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U.S. Navy Museum Cold War Gallery Lesson Plan
Identifying Submarines and Missiles by Using a Dichotomous Key
Developed by Jeff Derda, Apex High School, Apex, North Carolina
2011 Naval Historical Foundation STEM teacher fellowship
  Instructional Goal

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In this unit of study students will learn how to read, use, and construct dichotomous keys. Students will begin the unit by identifying the need for dichotomous keys in science. Students will begin the unit by discussing some background information on the variety of submarines utilized by the world's navies during the Cold War. Student will be instructed on reading a dichotomous key and will be given data on Cold War submarines (US and Soviet) and will be asked to utilize provided keys to identify the classification (type) of submarine shown in the pictures. Students will then practice using a dichotomous key to classify various missiles developed and deployed during the Cold War. Finally, students will demonstrate mastery by constructing their own dichotomous key in the classroom.

Background on Cold War Era Submarines

During the Cold War (post WW II - 1991) many nations utilized the submarine as a key weapon. While the United States and the Soviet Union developed the largest and most diverse fleet of submarines, other nations such as France and the United Kingdom also utilized the awesome power of the submarine. Submarines are often classified both by their form of propulsion and their strategic purpose. At the start of the Cold War submarines ran on diesel powered engines. In 1954, the US launched the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine. Nuclear submarines come in two types; SSNs and SSBNs. The SSN is a nuclear (hence the N in SSN, the SS is for "submersible ship") fast attack sub. SSNs are used to attack other submarines, surface targets, and to support the fleet in other capacities. SSBNs, also called boomers, are nuclear (N) submarines that carry ballistic (B) missiles. The ballistic missiles carried by SSBN submarines act as a deterrent to war by having the ability to launch a large number of missiles each carrying multiple nuclear warheads.

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Hook Activity: Friend or Foe?

  • Identify the need to correctly classify objects based on physical characteristics.
  • Introduce the diversity of life and the importance of classification systems in science.
Materials:  Pictures of various Cold War submarines

  1. Show students the pictures below. (the images can be found on the museum website)
  2. Ask students what kind of submarine each one is. Is it American or Russian? Friend or foe?
    Realistically, students and adults alike will have no idea what type of subs these are. That's the point. Discuss with students differences and similarities between the pictured subs. Allow students to point out any distinguishing characteristics unique to that particular sub.
  3. Allow students to offer suggestions on telling the submarines apart. Reinforce the idea that submarines are very similar in appearance but telling them apart is critical.
  4. Relate to students that the same problems exist for biologists when they attempt to study or classify all kinds of living things. (birds, fish, insects, trees, etc.)

Friend of Foe?
Friend of Foe?
Friend of Foe?


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