Saturday, November 17

We Were There at the Opening of the Atomic Era

This was one of my sons' favorite books from the series!  They loved how it incorporated history and science, and I think your children will love the unit study, too.  We're going to start with a field trip to the American Museum of Science and Energy, located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee....come along!

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The museum has models of atoms right out front, so we know we're in the right place!

What you'll find inside is a hair-raising experience!  Actually, here, our son is testing out a Van de Graaff generator.  It creates static electricity by brushing a rubber belt across a steel brush, which transfers the static electricity into the ball.  The electricity builds up and then flows through the body, transferring the negative charges and causing the hair strands to repel each other.

We had a chance to try some of the same equipment that was used back in the 1940s by the female Calutron operators. The Calutrons (California University Cyclotrons) used electromagnetic separation to collect uranium-235.
Some of the permanent exhibits include a "Daily Life" photograph hall and this model of the graphite reactor.  By pulling the graphite rods in and out of the container, they stop absorbing the radioactive isotopes and allow a nuclear reaction to occur.  A nuclear reaction was needed to create a bomb, but they needed to be able to control and contain it during production.

The nuclear reaction was created as uranium fuel slugs were pushed (manually) through the core.  The container (shown above) was filled with graphite bricks to absorb the radioactive isotopes.  The uranium slugs fell into a water-filled canal that led to a facility where the plutonium was separated out of the slugs.
The kids' section really brought nuclear energy to life!  In nuclear plants, the splitting of uranium atoms creates a lot of heat.  Nuclear power plants use this heat to create steam, which turns the blades of a turbine to power a generator.  The generator produces electricity, and the water goes back into the reactor cell to be re-used (closed loop system).  Uranium must be refined before it can be used in a nuclear reactor, but a 1/2" diameter uranium pellet provides as much energy as 120 gallons of oil!  

We also learned how supercomputers are so powerful...  Each one of the lines separates a different processing unit, as depicted by the varying colors.  When you combine then, they create a remarkably fast computer!
Bombs were on display over in the airplane section...we learned about how nuclear energy has been used in the military over the past seventy years.  The bombs produced in this We Were There book were carried to Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the Enola Gay, a B-29 Superfortress.
Just outside the museum stands an original prefabricated home, one of thousands that were built to house the Oak Ridge workers and their families.  It is a tiny, two-bedroom home with a combination dining and living room area and only one bathroom.  It is only 576 square feet, and has very thin walls.  You can touch the historic artifacts and step back in time....

Manhattan Project / Nuclear Science unit :
The Manhattan Project was a secret military project created to produce the first nuclear weapon in the US.  It was 1942, and there were fears that Nazi Germany had a nuclear weapon during World War II, so the US wanted to get ahead of them.  Nuclear facilities were constructed at Oak Ridge, TN and Hanford, WA, while the main assembly plant was at Los Alamos, NM.  Scientists developed two types of bombs, a uranium-based design (Little Boy) and a plutonium-based design (Fat Man).  Eventually, the project put an end to WW2 by using these weapons of mass destruction, thus forcing Japan to surrender.

How was Einstein involved?
Albert Einstein helped to influence the project when he wrote to President Roosevelt in 1939, warning of possible German weapons and proposing US research into atomic energy.  The atomic bomb illustrated his principle that a large amount of energy could be released from a small amount of matter.  You probably know it as E=mc2 (Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.)  This was part of his Theory of Relativity.  

Why was it called "Manhattan," if none of the sites were there?
New York City is where the ideas and founders of the project began.  Oppenheimer grew up on Riverside Drive; Columbia University housed the first atomic bomb research; and uranium was secretly warehoused in Manhattan and on Staten Island.

Bonus fact...
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had a little more magic than truth.  You couldn't survive an atomic bomb inside a lead-lined refrigerator.


Make / Do
Define / Identify
  • Atoms
  • Proton / Neutron / Electron
  • Atomic Mass
  • Isotope
  • Anion / Cation
  • Gamma Radiation / Alpha Radiation
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer
  • Niels Bohr
  • Enrico Fermi
  • Trinity
  • Nagasaki / Hiroshima
  • Enola Gay
  • Fat Man / Little Boy
  • Uranium 235 / Uranium 238
  • site locations of the Project (use the map at right)


  • Read through the primary sources in Hiroshima - Was it Necessary? (high school and up) and form an opinion.  Write an essay defending your opinion with primary sources.
  • What might have happened if Nazi Germany had developed a nuclear weapon before the United States?
  • What are some positive effects of the development of nuclear energy?  What are the overall effects of the development of the atomic bomb?
  • If this is a topic that interests you, explore further at the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

Access all 36 living history studies in the 'We Were There' Novel Studies Bundle!

Includes THIRTY-SIX unit studies covering World & American History. Each unit addresses a new topic, spanning the the ancient world through post-WW2.  Each unit has introductory text, which will give the student basic background information about the topic at hand.

  • There are photographs and illustrations, and we have also included primary documents when available.
  • After this text, there are featured videos, which augment the background information and help make the topic more accessible for more visual students.
  • You will also find a short list of reading books, including a featured novel that the unit builds upon.
  • There are vocabulary words, places, and people to identify.
  • Reading comprehension, critical thinking questions, and writing assignments are included.
  • We add fun with hands-on activities and extra videos to watch that will bring the era to life.

These studies are directed toward upper grades students, but some have resources for younger students so that the whole family can work together. Our family has used unit studies as curriculum for many years, and we hope that your family will enjoy these, too!

Product Samples:

Get the entire World War 2 Bundle!


  • The Book Thief
  • We Were There at the Battle of Britain
  • Number the Stars
  • The Winged Watchmen
  • We Were There at Pearl Harbor
  • We Were There at the Battle of Bataan
  • Island War
  • Red Stars
  • The Night Witches
  • Mare’s War
  • We Were There at the Normandy Invasion
  • Code Talkers
  • We Were There at the Battle of the Bulge
  • The Light Between Us
  • We Were There at the Open of the Atomic Era
  • A Merry 1940s Christmas

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  1. What an interesting one! I grew up in NM and so Los Alamos and the Trinity site are places I am familiar with, though they were not places we visited due to security, even now. I find this fascinating and loved looking through all of these resources. What a neat unit study!

    1. Thanks, Lori! Visiting Los Alamos is on our future to-do list...even with the security clearance hurdles. If you get to TN, I recommend a trip to the AMSE, too!

  2. What a fabulous field trip for this unit study! We will have to incorporate your unit study when we get to WWII.

    Thanks for linking up at Drop Everything and Read at Tales of a Pee Dee Mama.

    1. Lots of great ideas over at DEAR! If you're doing WW2, there are three or four more books in this series set then, too. :)

  3. pinned this to my ww2 board for future study


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