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U.S. Navy Museum Cold War Gallery Lesson Plan
Atoms and Nuclear Propulsion
Developed by Mark Clemente, Floyd E. Kellam High School, Virginia Beach, Virginia
2011 Naval Historical Foundation STEM teacher fellowship
  Instructional Goal

This unit is designed to use the topic of nuclear powered submarines to teach a unit on atomic structure. Students are first given some background information on nuclear submarines and then begin to learn about atomic structure, isotopes, and nuclear chemistry. When appropriate, specific examples that relate to nuclear submarines are given.

Teacher Help
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  1. Read the linked document "A Brief History of Submarine Development in the United States."
  2. View the US Navy YouTube Video "Life on a Sub."
  3. What did you note in the video, regarding submarine propulsion? Using nuclear power as the source of energy to power the boat is what allows submarines to operate away from land and underwater for extended periods of time.
  4. Examine the "Submarine Power and Propulsion" diagram. Evaluate the diagram and watch the video "Reactor Operations", which explains the diagram in more detail. Alternately, you can read the linked document "Nuclear Propulsion."
  5. Bottom Line: a nuclear reaction can produce heat to make steam for propulsion energy.
Structure of the Atom and Isotopes
  1. Nuclear reactors use nuclear reactions to generate heat.
  2. Read the "Nuclear Reactions" document to understand the difference between nuclear and chemical reactions.
  3. Review the definition of radioactivity:  The spontaneous emission of radiation, either directly from unstable atomic nuclei or as a consequence of a nuclear reaction.
  4. Read the "Nuclear Reactions" document to review the three types of naturally occurring radiation.
  5. View the "Nuclear Reactions" document illustrations of alpha and beta decay. The sum of the mass numbers on the reactant side and product side are the same and the sum of the atomic numbers on the reactant side and product side are the same. For example, in the equation:

    The mass number is 226 on the reactant side and the sum of the mass numbers on the product side is 222 + 4 = 226. Likewise, the atomic number on the reactant side is 88 and the sum of the atomic numbers on the product side is 86 + 2 = 88. The symbol of the element should match the atomic number listed. Also, gamma radiation is always released during a nuclear reaction and therefore is often left out of a nuclear equation.
  6. Practice balancing nuclear reactions using the questions in Activity 1 below.
  7. What you have viewed to this point is nuclear decay. The process used to generate heat in a nuclear reaction is fission. A basic description of fission can be found in the "Nuclear Propulsion" document.
  8. Complete "Nuclear Fission Simulation" in Activity 2 below. This activity uses a PhET simulation produced by the University of Colorado. Java is required to run the simulation. The simulation can either be run online or downloaded and run off-line.
  9. Alternately (or in addition) complete "Falling Like Dominoes" in Activity 3 below. To conduct this activity, you will need 15 dominoes and a ruler.
Video Resources

play videoLife on a Sub:  Get a taste of day-to-day life aboard a U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarine.

play videoReactor Operations:  This video on the reactor operations of nuclear submarines is part of the Covert Submarine Operations Exhibit, located in the Cold War Gallery, Washington Navy Yard. The Cold War Gallery is the latest addition to the National Museum of the United States Navy.

Click icon to download Activity in PDF format
Nuclear Reactions

Balance the following nuclear decay equations:



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