Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Teaching the Manhattan Project: Bringing Literacy in Civic Science to the Chemistry Class

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Teaching the Manhattan Project: Bringing Literacy in Civic Science to the Chemistry Class

Article excerpt

This article describes a nuclear chemistry unit on the Manhattan Project, a research effort that led to the development of the world's first nuclear weapons during World War II. The unit is appropriate for an introductory high school chemistry or physics course and takes from four to six weeks.

The unit poses this essential question: "Over the past 300 years, how have discoveries in science led to the development of nuclear energy and bombs?" Addressing this question, students synthesize knowledge of nuclear chemistry, learn how the scientific community came to construct and understand this knowledge, and understand how this knowledge has transformed society.

The Manhattan Project

In August 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on cities in Japan--Hiroshima and Nagasaki--ending World War II and forever changing the course of human history. More than 100,000 Japanese civilians died instantly from the blasts, and at least as many more were killed later by radiation (Hall 2013). As a result of the Manhattan Project, over 29,000 Americans received compensation for exposure to radiation or other environmental hazards caused by bomb testing in the United States (Department of Justice 2014).

The interdisciplinary nuclear chemistry unit described here helps students learn about nuclear chemistry while exploring tensions about the role of technology in society and the intertwining of science and politics. The resources section of the unit map (see "On the web") points to a wealth of material about the historical events leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the relevant nuclear chemistry concepts.

A science-literate citizenry is essential to democracy (McClune and Jarman 2012; Miller 2004; Sagan 1995). This unit pushes students to ask questions about the nature and purpose of scientific research; the connections between science and technology; and the interplay of science, politics, and ethics. Students use their understanding of nuclear chemistry and of the nature of science to consume, understand, and integrate information from various media sources to form opinions about past and future nuclear technologies. Of particular use are a two-hour film, Day One (Rintels and Sargent 1989), and a graphic novel, Trinity (Fetter-Vorm 2012). These describe the relevant science concepts and the story of the scientists involved in the bombs' discoveries and production. Figure 1 shows a spread from the graphic novel.

Instructional sequence

I begin the unit with footage of the bombing of Hiroshima (see "On the web") and allow students time to air their reactions. I explain to students that by the end of the unit they will understand this historical event, know how these weapons work, and recognize why scientists created such weapons. Then I backtrack to the historical discoveries that led to our understanding of the atom, beginning with the ancient Greeks and ending in 1911 with Rutherford's Gold Foil Experiment, where the scattering of alpha particles provided the first evidence for the existence of the atomic nucleus. I use a "flipped" classroom approach, so I post short online instructional videos to introduce students to science content along the way, leaving class time for discussion, clarification, modeling, and so on. (See "On the web" for instructional videos for this unit.)


As we move through the unit, we chronicle the various sites and activities that collectively make up the Manhattan Project by plotting them on a map hanging on the wall (Figure 3, p. 31). This helps students keep track of the geographic scale of the project and the various subprojects happening across the country.

Once we reach the beginning of modern nuclear chemistry, covering the work of Marie and Pierre Curie, I assign students sections of the graphic novel Trinity (Fetter-Vorm 2012), which serves as an anchor for the unit. …

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