students working on the atomic bomb project

The Advent of the Atomic Bomb

By Sam Chafe

Science can be intimidating, confusing and sometimes scary to many students.

Karen Harpp’s CORE science class, The Advent of the Atomic Bomb, is making science interesting and much more interactive.

“The class is about early nuclear weapons,” says Harpp. “It’s not just about science, it’s about all of the factors that went into using the first nuclear bombs.”

Harpp looks at the class as a way to help students get back into science. She says many times students grow up having to memorize and regurgitate information, and that can scare them away from science.

“This class gives students the skills to achieve and to not be afraid of science,” says Harpp. “Science doesn’t have to be confusing or intimidating.”

Just its title is intriguing to students.

“It sounded interesting when I saw it, so I decided to give it a try,” says Kristen Drake, a sociology student. “I have learned a lot of information about the war and the decisions made that I would have never thought I would ever know.”

Journalism student Max Bartlett says that Harpp is very involved and into the subjects that she teaches and that helps get the class involved.

“She’s involved, she’s not just teaching a class,” says Bartlett. “She is very engaging.”

One of the ways she gets her students involved in the class is by re-enacting the battle of Okinawa.

“The students are split up into groups and given specific information that each military organization had,” says Harpp. “The U.S. side plans their invasion, while the Japanese side plans for the invasion.”

In the packet of information each team is given, there are the number of troops available, number of tanks, ships, artillery, supply lines, a weather report and a map of the terrain. The Japanese side has the same information, but they get the advantage of seeing images of the terrain and building caves.

“The intensity of the fighting in the Pacific Theater, which related to all these factors, ultimately contributed to the use of the atomic bombs,” says Harpp.

After the students strategize, Harpp provides the class with a map and each side plots out their attack, like in the game of RISK.

“One side is the U.S., and the other is the Japanese,” says Drake. “It was very hands on; one side made a move and then the other made their move.”

Having students strategize like this is a great way to help them think critically in the future.

“The students get really into it,” says Harpp. “In another exercise related to understanding the complex factors contributing to the decision to use the bombs, I have someone come in and play President Truman and the students present their views as to why or why not the bomb should be used. This year, we have a guest from the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Scott Willey, who will be interacting with the students as they make their presentations and giving them feedback.”

Lawrence Johnston, a U-Idaho emeritus physics professor, also came to the class. Johnston is the only person in the world to have witnessed all three atomic bomb detonations: The Trinity Test, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Guest speakers like these are just more reasons this class is so interesting.

“The class is very engaging,” says Drake. “Karen is a great teacher; she really gets the class involved with the discussions.”

One way she makes the class relevant is by helping students with their decision to drop or not drop the bomb through watching movies. The class watches documentaries about Japanese soldiers, as well as movies like “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Dr. Strangelove.”

“The movies help us get a mindset of the people of that time,” says Jordan Bennett, a psychology major. “They help us be more immersed in the time period.”

Bennett says the movies helped the students when they reenacted the battle of Okinawa.

“The movies allowed us to see what really happened,” says Bennett. “We were able to fix their mistakes or do something completely different and improve on both sides.”

While this may not be an average lecture class, Bennett says that Harpp is a great teacher who holds her students to a higher standard.

“She isn’t like any other teacher,” says Bennett. “She is very engaging and expects more from us, it makes things fun.”

On April 19, Harpp and her class traveled to Richland, Wash., to visit the Hanford site where much of the work on the Atomic Bombs was done. There, they received a tour of one of the original reactors that has been preserved since WWII.

Following the return from Hanford, the class learned about the Cold War.