research project using databases subscribed to by our school library, including Academic Onefile, the New York Times, and Science in Context.

The materials needed for this lesson include computers with Internet access.

Do Now/Activator

10 minutes

Do Now: To start class I ask students to sign out a laptop from our classroom laptop cart. I ask them to go to the library website dedicated to our expedition and look over the tab called How do I Search Google?

I reason that this is a good way to start class because I want visual learners to see terms like site:edu before the librarian, who co-teachers this lesson, begins talking in these terms. 



15 minutes

Mini-lesson:  Our school librarian has me do a search for nuclear power. I get 65 million results. She makes the analogy of drinking from a fire hydrant—there is way too much water. She then asks me to limit my search in a couple of ways. First, she asks me to be more specific. I use quotation marks around the phrase “nuclear power plant employee health.” We get 1 result. Using the term “nuclear power plant worker health” yields 5 results, and two of them are quite useful to this topic. At this point we make the point that Google searches can and should be targeted so that there is a limit to how many websites it produces in the results.  

We then spend time explaining what each of the tips on the library website is good for. We note that site:gov, site:edu. and site:org all give back searches only from these domain types. For example, when my search term that I type into the search bar is site:gov nuclear waste I only get back results that are government related. Similarly, if my search term is inurl:nytimes nuclear waste I get 15,000 hits about articles from the New York Times about nuclear waste.



25 minutes

Student Activity: Once we have gone over these options, we release students to conduct research. In some cases, students can get right to work independently by researching the Research Topics that they were assigned in a previous lesson.

However, some students have difficulty. Luckily for me, the school librarian is co-teaching with me and so the staff-student ratio is such that we are able to help every student who needs help. The biggest challenge that they face is coming up with just the right key word so that their search yields the type of result they are hoping for. The librarian or I would try to help a student, and if one of us could not figure out the best search term, we consulted with one another. From this collaboration we produced Nuclear research keywords list which we will refine for next year, but it is a good start for a list of key terms that students should use when they are conducting research. 

These samples of student work (Notecatcher sample 1Notecatcher sample 2) are typical indicators that students  were able to use search terms effectively.



10 minutes

To wrap this lesson up I ask students to tell me what they learned about doing Google searches. This debrief video provides student voice to that answer.

This lesson was helpful for them because in some cases students were having a difficult time finding there topic in the databases, but by expanding their search to the broader internet, and by using search term limiters, they were able to find more resources for their research project.