Engaging children with Nuclear Engineering

It’s nearly 16 months since we last enjoyed an engineering visit at Rode Heath, and even then, it was only virtual, with engineer and entrepreneur, Laurence Cooke, engaging our pupils over a 45-minute Zoom.

So it was with huge pleasure that we welcomed seven engineers and scientists from the Dalton Nuclear Institute and Sheffield University – in the flesh – to teach our KS2 pupils about Nuclear Engineering..

The event had been a long time in the planning and significant thanks go to our science governor, Dr Paul Nevitt – Science and Technology Director at the National Nuclear Laboratory – for introducing us to Rachel Law, Outreach & Communications Office for the Dalton Nuclear Institute, who brought the team together.

Inspiring role models

We couldn’t have asked for better role models for our pupils. The energy and enthusiasm they shared for their areas of expertise was infectious. Nuclear Energy is not the simplest subject matter to convey to primary aged children but the group managed to both energise and educate our learners over the course of the day, as evidence from the work that was produced clearly shows.

It all started with an assembly, led by James Mansfield, PhD Researcher at the Immobilisation Science Laboratory (the University of Sheffield), who having introduced his colleagues, gave an overview of how nuclear energy is made. This was the first time since COVID disrupted our lives that the pupils have been gathered together in the hall and what an amazing re-introduction it was.

James introduces his colleagues: Kirstie, Tatiana, Meg, Reza and Jess

Not only did James entertain us with a word-perfect rendition of the Periodic Table song – (who knew that so many elements make up nuclear waste!) – he then demonstrated how we keep waste safe by helping one of our Year 4 pupils wrap a fellow classmate in multiple layers of clingfilm, tin foil, kitchen roll and brown paper to represent the four layers of glass, metal canister, clay and solid rock.

James measured Hattie’s temperature before and after being wrapped up. It was interesting to see that it had dropped from 24 – 19 degrees, clearly illustrating the insulating properties of the materials.

Next it was time for some activities.

Interactive nuclear stations

There were five interactive ‘nuclear stations’ set up for the children and expertly manned by the volunteers.

These included: –

  1. Using robots and a ‘glovebox’ to move ‘radioactive materials’ around
  2. Splitting your own atom and see how a fission reactor works
  3. Using a Geiger counter to see how radioactive things really are
  4. Learning more about nuclear waste disposal using a Lego model
  5. Using a plasma ball to learn about nuclear fusion

Reza, who was responsible for activity 2, had designed and 3D printed two halves of a uranium atom, which the children threw ‘neutrons’ at to split. It had taken over 40 hours to print, which reminded me of our own foray into 3D printing during our ‘Out of this World’ space project.

The children were completely engrossed and asked many searching questions. The complexity of the subject matter didn’t seem to faze them at all and they were able to clearly explain the processes when encouraged by those leading the activities.

Evidence of their learning was further demonstrated back in class where each pupil was tasked with producing a poster to display their understanding of nuclear energy.

The results speak for themselves.

Huge thanks must go to Jess Paterson and Kirstie Ryan, Reza Farrokhnia, Meg Watters, James Mansfield and Tatiana Grebennikova, who expertly delivered their sessions 20 times over the course of the day – always with great enthusiasm and a smile on their face.

Exposing children to real engineers and scientists is hugely important if we wish to make them aware of the wide range of exciting STEM careers available to them. Our visitors today certainly gave our Rode Heath pupils plenty to aspire to.

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