Tri-Cities STEMcon

April 5, 2017

2017 STEMcon

"Radioactivity is Everywhere"

On March 15, 2017, NV5 health physicists Heather Healy and Brett Rosenberg volunteered at a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) outreach event where high school students had the opportunity to interact in half day sessions with local career professionals in related fields. The event, called “STEMcon,” was held at the Tri-Cities Campus of Washington State University and included participants from two local high schools. The topic, which had been well developed by Susan Winslow and Mark Fishburn in previous years, was titled “Radioactivity is Everywhere.” 

Learning Radioactive Decay with M&Ms

It was imperative to maximize hands-on experiences in the two 2-hour sessions. After students were taught the fundamentals of atoms and radioactive decay, they experimented with the concept of half-life and its connection with probability. Students rolled M&Ms and removed those that landed face-down to simulate the random process of radioactive decay. The results were graphed, and the class produced an excellent decay curve!

Detecting Radioactivity in Household Sources

Students also got the opportunity to use radiation detectors provided by Mission Support Alliance’s Radiological Site Services and detect radioactivity in common household sources such as lantern mantels, smoke detectors, and the famous Fiestaware. Students explored the principles behind distance and shielding using the household radioactive materials and discussed how it pertains to radiation protection in the workplace.

Calculating Personal Radiation Doses

Finally, students were asked to calculate their personal annual radiation dose using a survey from the NRC. This activity reinforced the idea that radioactivity is indeed everywhere.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Health Physicists

Heather’s and Brett’s diverse backgrounds were well-received by the students. There were inquiries about cosmic radiation, nuclear fuel, and the Fukushima accident. One of many goals for an outreach program is to spur questions from students synthesizing the new information with their current understanding of the world around them. Not only did this program inspire and incite critical thinking, but it provided a foundation on which careers in health physics could be built.