Introducing Nuclear Power to a Five-Year-Old

by Leah Parks

(This article was submitted in concert with a presentation given at the 2019 American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting entitled “Teaching the Value of Nuclear,” and is the first of two articles on that presentation.)

Recently, I visited my local Kindergarten and Jr-K classes to try and explain how nuclear power works.  It was a little tricky knowing where to start.

I held a lofty goal of squeezing in the concepts of electricity, magnetism, atoms, fission, and criticality into short 20-minute visits.  I wasn’t attempting to go into radiation, radioactive decay, neutron interactions, moderators, coolants, or aspects of the fuel cycle, but still, I had high aspirations given the age range. The children, ages 4-6, had not yet learned the concepts of mass or weight, and I found myself trying to explain mass defect and binding energy.

For anyone else who might be eager to take on this challenge, I thought I would share my approach and reflections.  The day before or immediately prior to my visit, I had the teachers read the books Oliver and Bird, A Book about Electricity by Geoff Waring, and Switch On Switch Off by Melvin Berger.  The teachers also took their classes on a walk outside their schools to spot the electrical wires, and on a “hunt” around the classroom to try and find items that use electricity.  The children had many questions about the wires running along the streets and disappearing into the ground.  They were fascinated that the wires were inside the walls (or that there even was an inside to the wall).  It was as if a secret world underground and inside walls had been revealed to them.

Given that the visits were so short, I broke up the material into 3 days of discussion and activities.

Students in one of Leah Parks' sessions enjoy coloring book pages related to the topic.  Photo courtesy Leah Parks.

Students in one of Leah Parks’ sessions enjoy coloring book pages related to the topic. Photo courtesy Leah Parks.

 

Day 1 –  Electricity, Magnetism and Power Plants

 

 

  • Discussion – I had an assistant from the class turn the lights on and off, and I asked the students what I was doing.  I continued to ask probing questions of the students and tried to let them explain what they might have learned from the books.  One child’s response that absolutely thrilled me in its accuracy and completeness when asked about electricity was, “The electrons go on the wires from the power plant to our school and then back.”  Another child blurted out, ““Electricity is things swimming in wires!”  I explained that we get electricity from power plants where a large amount of water is boiled to make steam which moves – like the steam coming from a teapot – The steam turns a turbine – like how a pinwheel turns when you blow on it.  The movement of the turbine spins giant magnets inside of a coil of wires – called a generator –  which creates electricity by freeing the electrons from the atoms and the electrons travel along the wires.

 

  • Activity – Students practiced blowing on the pinwheel and observed how their breath makes it move. They imagined their breath is the steam produced from a nuclear reactor.  To demonstrate how magnetism and electricity are related I brought a toy generator kit.  While children took turns experimenting with the toy generator, circuit, and magnets the remainder of the class colored their coloring book pages.

 

Day 2 – Atoms and Fission

 

 

  • Discussion – I reminded the students what we learned the day before about steam turning turbines, generators and electricity. I explained that one way to create the heat to make steam is to split an atom.  I explained the parts of an atom and that we would be pretending the balloons are atoms to demonstrate how energy is released when you split an atom.  I explained that when a neutron bumps into the atom the right speed it can split it.

 

  • Activity – The students put together the anatomy of an atom model. While the students worked on their atoms, I assisted with balloon cutting.  We pretended that the scissors were a neutron flying toward the atom.

 

Day 3 – Chain Reactions

 

  • Set up – 10-15 dominos per child

 

  • Discussion – Explain how we can create a chain reaction where splitting atoms release neutrons which split other nearby atoms and so on. This releases a lot of energy continuously which is used to boil water in the nuclear power plant.

 

  • Activity – Have the children experiment with the dominos to set up their own chain reactions.

 

Leah Parks and a student engage in a fission simulation using animal balloons.  The balloon, when cut, will zoom in two opposite directions, simulating the energy and motion of fission fragments.  Photo courtesy Leah Parks.

Leah Parks and a student engage in a fission simulation using animal balloons. The balloon, when cut, will zoom in two opposite directions, simulating the energy and motion of fission fragments. Photo courtesy Leah Parks.

Overall, the children were more than receptive and able to learn about these concepts.  It was truly special, and the teachers were very grateful.  At this age, they haven’t yet been exposed to the stigma surrounding nuclear power.  Well, almost – the only negative dialogue went like this…

Me: “That’s a lovely color!  Why did you color all the reactor components the same color and what made you decide to use such a bright green?”

Child: “Its toxic!”

Me: “What’s toxic?”

Child: “Nuclear is!”

The child later told me he saw toxic nuclear goo on Captain Underpants.  Maybe we should be talking more with the producers of kids’ cartoons as our outreach!

Leah Parks is an engineer at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission working in decommissioning.  She is currently serving on the ANS Board of Directors and is Vice Chair of the Public Policy Committee.

9 thoughts on “Introducing Nuclear Power to a Five-Year-Old

  1. Laura Duarte

    Great article! Very good references for children’s books about nuclear and real and practical situations to face with children (and the cartoon industry). It’s very useful to share this experience! Thank you

  2. Amelia Frahm

    Hi Leah,

    Great to see this post! Please email or call me, as I have some materials you (or anyone else interested) are welcome to use.

    I’m the author of the children’s book “Nuclear Power: How a Nuclear Power Plant Really Works!” and have done quite a few school programs on the topic. You can find my contact information on the website NutcrackerPublishing.com. Scroll to the Contact Us link.

    In the 1980’s I was employed at the South Texas Project Nuclear Plant, and one of my jobs assignments was to create and implement an elementary school program on nuclear power. I wrote the book with that experience in mind.

    The program was very popular, but when the book was released in 2011, very few people in the nuclear industry were going into elementary schools to talk about nuclear power plants.

    Yep, the book had been a work in progress, and hit print right after Fukushima occurred. I was not very popular in some circles.

    I can tell you from personal experience you are educating a parent when you educate their child.

    Amelia Frahm

  3. Ruth Weiner

    Re teaching about nuclear power to young children:

    Twenty-three years ago my granddaughter asked me to talk about nuclear issues to her fourth grade class. I got some Geiger counters from ANS, found some depression glass, and started my talk with the atomic bomb and WWII. Immediate attention. So I continued “That was in 1945. How many years ago was that?” Hands shot up, I continued to relate nuclear issues to things they knew: “How does your microwave work? Does it use electricity?” I asked my granddaughter to demonstrate the Geiger counter. The fourth-graders loved it all; I am not so sure about the teachers. Did my granddaughter grow up to study nuclear engineering? No; she is a sports writer and plays bass in a jazz band. Is she afraid of nukes? She doesn’t even think about them beyond knowing “that’s what Grandma does.”

    I took away several things from this experience. These were fourth graders in the “accelerated” program. They were engaged because I kept relating my talk to things they had some knowledge of. They loved the math games and hands-on basic science. I did not relate to any popular media, like television, at any time.

    I have no idea how many (if any) of those fourth-graders went on to study physical science or engineering (my granddaughter did not). I doubt that many of them think about nuclear power at all.

    Children, like everyone, learn and retain new things in direct proportion to what they already know. In my opinion, what children mostly take from elementary school to middle school to high school is the ability to read and write cogent English (In American schools), maybe read and write cogently in a second language, and do arithmetic and some basic algebra. These are the foundations of learning.

    Finally, ANS has been presenting nuclear power and nuclear issues to K-12 students and teachers for decades, with no perceptible impact on public opinion. We can’t match the impact of Homer Simpson; the works of Shakespeare, Rousseau, or Brahms will never have the impact that popular culture has. If we want to influence students, I suggest focusing on high school and basic college level science.

  4. Andrew Quinn

    There is also a series of books (Called Baby University!) for science such as this one:

    Nuclear Physics for Babies which, whilst has babies in the title, is quite good for introducing basic concepts to kids at an early age.

    Certainly going to look at passing some of those tips on!

  5. Hank Phillips

    This is well and good, but terrorizers of energy production constantly din that atomic power is NOT SAFE. Compared to what? –That question never enters the picture. How did Japan fare in the 1923 earthquake without nuclear plants? Over 140,000 died. A similar-strength event in 2011 killed 124,000 fewer people, thanks in large part to radio warnings and electric power from Fukushima reactors. Life without nuclear power was nasty, brutish and short.

  6. Catherine Riddle

    Great job! I also do workshops for the K-12 students as apart of STEM outreach through INL and the Idaho Section of the American Nuclear Society in nuclear forensic, radiochemistry and chemistry. It can be a challenge with the little ones so I applaud your ingenious approach! I think it is easier for me since all I have to do is set off a chemical reaction in a film container and the “Pop” gets every ones attention and engagement! Thanks for sharing your story and keep up the good fight for education in nuclear energy…the young ones are our future!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>