Campus researchers inform high schoolers about natural radiation

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Campus student researchers, in partnership with researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have worked with high school students to correct widespread misunderstanding about the detrimental effects of natural radiation.

Through DoseNet — a project that employs radiation sensors as a teaching tool — the researchers aim to educate students about radiation while familiarizing them with scientific analysis skills, according to Brian Plimley, a campus postdoctoral researcher involved with the project. Plimley said the group has installed sensors in six schools in the Bay Area as well as in an establishment in Japan, with plans to further expand internationally.

According to Plimley, the researchers taught students at Campolindo High School — one of the first schools involved in DoseNet — about three sources of natural radiation and performed hands-on radiation measurements.

Plimley added that one longterm goal for the project was to establish a “social network” whereby students across the globe could engage and collaborate on the topic of background radiation.

“Not everyone is a scientist or specialist, but everyone should have some fundamental understanding of nuclear radiation and why it should be a concern,” Plimley said, noting that radiation instills “fear and even panic” in the general public despite the prevalence of radiation in nature.

Ali Hanks, another campus postdoctoral researcher working on the project, said DoseNet is part of a larger program called RadWatch, which aims to quell fears that radiation from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident would impact the United States.

Hanks noted that although public insecurity about the accident has since subsided, general ignorance about radiation still needs to be addressed. She added that public overreaction could be “more damaging than the accident itself.”

According to Hanks, this lack of awareness partly stems from the dearth of nuclear science curriculum before college.

Per Peterson, a campus nuclear engineering professor, said the amount of harmful radiation caused by Fukushima in the United States is nearly undetectable.

Peterson said the public health impact of other issues, such as pollution, “absolutely dwarf” that of radiation by “orders of magnitude.” He noted that ailments presumably caused by exposure to background radiation, such as cancer, appear to have other contributing factors.

“Nobody knows for sure whether or what the health effects (of natural radiation) would be,” Peterson said. “But as a matter of prudency, we make sure people are not exposed at these low levels.”

According to Plimley, DoseNet researchers plan to expand the program by drawing supplemental data from weather stations, putting sensors outdoors and allowing students to connect to radiation sensor data over WiFi.

“How to understand when you’re at risk and when you’re not helps people to feel safe,” Hanks said.

Contact Kimberly Nielsen at [email protected].