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Can Leetso and Hozho' Coexist?
Uranium Education for Middle School Students

According to the Navajos, a monster is something that gets in the way of a successful life, a life lived in beauty and harmony (hozhó). The Navajo (Diné) name for uranium is leetso, meaning "yellow brown" or "yellow dirt," after the color of the uranium-bearing ore. In the Diné culture, one of the best ways to overcome or weaken a monster is to name it. Such a monster was born on July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb exploded at Alamogordo, New Mexico.

This unit (Can Leetso and Hozhó Coexist?) attempts to dispel the common fears and myths related to radiation, radioactivity, uranium mining and milling, and the nuclear industry. At the same time, students are encouraged to form their own opinions about the issues based upon investigations of the available facts and to consider ways to live in harmony with the powerful forces released by nuclear energy. This unit is of particular importance to students who live in communities that continue to feel the impact of the Cold War and the development of nuclear energy, including the Colorado Plateau states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Many of these communities are on tribal lands, including five distinct geographic areas of the Navajo Nation that contain 1100 abandoned uranium mines. Only 451 of these have been reclaimed to any extent; the others continue to pose multiple threats to public health. Students in the area need to have the appropriate information to make wise decisions related to their personal behavior and to community management.

As indicated on the accompanying graphic, this unit is designed as an integrated unit of study. Although the topic is based in the sciences, the activities and projects demand significant use of language arts, life skills, design skills, social studies and math skills (see table of applicable Arizona Academic Standards in Appendix). As such, this unit could be taught as a part of any of these courses. In addition to the Arizona science standards listed, this unit specifically addresses the national science content standards for middle school students regarding science in personal and social perspectives (personal health; populations, resources and environments; natural hazards; risks and benefits; and science and technology in society), science as inquiry (understanding and abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry), physical science (properties and changes of properties in matter), and science and technology (understanding the similarities, differences and relationships between science and technology). Similarly, some of the national standards for the other disciplines are also addressed in this unit.

In addition to the specific content areas mentioned above, the overarching concepts of evidence, models, explanation, change, constancy and measurement are also inherent in the unit. These unifying concepts transcend disciplinary boundaries. Utilizing planned assessments that tap into the six facets of understanding (see Facet Chart) results in a broader view of student perceptions and misconceptions. Unlike Bloom's taxonomy, these facets also incorporate the affective, as well as the cognitive, domains.

This unit makes no attempt to "cover the subject" in any of the applicable classes. The goal is to present students with authentic learning experiences of particular significance in the affected communities. I hope that both students and educators will use this unit to continue to develop those habits of mind such as open-mindedness, self-discipline, tolerance for ambiguity, and reflectiveness that lead to more enlightened lives.


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Last updated: April 4, 2002


“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestor, we borrow it from our children”
Native American Proverb