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Physics Teachers Workshop attendees learn how to conduct a cloud chamber experiment.

Physics Teacher's Workshop

by Cathy Koon for INL Communications & Governmental Affairs

Rhode Island teacher Ed Chomka plans to go back home from the 2011 National Physics Teacher Workshop, "Nuclear Technology: Enabling Global Energy Security," and make "major updates to my curriculum as a result of what I've seen and done here."

Chomka was one of 41 physics teachers from California to Maine to Florida who gathered for a week in Idaho Falls this summer for the seventh annual workshop to learn more about nuclear energy and ways they can get students excited about the subject.

They were guests of U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory for six days filled with speakers, demonstrations, tours and hands-on experiments, plus a few recreational activities thrown in to break up the intense curriculum. They learned such things as how nuclear plants operate, differences between reactor types, very high temperature reactors, science-based fuel cycle research and development, isotope building, powering space exploration, nuclear waste and electromagnetism.

On a day designated for experiments, the teachers were given Vernier LabQuest data-collection sensors and digital radiation monitors (Geiger counters) to conduct experiments on alpha, beta and gamma background radiation; and radiation and shielding. Their kits included discs of radioactive materials. When the workshop was done, they packed up the equipment to take back to their schools — a gift from INL and workshop sponsors. Costs for lodging and most meals, workshop fees and materials, and travel were paid for the attendees.

A highlight for workshop attendees includes touring INL facilities including Experimental Breeder Reactor-I, a Registered National Historic Landmark.

Bob Skinner, a retired INL employee and one of the workshop instructors, brought a cache of older model radioactive orange-colored ceramic pieces. It's a standard part of the workshop, and teachers use older model Geiger counters to check for radiation coming from the dishes. He gathered the pieces from antique shops and secondhand stores across the country. Each participant received a piece of the radioactive items.

The teachers spoke excitedly about touring INL facilities on one day of the workshop. Bob Brothers, who teaches in a private school in Fort Wayne, Ind., said the high point of the workshop was "seeing things I would never, ever get to see, and hearing things firsthand."

Dwight Dougherty from Arkansas said, "For me, (it was) exposure to things I could never see on my own and the networking with the other teachers." Observers could see the bond that had formed among the teachers in less than a week.

One example of the camaraderie was the collection taken up for Michael Gurley, whose home and high school in Joplin, Mo., was destroyed by a recent tornado. Teachers and instructors quietly slipped money into a plastic bag throughout the week and presented the fund to Gurley on the last day of the workshop. Gurley and is wife have been living in a motel until they have a home to go to, but she insisted he attend the workshop anyway.

During the week, the teachers shared with each other, not just during the desktop experiments, but adding their favorite resources to a computer file that was copied and given to each participant. Those resources included websites, books, articles and research results.

Roberta Vanderah from Iowa talked about the initial fear her students display when they begin to study nuclear energy. The misconceptions they have about the dangers of radiation come in part from misinformation.

Speaker Dr. Kathryn McCarthy, INL deputy associate lab director for Nuclear Science and Technology, talked about the irrational fear of nuclear energy fed by that misinformation.

"That is where you guys come in," McCarthy said, explaining the teachers need to help share correct information.

One teacher noted that today's students don't know about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (TMI), and said the nuclear industry needs to reach out to those young people and educate them about nuclear energy. She suggested a campaign as simple as the "Got Milk?" campaign.

"Got neutrons?" quipped Wilma Whateley of Alabama.

Matt Lund of West Jordan, Utah, said, "It's not the science community we have to convince. We just need to get them onboard."

McCarthy talked about what the events in Japan really mean to the nuclear industry and expressed her disappointment about the lack of nuclear information in children's textbooks. Bruce Kubanoff of New Jersey suggested "finding the right people who write standards for public education" and working to get the national standards for textbooks changed.

McCarthy gave a brief summary of what happened with the nuclear plants in Japan impacted by the massive earthquake and tsunami, and talked about the availability of information in Japan compared to that of Chernobyl and TMI. In Japan, the information was available immediately via the Internet, but the information was often skewed by what she called displaced photos. Photo captions identified what was in the photos but also included information about unrelated incidents, making them seem to be connected.

"Media coverage was misleading," she said. "We still don't know exactly what happened in the (power) plants."

The public seems unaware that no one has died from radiation-related causes from Fukushima and none are expected to, she said.

As a result of events in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission formed a task force to review operations at U.S. nuclear power plants. Despite what happened, "the availability of energy is essential to high-quality life," McCarthy said. "Energy use will grow. Affluence in developing countries will lead to a more stable and peaceful world."

"Used carefully, nuclear power is a gift to humanity to meet energy needs for a long time. Nuclear really is indispensable for where we want to go," she said. "Nuclear is the only way we can get there big."


Department of energy

DOE Office of Nuclear Energy
DOE-Idaho Office