Bringing the Manhattan Project to the classroom

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By Jennifer Garcia

For the first time, teachers from New Mexico and Colorado had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the history of the Manhattan Project for future use in their classrooms.

Made possible by the Atomic Heritage Foundation, the group of 25 educators spent three days in Santa Fe at St. John’s College, making their way to Los Alamos where they toured various properties and absorbed information about the Manhattan Project.

The teachers have diverse plans for how they will put what they learned at the workshop to use in their classrooms.

For example, a Navajo language and studies teacher hopes to use the perspective from the pueblos and the Hispanic communities to compare experience to that of the Navajo people.

In contrast, an elementary school teacher from Los Alamos seeks to use the workshop to help teach her students about their city’s history from the perspective of their neighbors, rather than relying solely on textbook accounts.

Many participants hope to utilize the information they gain at the workshop to create new, interdisciplinary programs for teaching students in New Mexico about the Manhattan Project.

The group spent time meeting with prominent historians, authors, veterans, government officials and Pueblo and Hispanic representatives.

“This is perfect for them,” Atomic Heritage Foundation Coordinator Catherine Hollander said.

“Hopefully it (the workshop) will go on for two more years. New Mexico teachers are required to teach the Manhattan Project. It’s part of the social studies curriculum,” she said.

On Thursday, the group came to Los Alamos where they visited the Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos Historical Society Museum, had lunch at Fuller Lodge with Manhattan Project veterans J. Wechsler and George Cowan and were given a special tour of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s former home on Bathtub Row, as well as other Manhattan Project properties.

The group had dinner at Central Avenue Grill with members of the county council.

The group also met with San Ildefonso Pueblo Gov. Leon Roybal and talked with him about how the Manhattan Project affected the pueblo and what sort of changes took place because of it.

In addition, Ferenc Szasz, a history professor at the University of New Mexico and Jay Shelton, a teacher at Santa Fe Preparatory School, discussed the birth of the atomic bomb and the science behind it. Jon Hunner, a professor of public history at New Mexico State University described life at Los Alamos.

John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal offered insight on the legacy of the Manhattan Project and Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group provided an historical look at nuclear weapons opposition.

The intent of the Los Alamos tours was to give the teachers firsthand experiences that will help them make history come alive for their students.

Hollander was pleased with the turnout and excited about the teachers’ enthusiasm. “I wish we could do this for all teachers,” she said.

The workshop was made possible by donations from Los Alamos National Bank, the Office of Environmental Management, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, the Kerr Foundation, the Albert I. Pierce Foundation and the County Council.