Young engineers create chain reaction at Crone Middle School

 
 
Posted10/18/2017 11:45 AM
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  • Eighth-grade students in an Energy and the Environment class at Crone Middle School in Naperville create a chain reaction with small balloons representing neutrons undergoing fission. Two nuclear engineers from Exelon, one of them a Crone grad himself, led the activity as part of a presentation about nuclear power.

      Eighth-grade students in an Energy and the Environment class at Crone Middle School in Naperville create a chain reaction with small balloons representing neutrons undergoing fission. Two nuclear engineers from Exelon, one of them a Crone grad himself, led the activity as part of a presentation about nuclear power. Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

  • Jaspreet Rehal, a 2005 graduate of Crone Middle School in Naperville and a nuclear engineer at Exelon, speaks with eighth-graders at his alma mater, explaining the clean energy characteristics of nuclear power.

      Jaspreet Rehal, a 2005 graduate of Crone Middle School in Naperville and a nuclear engineer at Exelon, speaks with eighth-graders at his alma mater, explaining the clean energy characteristics of nuclear power. Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

  • Crone Middle School eighth-graders Amisha Gambhir and Kany Ouedraogo take notes on nuclear power during a presentation to their Energy and the Environment class by two Exelon nuclear engineers, one of them a Crone graduate himself.

      Crone Middle School eighth-graders Amisha Gambhir and Kany Ouedraogo take notes on nuclear power during a presentation to their Energy and the Environment class by two Exelon nuclear engineers, one of them a Crone graduate himself. Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

Jaspreet Rehal walked out of Crone Middle School 12 years ago as an eighth-grade graduate just like everyone else in the Class of 2005.

He walked back in this month as a high school graduate, college graduate and nuclear engineer ready to speak to eighth-graders about the clean energy characteristics of the fuel he works to produce.

Rehal and co-worker Christina Balegman of Chicago represented the North American Young Generation in Nuclear organization and their employer, Exelon, as they spoke to about 30 students in science teacher Sandra Knight's Energy and the Environment class.

"We want them to know nuclear power is a source of electricity," Rehal said. "And it's not scary."

Knight, a former ceramic chemist and electrochemist for General Motors, invited the guest speakers as a way to explain a complex topic like nuclear power in a lesson more interactive than the typical lecture.

"It's really important to me to bring that real-world science like I had," Knight said.

The Crone grad and his co-worker delivered on the interactive part, giving each student two small balloons and teaching them how to create a chain reaction.

Fission reactions among neutrons are a key component of creating nuclear power, Rehal and Balegman explained. The reactions build slowly but become steady, with each split of one neutron causing more fissions to occur.

It was the same general principle with the orbs of air students released toward the learning resource center's high ceiling for a free-for-all minute of half-controlled chaos.

Rehal gave each student two balloons to hold, then release at the right moment. He let loose the first balloon and told whoever it hit to immediately throw both of his or her balloons up into the air. Anyone else struck by a balloon was to do the same, and, voila -- chain reaction.

The chain reactions that generate nuclear power also create steam and a small amount of nuclear waste, but that's about it, Balegman and Rehal told the students.

"In a nuclear cycle, we're not releasing anything into the environment," Rehal said. "It's 100 percent carbon-free."

Nuclear amounts for 20 percent of the power used in the United States and a higher proportion in densely populated states like Illinois, where Exelon operates five nuclear plants.

"We're generating large amounts of power consistently," Rehal said. "It is a big part of the electricity you get every day."

Crone student Kany Ouedraogo said she was surprised to learn there are only about 100 nuclear reactors in the country, as the fuel generates so much power it's only needed in highly populated areas.

Her classmate, Luke Ernst, said he was glad to learn of the security measures in place to protect nuclear employees from accidents or terrorism as they meet the nation's power needs.

"I thought that'd be causing global warming or harming the environment," Luke said. "But they said it's not emitting greenhouse gases."

Energy and the Environment students took a break from their classroom activity of the moment, building wind turbine blades, to hear Rehal and Balegman speak. Knight said failure is a constant in an experimentation-based class like this, and students come in prepared to learn by doing -- no matter the missteps.

It was the same for Rehal and Balegman as they studied nuclear engineering at the universities of Illinois and Wisconsin, respectively. The 20-something engineers said they hoped to pass along their passion with their visit to Crone -- one of roughly 10 school stops they make each year.

"At the end of the day," Rehal said, "we want to inspire the kids."

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