Nuclear energy is an amazing concept. Imagine all the energy the sun creates is caused by nuclear reactions. Granted, as humans, we’ve not done such a good job of harmlessly harnessing the power of nuclear reactions, but we have made great strides. So, for our Science in Action this week N is for nuclear reactions.
There are two types of nuclear reactions – nuclear fission, which is the division of the atom into smaller particles. The act of division releases a whole lot of energy. And there’s nuclear fusion, which is the compression of two atoms until they become one new atom. Nuclear fusion actually releases more energy than nuclear fission. Humans have been able to develop ways to create nuclear fission and harness that release of power to create electricity. We have not yet mastered the process of nuclear fusion — which is what the sun does, every day, all the time, without thinking. Humbling, isn’t it?
Splitting and Fusing Atoms
We did not do any atom splitting or combining, per se, but we had a lot of fun pretending we were splitting or fusing atoms. My preschoolers loved describing the release of energy when the atoms “split” or “fused.” And, I had a blast teaching them about it.
Objective: To introduce the children to the general concepts of nuclear fusion and fission.
Play clay, either homemade or store bought
One printout of the Nuclear Reactions follow worksheet, available here.
Atom – the smallest part of an element that is still that element, made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons.
Fusion – the mashing of two atoms together to form one different element. Usually, fusion goes up the periodic table. For example, two hydrogen atoms are smashed together to form one helium atom.
Fission – The splitting of heavier element into two lighter elements on the atomic level. For example: a uranium atom can split into barium and krypton atoms (with a few extra neutrons left over). Only uranium is found to be naturally radioactive.
Begin by explaining how the sun creates energy and how humans can also create energy. Emphasize that sun uses fusion – which is something humans cannot duplicate yet, and that humans use fission to generate electricity.
Now, have the children create “atoms” out of the clay. The atoms can be any size the children want them to be.
Next, show them what nuclear fusion looks like by taking two “atoms” and fusing them together to form another atom. Talk about how the new atom is completely different from the first two atoms.
Now, show them what nuclear fission looks like by taking an atom and splitting it in two. Talk about how much energy this reaction releases.
Let the children make “nuclear reactions” with their clay until they tire of the experience. Have them draw what nuclear fusion and fission look like in the space provided on the printable.
For older children: Have them finish filling out the rest of the printable and discuss their answers.
This activity really was a lot of fun. I enjoyed seeing the children’s reaction to all the splitting and smashing of clay. The children would make “energy” sound effects for each split or smash. At least I knew they were listening during the lesson.