Saturday, November 25, 2006

Nuke your nukes!

High schools in Illinois are doing it; you should, too.

I never thought it was a good idea to have radioactive samples of any kind in a high school lab. There's just no need for it. However, the high school physics teaching community is populated with many individuals who came from nuclear industry or research. Nuclear physics holds a special place in their hearts. So my aversion to radioactive samples seems like a minority view.

I'll lay out a few reasons for my "no nukes" view. Please feel free to add a "pro nukes" viewpoint in the comments. (Or "no nukes" arguments I forgot.)

1. We teach too many topics in high school physics already; nuclear physics can wait.
2. Listening to ticks from a Geiger counter doesn't have a lot of thrill-value.
3. Career-long exposure to the radiation coming from that "hot plate" (the lead-based glaze on that Fiesta ware you got in TJ that one time) cannot be healthy.
4. The California academic content standards in physics certainly do not call for nuclear anything.
5. Whatever coverage is called for by the College Board in terms of the AP Physics B Exam can be covered paper and pencil-style.

So poke around your storage area and round up your sources for hazmat disposal.


Sherry Brown said...

Career-long exposure to the radiation coming from that "hot plate" (the lead-based glaze on that Fiesta ware you got in TJ that one time) cannot be healthy.

While some Mexican pottery glazes may contain Lead, the "red" (closer to orange) Fiestaware from Homer Laughlin Co., USA, contained Uranium Oxide. The color was discontinued in 1943 and reintroduced in 1959.

As a Chem/Physics teacher, collector of the original Fiestaware and general nuclear culture junkie, it amazes me to see product literature describe the orange as "harmlessly radioactive."

Dean Baird said...

Yes; the Fiestaware has a uranium-based glaze! That's what I meant to say. Sends the Geiger counter into a frenzy. But I never thought a frenzied Geiger counter was terribly dramatic as a classroom demo. Students likely think, "Yeah, I can get static on my radio, too."

Dan Burns said...

Don't send your radioactive samples to hazmat. Give them to your local chemistry teacher who does have a use for them. They have California Science Chemistry standards 11c,d,e,f to meet. Hands-on radioactivity labs using digital Geiger counters are very engaging for students.

Dean Baird said...

Dan, what labs are students going to do in class with anything other than an alpha source? Only Chem Standard 11.e. looks like fertile ground for lab work, and it's a starred standard (not assessed on the CST).

Zeke Kossover said...

Actually, students find it pretty amazing to see the magic box react to some things but not to other things that look the same.

They are also amazed to see that some things treated with radioactivity are not in fact radioactive, like treated salt. Or that most things that glow in the dark are not radioactive.

People have an irrationally high aversion to radiation. Teachers should try to demystify radiation. I was surprised by the response of the crowd when I heard Lovelock (author of Gaia) speak at the Cal Academy about using nuclear power as an alternative to petrochemicals. Here is a man who has dedicated his life to analyzing environmental issues, published one of the most famous books on the subject, getting booed by the audience. Amazing.