The Course

syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 242kB Jul14 08)

Course Format

Course prerequisites

This course carries a prerequisite of one of the following general chemistry courses: Chemistry 104, Chemistry 108, Chemistry 109 or Chemistry 115.

Here is a list of topics covered either in the prerequisite courses or in high school chemistry. We assume that you are already familiar with them, but will review them for you during the first three weeks of the course.

  • The nucleus, mass number, atomic number, isotopes
  • Types of Radioactive Decay
  • Naturally occurring radioactive decay series
  • Interaction of Radiation with Matter
  • Mathematics of Radioactive Decay

The nuclear chemistry topics that we will cover in depth include:

  • Uranium: natural occurrence, isotopes
  • Uranium ores and the radioactive decay series
  • The uranium mining and milling process
  • Environmental cleanup and remediation of mines and mills
  • Nuclear Waste
  • Toxicity of Uranium
  • Splitting the Atom: Nuclear Fission
  • Exposure to radiation on Earth
  • The Nuclear Fuel Cycle
  • The Radium Dial Painters
  • Radiation as a carcinogen
  • Radon and Lung Cancer
Photos from the New Mexico Museum of Mining in Grants

Photo from the New Mexico Museum of Mining in Grants

Course Design

Semester Overview: Uranium and American Indians

Weeks 1-6

The class opens with a showing of "The Return of Navajo Boy." This documentary film quickly immerses the viewer in the Navajo language and culture, telling the story of a Navajo boy who was reunited with his family as a man, having years earlier been adopted by white missionaries. The film also portrays the trauma that the boy's family endured because members worked in the uranium mines.

Following the film, the first four weeks of the course tell two stories. Cathy describes uranium, its properties, and its history. Classroom presentations illustrate where and how uranium is found on the planet, its radioactive properties, its chemical behavior, radon and radium (two notorious decay products), detection and units of radioactivity, half-lives of radioisotopes, the mining and milling of uranium, the nuclear fuel cycle, the waste from the uranium mining process, and, of course, the process of nuclear fission which was one of the reasons uranium was mined, purified and enriched in the first place.

Simultaneously, Omie offers classroom presentations that explore the landscape and peoples of the Four Corners region. Dine: A History of the Navajos begins, "They are the children of Changing Woman. They are called the Navajos. They call themselves Dine." Omie discusses topics relating to the Dine, focusing on their history and culture, the Indian policies including reservation development (the Dawes Act and the Allotment Act), the policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the mining development, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), and the social impact of mining, including how it affected their health, their lifestyle and their communities.

Readings during weeks 1-6:

  1. Memories come to us in the rain and the wind: Oral histories and photographs of Navajo uranium miners and their families (2000). Jamaica Plain, MA: Red Sun Press.
  2. Eichstaedt, P. H. (1994). If you poison us: Uranium and Native Americans. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books.
  3. Middlecamp, C., "Nuclear Chemistry," 2002.

Weeks 7-9

Week 7 marks the beginning of lectures and class discussions on the health effects of radiation. In spring 2004, the guest speakers included:

  • Bruce Thomadsen, UW Medical Physics: "The Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation"
  • Doug Brugge, Tufts School of Medicine: "Uranium Mining, the Navajo People and Federal Compensation: Lessons in Fairness"
  • Dr. Tien Hoang, UW Medical School: "The Effects of Lung Cancer"
  • Dr. Jennie R. Jo, University of Arizona: "Dying While Waiting: The Fate of Navajo Uranium Miners"
  • Manuel Pino, Scottsdale Community College: "Uranium Mining at Laguna and Acoma Pueblos"
  • Milton Bluehouse, Jr., UW Law School: "The Social, Political, and Legal Context of Navajo Uranium Mining"

Sample readings during weeks 7-9:

  1. Brugge, D. (2002). The history of uranium mining and the Navajo people. American Journal of Public Health, 92(9).
  2. Jensen, D. (2000, July). How science ignores the living world: An interview with Vine DeLoria. The Sun, 4-13.
  3. Uranium mining and processing. Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation, Kerr-McGee Center, Oklahoma City, OK 73125.
  4. Yazzie-Lewis, E. (2001, Fall). Leetso, the powerful yellow monster: A perspective from the plateau. Petroglyph, Canyonland Natural History Association, Moab, UT.
  5. Hively, W. (2002, December). Is radiation good for you? Discover, 75-80.
  6. Selected articles, Voices from the Earth, a quarterly publication of the Southwest Research and Information Center, Albuquerque, NM.

Weeks 10-15

During the last 6 weeks of the semester, students make presentations on topics that weave together chemistry and indigenous culture. In each class period (75 minutes), two students share the time, presenting their work, answering questions, and leading the discussion. Students also provide a list of questions to guide study and discussion of the issues. Each presentation is accompanied by a 4-5 page paper (not including citations and figures).

The topic for the first of these presentations will be "indigenous people," answering questions such as: What is an indigenous person? Who are the indigenous people in the U.S.? What issues face indigenous people, especially in the U.S., but as time permits, with a world-wide perspective. We ask for two volunteers to split this first topic in any manner they wish.

Students choose the topics for the remainder of the presentations. Each one must explore in more depth the issues raised in If You Poison Us and The Dine, and/or raise new issues.

Examples of topics selected by students in the previous semester include:

  • Yucca Mountain: Storage of nuclear waste on or near tribal lands
  • Depleted Uranium (DU) and where the U.S. military tests/deploys it
  • The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and the Navajo People
  • The after-effects of nuclear weapons testing on the Marshall Islands
  • Weapons testing and tribal lands in the U.S.
  • Spirituality and the land
  • The Kerr McGee Corporation and the uranium miners


Pedagogical Methodologies

Understanding Context

This course, "Uranium and American Indians," teaches through a real-world issues that affects a community of people to the underlying scientific concepts. In taking this approach, our agenda was to give science and race/ethnicity an equal intellectual footing.

One way to represent our approach to teaching "Uranium and American Indians" is as follows:

Approach to Teaching Course

The further out one moves from the core, the richer the historical, social, ethnic, economic, and/or political context of the material.

To better understand how our course (and the diagram that represents it) differs from the norm, we show another representation that is more typical of a general chemistry course:

Typical Chemistry Teaching Approach

Such a course teaches "outwards," beginning with core chemical facts, concepts, and rules. Once these have been established, the instructor then may include real-world applications such as nuclear power plants or nuclear weapons. Other applications, of course, are possible as well. For example, a course that prepares health professionals many include applications in nuclear medicine such as PET or radiation therapy.

As evidenced by most text books, general chemistry courses teach "outward" only to a limited extent. The reasons for including fewer "real-world" examples (i.e., less context) vary, but presumably relate to instructors wanting to "cover" more topics, trading depth for breadth. Another reason may be that instructors prefer to stay within the comfort zone of their scientific discipline and not venture into the wider societal (and less tidy) issues.

Chemistry in Context Text

One notable exception in general chemistry is the textbook for nonscience majors, Chemistry in Context, a project of the American Chemical Society. Now going into its 5th edition, this text teaches chemistry through the real-world issues that face our society. Keeping with the example of nuclear chemistry, the nuclear chapter of Chemistry in Context opens with a discussion of the uranium pellets that fuel a commercial nuclear power reactor. The approach could be represented as follows:

Textbook Teaching Approach

Since its inception, Chemistry in Context has departed from the norm in two significant ways. First, it teaches inwards from an issue, rather than outwards from core principles. And second, it includes more layers of context than a typical general chemistry course. In fact, in 1999 Chemistry in Context was selected as one of the earliest of models for the SENCER project.

Uranium & American Indians utilizes the approach of Chemistry in Context, but departs from it in two ways. First, the course moves outward to the issues of nuclear weapons rather than those of nuclear power. Second, and more significantly, the course continues "outwards" until it reaches a community of people who were affected by the construction of nuclear weapons.

The issues raised in the book If You Poison Us led us outward to this higher degree of context. For example, where does the ore for one of the possible fissionable fuels (uranium-235) for nuclear weapons come from? Back during the Cold War, who mined it, milled it, processed it and where did this take place? And what happened (and is happening today) to these people and to the land on which they lived and worked? What public policies protected workers, their land and their communities? By asking questions such as these, the Navajo people who mined and milled the ore become intimately joined to chemical content.

Thus, by responding to the questions posed by a community of people and in turn moving outward from the discipline, a cultural and societal context becomes established. In so doing, ethnic communities claim a rightful place in the science curriculum. To fully understand the impact of nuclear fission, nuclear weapons, uranium mining and nuclear waste, the science behind these requires an understanding of the people involved and their culture. Likewise, for the people to undersatnd what happened to them and to their land, an understanding of the scientific principles is required.

This model, with science at the center, well represents the teaching of science through a capacious and complex issue. However, we realize its limitations. First, it is too simplistic, in that the teaching trajectory is far from linear. As you will see in the syllabus, we do start at the "outside" as with a film about the uranium miner, their land, and their deaths from lung cancer. To understand these deaths, we reach both inward towards scientific principles. But as the course progresses, the discussions move easily in both directions along the arrow. Thus, it might be better represented as:

Class Discussion Diagram

Second, we realize that the model is chemistry-centered, which is not true to the actual course dynamics where the course content centered both on chemistry and Navajo culture. To address this, we might use this alternate representation:

Public Policy Issues

Here, the issues of public policy are the point of overlap between the issues facing a cultural group, and the scientific principles related to these issues. This same information is presented in more detail in the chart in the previous section.