Nuclear Chemistry: a 21st Century Lesson Plan

At the end of our atomic structure unit, I have my honors chemistry students do a research project on nuclear chemistry.  In the past, I’ve let students pick a topic (such as the Chernobyl disaster or storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain), and asked them to make a poster that summarizes the relevant information.  I’ve been increasingly dissatisfied with this project, because I find that some students just regurgitate information from Wikipedia or random blogs without applying any critical thought.

Instead, I think this could be a great place to inject 21st century skill instruction into my curriculum and to help my students learn to use some tech tools to support and demonstrate learning.  I developed a lesson plan for a 4-day project in which my students will decide whether a new nuclear power plant should be built in their community.  Students will (1) conduct and share research about the topic of nuclear power, (2) participate in a class discussion about the reliability of the research that they compile, (3) use a tech tool to create a digital product that shares their evidence-based argument for or against the nuclear power plant, and (4) analyze their classmates’ arguments and digital products.

This lesson plan was inspired by the principles laid out by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in their 2011 book “A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change” and by Renee Hobbs in her 2011 book “Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom”.  

Thomas and Brown argue that students need to be taught how to find information, create products that represent their learning, and play as they learn (2011).  In my lesson, students will be scaffolded as they conduct research and analyze the sources they find.  They will be asked to play with a new tech tool and then use it to make something that represents their learning.

This lesson also aligns nicely with Hobb’s five fundamental literacy practices (2011): Students must know how to:

  1. Access relevant information.  In this lesson, my students will access both text and multimedia sources as they conduct research on nuclear chemistry.  They need to be taught how to appropriately use the powerful tools available to them (databases, Google, etc.)
  2. Analyze information they collect.  We will use a Google Form to collect students’ research, so that we can analyze it in small groups and whole-class discussion.  I think this is an area that my students need the MOST help doing well, and is an area that is so important in their future academic and real-life settings.
  3. Create content.  My students will have choice in how they create a product that is relevant to the stated purpose: to argue for or against the new nuclear power plant.
  4. Reflect on learning, thoughts, and feelings.  After viewing their classmates’ arguments, students will have a chance to reflect on their learning through this project.
  5. Act on their learning.  While the scenario I created for this project is hypothetical, as there are currently no plans to build a nuclear power plant here, this type of scenario is something my students could face in the future.  I hope that they will remember what they learn about researching and sharing their arguments, and that they will use that to make a difference in their communities when controversial situations arise.

I am so excited to try out this lesson plan, because I think it will provide a chance for my students to grow in skills that can be transferred to other classes and to life while still allowing them to interact with chemistry content in a meaningful way.  When I try it out in October, I’ll let you know how it goes!



Hobbs, R. (2011). Digital and media literacy: Connecting culture and classroom. Thousand, Oaks, CA: Corwin/Sage.

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, Ky: CreateSpace?.


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