Michael Lombardi, a former biology and environmental science teacher at Rutherford High School in Panama City, Florida, loved to teach evolution. "I really liked that I could debunk some of the myths," says Lombardi. "Children have a natural curiosity about the natural world. There is no better time to teach them than when they have questions."
Science educators like Lombardi are often on the front lines when it comes to preparing students to become informed adults, and they could use some help—from scientists. "In politics, it would be called a town hall meeting. In [science] education, it would be good to have a professional interact with students," adds Lombardi.
Addressing the Gap Between Science and the Public
Scientists participating in a 2009 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science found fault with the science literacy of the public and the quality of science presented as fact by the media. The two combined are a science nightmare.
While the scientific community wrings its hands, citizens and officials hoping to understand and make decisions about energy, non-proliferation, the long-term storage of used nuclear fuel and any number of other controversial nuclear topics face a daunting obstacle: understanding a science that they can’t see.
I should point out that this isn't a post in favor of nuclear energy. It's not really about energy policy or non-proliferation or Yucca Mountain or even a sad chuckle at the satirical portrayal of a fish with three eyes. It's what I hope is the start of a conversation about nuclear education, a small but important part of the bigger conversation surrounding scientific literacy.
Nuclear Science is Not the Enemy
There's a National Academy of Sciences study underway right now to make sure that the United States has enough nuclear trained scientists to maintain our nuclear future, which includes taking care of our nuclear past. My own experience makes me believe that there will be enough trained experts to take the reins—surely the excitement alone of working at the edge of science is enough to ensure a steady line of Ph.D. students getting expert training in nuclear fields. My concern is that the basics of nuclear chemistry, the parts that distinguish the science from the sensationalism when accidents happen, have been overlooked by the public education system.
I recently spoke with Lester Morss about the effect that a long-standing bad reputation has had on the public’s nuclear education. Morss, a retired Department of Energy program manager, began his career researching and teaching chemistry at Rutgers University and later served as a senior actinide chemist at Argonne National Laboratory.
"Chernobyl and now Fukushima have influenced public opinion in a very negative way about anything nuclear," says Morss. "There are hundreds of success stories in nuclear science—the fields of medicine, geology have benefitted as well as the public."
Starting the Conversation about Nuclear Education
Unfortunately, these positive nuclear attributes aren’t exciting enough to make the evening news. So I asked a few other people for their opinions—experts in areas of nuclear science, educators, administrators, all of the above—how do we get people excited about nuclear science? How do we change the perception that it’s all bad news? Their opinions are similar: outreach, outreach, outreach.
"The people who are trained in [nuclear science] need to do considerable outreach," says Darleane Hoffman, who completed a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry in 1951.
Since then she has had a front-row seat for many of nuclear science’s biggest achievements. A colleague praised by Glenn Seaborg, Hoffman became the first woman to lead the Chemistry-Nuclear Chemistry Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1979 and was has been influential in the study of transactinide elements (also known as ‘super-heavy’ elements, those elements with atomic numbers greater than the actinide series).
"When I was younger, I used to go around talking to women’s groups a lot. I would go to grade schools. I would talk to grade school students about elements, show them what things around them are made of, and I would show the periodic table," Hoffman explains.
Peter Burns, professor and leader of an actinide crystallography research group at the University of Notre Dame, has visited elementary schools and his local Lions Club on several occasions to discuss his work and its impact.
While he finds it easy to captivate an audience for a short period of time, Burns explains the problem this way, "Nuclear science is not visual. NASA has a very visual product to show people. There’s nothing quite like photographs of the moon taken by astronauts in orbit."
In the long-term, this visual problem carries over to public opinion. "You can’t see [radioactivity]. People are afraid of what they can’t see. Of course we can detect radioactivity, but a lot of people don’t even know we can do that," says Burns.
"What people learn in school has a significant impact on their attitudes and behavior," says Bradley Moore, an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of California-Berkeley. "If we were to make a conscientious effort to include nuclear science in chemistry and physics courses—that would have an impact."
Image credits: Brandon Morrison