K–12 Classroom Activities

The attraction to nuclear physics begins for many young people—elementary, middle- and high-school students—with curiosity about our solar system and stars. Then they learn of the drama of the heavens, the continual churn of activity taking place in the vastness of the universe that produces quarks, black holes, supernovae—mysteries of great fascination.

At NSCL, we love to guide young minds on this journey, showing them how we can apply what we learn from the heavens to answer some of the fundamental questions we face on earth.

  • Where did the elements that make up our bodies, our world, come from?
  • How can we apply knowledge we learn from the heavens to improve life on earth?

We see our involvement with K–12 teachers and students as our golden opportunity to spread understanding of our work and science and to recruit the scientists who will follow in our footsteps.

Working with a number of partners—MSU, the State of Michigan, the National Science Foundation, and others—we have contributed to the development of a number of engagement and discovery programs for K–12 teachers and students. Many of these programs are conducted at our facility and all include participation from our faculty. We also conduct tours of our laboratory for students of all ages and provide guest speakers to classes on request.

Further, laboratories provide unique opportunities to develop innovative teaching tools. Here at NSCL, we have spent years fine-tuning methods to explain the inner workings of a nucleus. Listed below are links to classroom activities - free to download - that can be used in any educational setting.

And for an excellent primer on nuclear physics and how students can benefit from the topic, read this excellent article from the magazine The Physics Teacher.

Catch a Cosmic Ray


Students use detectors to explore the nature of cosmic rays.

Audience: High school science classes

Where: NSCL, Michigan State University

How long: approximately 4 hours

What: For those classes of physics students who want to go beyond the tour, here's a chance to delve into the problem of cosmic rays with a hands-on experiment. After being treated to a discussion of the state of cosmic ray research, students will form their own hypotheses on the nature of cosmic rays and test them with directional detectors. This program includes materials for the teacher to use in class before and after visiting NSCL, turning it into a three-day lesson.

JINA logoImportant Notes: JINA offers grants to fund all or part of the travel costs for classes participating in this program. Due to equipment limitations, up to 24 students can participate at one time.

For more information: go to the Downloads page to find program resources or contact the Outreach Coordinator at visits@nscl.msu.edu

Students from Redford Union HS, April 17, 2008

Marble Nuclei


Students use magnetic marbles to simulate nuclear processes.

Audience: Middle/high school science students

Where: your classroom

How long: 60-90 minutes

What: This hands-on lesson plan is intended to give teachers the option to teach nuclear astrophysics to students in grades 7-12. The JINA/NSCL project centers around nuclear models constructed from magnets. Downloadable materials help the teacher guide students to investigate nuclear properties, unstable isotopes, decay modes, nuclear reactions, and more. The lessons can be taught with simply a supply of magnetic marbles, and there are related pieces of equipment that can also be used to demonstrate further concepts. Teachers can purchase marble sets below cost by emailing NSCL Outreach. These lessons can also be used in conjunction with a field trip to NSCL.

JINA logo

For more information: go to the JINAweb marble nuclei page to download program resources or contact the Outreach coordinator.


Students from Ovid-Elsie Schools, February 2, 2008