Idea: High School Nuclear Physics

In 1994 17-year-old David Hahn, the “radioactive boy scout”, attempted to build a breeder-style nuclear reactor in his parents’ backyard shed. He did not succeed in achieving critical mass, but the isotopes he collected — radium watch-dial paint, thorium from lantern mantles, and so forth — caused his parents’ property to be declared an EPA Superfund site. David joined the military, but was arrested in 2007 for the theft of smoke detectors. Here’s an image of David at the time of his arrest: his face is covered with radioactivity-induced sores.

It’s easy to read David’s story as a testament to the low security attached to dangerously radioactive materials in the 1990’s — and that’s how it was largely seen in the media. However, from an educational perspective, David’s story is a tragedy. This was a young man with a fervent passion for science who received no guidance or support from his teachers.

Worldwide, we are experiencing a shortage of trained nuclear engineers. Like in many technological fields, the pioneers of the 1960’s and 70’s are taking their well-deserved retirement, and there are few young people ready to take their place. It doesn’t matter whether the next generation of nuclear workers are engaged in building power plants or dismantling them: in an era of high unemployment, the nuclear industry is experiencing labour shortages.

The low interest in nuclear physics is surprising, because the field is a fascinating one, with approachable experiments, a vivid history, and a good balance of equations and conceptual ideas. Better still, nuclear science is incredibly relevant, with Fukushima and Chernobyl forefront in the public mind.

What if we created a 2-year high school physics curriculum that taught the essential physics skills using nuclear physics and radioactivity as its heart?

The students would study the same core subject matter: kinematics, forces, energy, thermal, electricity/magnetism, waves, and modern physics. However, instead of using blocks on planes, water wave tables, and snap-together circuits, we’d do scattering, double-slit, and cathode tube experiments.

These sorts of experiments are accessible to a regular physics classroom. David and Shanni Prutchi have documented dozens of relevant experiments on a journey through quantum mechanics. In the past couple months, one of my students built a Geiger counter from scratch (based on this) while another demonstrated quantum entanglement using two Geiger counters and an $80 radioactive sample (based on this).

Such a “themed” physics course would probably lack breadth, but I think that skipping (say) specific heat capacity in favour of some extra time working with radioactivity experiments would (a) improve the depth of understanding, and (b) stimulate long-term interest.

In a discussion with one of my old professors last month, I asked him what students really need to be prepared for university physics in North America. His response: Newton’s laws would be good, but more important is an ability to use math to solve problems, to think like a physicist, and to be able to do lab-work. Freshman university courses are designed with the assumption that incoming students have differing backgrounds: they don’t presume knowledge that cannot be easily attained. Much more important is getting students fired-up about what they’re planning to study, and getting them to think and work the right way.

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