Nuclear Science Talks

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Students will be able to use nuclear chemistry vocabulary in the context of their research.

Big Idea

Applying words to specific contexts like nuclear research is a good test of a student's understanding.


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 prepare for and participate in a discussion in which they share their research with one another in an attempt to understand how the nuclear vocabulary they have been studying in their textbook relates to the topics they have been studying in their research projects.

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 have to show how all of these ideas to relate to their research.

For this reason this lesson nicely aligns to the NGSS Practice of the Scientist of Constructing explanations because students have to explain how eleven vocabulary words relate to their research topic.

It aligns to the NGSS Crosscutting Concept of Energy and matter because students have to discuss how changes of energy and matter in a system can be described in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system. In this case, the system is a nuclear reactor.

In terms of prior knowledge or skills, students need to have conducted research on nuclear power plants and studied the key vocabulary related to nuclear chemistry.

There are no special materials needed for this lesson.

Do Now/Activator

10 minutes

Do Now: Students start class by trying to tie their nuclear vocabulary words to their research project as shown in this nuclear vocabulary assignment. This typical sample of student notes shows me that my concerns about students still needing help in understanding the vocabulary are well-founded. On the other hand, some students already worked to understand the vocabulary, as evidenced by this nuclear concept map. Having some students farther along on this journey is useful for the rest of the class because students who are farther along can bring more insights to the group conversations we are having today.

I reason that this is a good way to start class because it will make students realize that even though they have been using these words for a while, many only have a superficial understanding of what the words actually mean. I am hoping to use class today to motivate students to wonder about and process the meanings of their vocabulary.

Activator: Once students have worked on this for several minutes I ask them to share what they know. As this check-in video shows, students have definitely made some strong connections between much of the vocabulary and their research topics, but they still need some help in order to solidify their understanding of the entire set.

I have chosen this approach again to build some urgency around the need to further develop understanding of the vocabulary.

Mini-lesson and Guided Practice

15 minutes

Mini-lesson: I explain that students will have another several minutes to think about how the vocabulary connects to their research topic. I explain that then we will conduct science talks that follow the outline found in this Nuclear Science Talk document.

This instructional choice reflects my desire to get students talking with one another about the vocabulary. I do not spend much time in front of the class today because the task before students is clear to them and they need time to think.

Guided Practice: After I am done explaining our agenda for today, I walk around and chat with students. Some students claim that some of the vocabulary words do not relate to their research, and so I ask them to remind me of their research topic and then we discuss the vocabulary. Some students do not know the definitions of some of the words, such as radioactivity. I gently remind them that if they do not know the definition of a word, it will be next to impossible to relate the vocabulary back to other ideas.

In other cases, students know the vocabulary, but did not come across the words in their research. For example, half-life relates to the economic impacts of nuclear power plants because nuclear waste has a long half-life, which means that money must be spent long after the power plant has been decommissioned.  

I chose this particular approach to leading class because I know everyone is in a different place and I want to be able to spend time meeting individual student needs.


25 minutes

Student Activity: At this point in the class period it is time to get some students talking with one another. As this first science talk clip shows, students are well-versed in their research topics. They are able to discuss implications from their research. This second science clip uses two of the vocabulary words—human health and nuclear power.

However, I also recognized as I was facilitating that I needed to ask some guiding questions to help them use some of the more technical vocabulary. I asked the same question: “How does _________ ( a vocabulary word) relate to your research topic. If you do not know, remind us what your research topic was and let’s see if we can help you out.” This prompt helped students talk more specifically about the vocabulary words, which was the point of the discussion.

With that said, I was pleased that they had learned enough about their research topics that they wanted to talk about what they learned.

Catch and Release Opportunities: I was careful not to immediately contradict incorrect statements that were made in the circle. Instead, after each group had a conversation, I would summarize the main points made, and clarify inaccurate statements. I did this because I did not want to stifle conversation, but I also did not want to leave unaddressed any inaccuracies.


10 minutes

Catch and Release Opportunities: I was careful not to immediately contradict incorrect statements that were made in the circle. Instead, after each group had a conversation, I would summarize the main points made, and clarify inaccurate statements. I did this because I did not want to stifle conversation, but I also did not want to leave unaddressed any inaccuracies.

To wrap this lesson up I let students know that in a few days they will be assessed on their ability to make connections between their vocabulary words and their research topic. Overall, I was pleased with the results of this lesson. In the first student's nuclear open response, the student does not initially differentiate between fission and fusion, although she does go on to do so. She also confuses a dirty bomb, which uses a conventional weapon to spread radioactive nuclear waste. Otherwise, the work is sound. In the second student's nuclear open response, the student does not understand how nuclear decay relates to his research topic, and he confuses the discharge of cooling water with the dumping of nuclear waste back into rivers and oceans.

However, overall it is clear that students have been able to make connections between their research topics and the vocabulary that is the foundation for their topics. Next year I would like to incorporate the use of the vocabulary throughout the research process rather than wait until the end of the unit.