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 final lesson, students showcase their art in an open house that is open to the public. Some students serve as docents at this celebration of learning. Prior to getting cleared for the exhibition, students must write an artist statement that explains their art, and they must have revised their art until it has reached exhibition quality based on a rubric I developed after listening to a visiting artist’s criteria for what constitutes finished art.
This lesson aligns to the NGSS Practices of the Scientist of Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information because students communicate what they learned about nuclear technology with an artist statement and with their art.
It aligns to the NGSS Crosscutting Concept of Energy and Matter: Flows, Cycles, and Conservation: Tracking energy and matter flows, into, out of, and within systems helps one understand their system’s behavior. Many of the students’ art describes either the energy we get from nuclear power plants or their waste stream, or they talk about the conversion of one type of element into another.
In terms of prior knowledge or skills, students have already studied nuclear power. This lesson is not a stand-alone lesson. Students worked with a visiting artist for six lessons, first exploring different mediums (collage, drawing, and found-object sculpture) before choosing one to develop into their final project.
The materials needed for this lesson depend on the mediums used. My students collected vast amounts of junk for their found object sculptures. We had stocked tool boxes for them to use, and at any given moment students could be seen soldering, hammering, drawing, typing, cutting and pasting collages, and taking apart electronics and other found objects for their sculptures.
Do Now: To start class I ask students to get their art and their artist statement and put it together at their seat. This is the last chance we will have to assemble their work before it gets moved to the exhibition hall at the end of the school day, so this activity—creating a staging area for the art—is vital to the success of the exhibit.
Mini-lesson: Once students have their work assembled, I review with students the criteria that the visiting artist established for us over the past several weeks. This criteria can be found in the Nuclear Art Rubric.
What I noticed over the past week is that all students had grounded their art in some aspect of their research on nuclear power plants, but not as many students had the craftsmanship that our visiting artist had discussed, so I spend time on this aspect of the work. I note that artwork that has been crafted, refined, and polished looks finished. There are not scribbles or shoddy coloring jobs. I note that the artist has defined white space as space in the medium that has not been used. The artist wanted all the space to be used regardless of whether the medium is a box, a canvas, or a collage paper. He also noted that found objects need to be visually transformed so that their original identity is not obvious. The found object sculptures were quite fun for students. They could use virtually anything in order to create their sculptures, but they needed to use paint to camouflage the original identity of the object.
This instructional choice reflects my desire to ensure that students understand the selection criteria for whether or not their art gets displayed. I want to give them one last chance to get it right, and I note that the deadline for this project is today.
Student Activity: During this portion of the lesson students finished polishing their art and artist statements. This work took on several forms. Some students knew exactly what they needed to do to complete their art and were busy doing it. For other students, the art was complete but they needed to complete their artist statement. Some students were done with both of these tasks and they worked to help other students who needed advice or feedback.
The exhibit represents a broad range of ideas and it was rewarding to see the students’ creativity on display. In order to get their work displayed, students had to have work that showed craftsmanship. Each of the art samples below is exemplary.
Some of the art was rather abstract. For example, the future of nuclear technology would appear at first glance to just be an old phone that was taken apart.
However, the artist statement shows how the artist cleverly makes use of the parts of the phone.
The environmental racism piece is another example of very abstract art.
Some students chose to focus on a symbol. The wave is one such example.
In this artist statement the artist explains that not only was there an oceanic wave, but a subsequent wave of fear that swept Japan after their nuclear power plant disaster at Fukushima.
Another good example of the use of a symbol can be found in the art called potential for human error, in which a muzzled Spiderman represents the nuclear industry’s attempt to do behave responsibly, as noted in this artist statement.
Still other students tried to directly show the costs and benefits of nuclear power. In nuclear vs wind power, for example, the student contrasts the costs of each type of power plant. The artist statement shows what this student feels about our nations’ current energy policy.
This nuclear art reflection is typical of the kinds of questions students were asked at the exhibit.
The subject of nuclear waste is also captured in the piece where to store. Her artist statement voices the frustration of many citizens who note that we still do not have a long-term plan for storing nuclear waste in this country.
To wrap this lesson up I make sure that every student has their artist statement sitting with their art. Throughout this lesson I have been helping students make last minute adjustments to their work, and I use the last few minutes of class to congratulate students on putting together a display that captures the many challenges and opportunities associated with nuclear power. I encourage them to bring their families to the exhibition, which occurs throughout the next day and evening.
The vast majority of students were able to represent an idea related to their nuclear technology using art. At the end of this unit, however, I do have a few changes planned for next year. First, I would like to refine the list of resources that students use for research. Many students were exposed to the costs of nuclear power, without having been exposed to the benefits. This is because the news media tends to focus more on the costs, which are often sensational. When a nuclear power plant operates correctly, it does not make news.
Another plan for next year is that I want students to be more clear about what they are saying about their art. Some of the statements made in the interviews were not entirely correct. This may be due to the amount of time that separated the research project that began this process from the time they actually wrote their artist statements. Having students present their art to the class and might be a good way to better ground their explanations in scientific reality.
With that said, however, I was very pleased with the way the exhibit turned out. It was visually captivating and showed the complexity of society’s use of nuclear power.