Yesterday afternoon, I spent a few hours watching about a hundred excited students rotate through several experienctial learning stations set up by volunteers for National Nuclear Science Week in Knoxville, TN.
Representatives of the isotope production facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory had provided a remote manipulator simulator. The students were able to take turns operating the devices that enable specialists to safely handle intensely radioactive materials on the other side of thick shielding.
The students seemed fascinated by the ease with which the engineered devices enabled them to move and stack objects on the opposite side of the yellow glass window. I overheard several asking about the jobs where people get to operate the devices all the time.
Another room at the conference center had a couple of demonstrations. Students learned about radioactive decay and half lives using Skittles candy – which they consumed after they had finished the learning game. They also watched the tiny trails produced in an alcohol vapor filled cloud chamber as a 2% thorium steel rod decayed by emitting alpha particles.
The really observant ones noticed that they occasionally saw trails that seemed to originate a long way from the rod. The UT grad student manning the cloud chamber explained that one of the decay products of the thorium decay chain is a gas – radon – that also emits alpha particles.
The final room I visited contained a number of tables with assorted objects. I was attracted into the room by the distinctive sound of a radiac clicking away.
Aside: I’m not sure if that term is commonly used outside of the Navy, but it is the general term used for a portable device used to measure radiation. We rarely called them Geiger counters. End Aside.
Some of the tables had toys like cars and trucks. One had display made up of PVC piping with elbows and joints. Another had baking trays filled with plastic or glass beads.
At each table, several volunteers showed the students how to use a radiac to locate radioactive sources, which the volunteers had hidden by taping them on the bottom of a toy, under the glass beads, or somewhere in the piping display.
Anyone who works with 3-5 graders might recognize that the volunteers in this room didn’t have the easiest job in helping the students recognize that they would be more successful in their search if they were a little more patient. Some of them got the hang of surveys pretty quickly, others moved their probes more rapidly than recommended.
All seemed to have a good time.
About half of the students were from a local elementary school while the other half were homeschoolers whose parents had seized the opportunity to participate in a hands-on learning experience.
It was fun to watch the students have a chance to talk to experts and to watch how much fun the experts from Oak Ridge and the University of Tennesse had sharing their knowledge.
I’m looking forward to more fun today, but I don’t expect to hear as many excited young voices in the lecture hall during the talks and panel discussions. Those are open to the public; please check the schedule and bring some non-nuclear professional friends if you happen to be in the area with some time on your hands.