Do we really need nuclear power plants?

Author: Mladen Sljivovic

Why do I like games in the classroom and why do I hate them at the same time? Well, to start with, games are fun, they keep your mind focused, and are something students will always remember. On the other hand, there are not so many STEM games that are just perfect for the class, and most of them rather focus on completely other things than STEM. What we mostly forget is that STEM lessons should have educational values on the first place, and at the same time be fun and motivating. So when I discovered Android game Nuclear INC 2 you can only guess how excited I was.

Screenshot from the game

For years I have been looking for a game that would be educational and motivate students to search for more answers. And this is why I like this game. In Nuclear INC 2 you take control over a nuclear power plant. You try to create as much energy as you can (to earn money) and at the same time avoiding nuclear meltdowns (for obvious reasons). And you do it by controlling uranium roads and cooling system. All parameters are here, core temperature, pressure, turbine temperature, radiation level… Too low temperature and you will not produce enough energy, too high and the pressure might be too big for the reactor.

Basically, this is what I would teach my students in a class, as nuclear power plants are one of the lessons in physics curriculum, only this time I can have my students play and search the answers themselves. All they would need is a little bit of guidance.

How did I use game in PBL

My activities were organised in the period of 13 – 26 April. Due to Covid-19 pandemic, we had to switch to online teaching. Our school decided to use Google Classroom, and I decided that it’s time to make STEM as fun as possible.

Before we play, we must learn. And this is why I gave students one more task before the game. And in order to be able to do that, I turned to one of my favourite websites for physics (and other subjects) simulations – PHET Colorado. Remarkable apps can be downloaded there, and this time I choose Nuclear fission. With this app, I was able to add a little IBSL before the playtime 🙂

Screenshot from simulation

What you can do in this simulation is to fire neutrons into uranium and cause fission.

Students got the following task:

Set simulation to a Chain reaction. What happens if neutron hits Uranium 235, and what happens if it hits Uranium 238? Play with different amount of uranium 235. Try placing 1, 10, 50, 100… nucleus. Do you notice any differences? What if we mix 235 and 238?

The aim of this lesson was to encourage students to notice a couple of things. For example, unlike from uranium 235 when a neutron hits uranium 238 it turns him into uranium 239, which is not subject to fission. But the most important thing that happens is when one uranium 235 breaks neutrons that have been released now and have a chance to hit another uranium 235 nucleus and repeat the process again and again… In fact the more nuclei there is the more chance for one more to be hit with a neutron. This is what chain reaction is all about. And our students had a chance to see themselves and learn from observing and experimenting, without mentioning that, this was all done in a safe manner without any radiation.

This task was given to the students using Google Classroom, but there is no reason it can not be repeated again next year in a regular classroom.

After a couple of days when students had to do their own research, it was game time. By then, students had time to send us their report, ask questions and gives us their first feedback.

My students had one week to play the game, pass as many levels as they could, and give us a report explaining what are the fuel roads, how do control roads work, what is the role of a cooling system, why do we need to replace old fuel roads and what happens with the old ones, how many nuclear power plants are there in Europe and which are the nearest to our town, what are the benefits of nuclear-produced energy and what are the dangers?

Example of reports given by our students

I wanted to organize a debate about nuclear energy. Serbia is a country with largest carbon emission from power plants in Europe, and recently a large eco-activist movement tries to stop constructions of mini hydropower plants in ecologically restricted areas (construction requires for the whole river to be placed in a pipe under the stream). So this is an important issue in Serbia as it involves a lot of sides and since our students are in last year if high school we thought it was the time to make them more aware of this situation. After all, it’s their future.

Corona pandemic prevented us from organizing a public debate, so we used Mentimeter to give our students space to express their thoughts. They had to explain what is their opinion about building nuclear power plants (yes or no) and why. All of them were taken in to account.

Final results? On question Should we build nuclear power plants? 32 students said ‘No’, 24 said ‘Yes’ while 3 were ‘Not sure’.

Why will I repeat this activity next year and why you should also try it?

Like I wrote at the beginning of this blog, I love and hate learning through games. But this time I managed to create a good activity that had great educational values. In order to be sure, I had created an anonymous poll for my students to use (three classes of final year, 59 students in total). During April, for two weeks they learned, searched, experimented and played and I was happy with the results (their reports). But how happy were they?

Results of the poll showed that only 3 students did not like this activity and a large majority (47) gave positive feedback (rating activity with 4 or 5 points). 49 students thought they had learned something from the game, and even 39 absolutely agreed that after this activity they were more aware of nuclear waste. 42 student agreed that this should become a part of regular school activities and only 2 were against it.

Three students with best game results got diplomas (to be delivered later).

Next year we are doing this activity again. Hopefully, with real face-to-face debate.

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