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Science lesson reveals toxic effect of radium on female workers

Students discover the mechanisms behind a tragic chapter in American history

A century ago, health problems began plaguing the women and girls who worked at the Radium Dial Company. Agonizing pain. Tumors. Jawbones cracking at the hinges. What was happening to these employees, who spent their days painting faces on timepieces?

Sophomores in teacher Grace Boersma’s classroom at Godwin Heights High School recently discovered for themselves how the radium in paint that made watch dials glow left a legacy of illness and death in its wake.

“They were selling radium as miracle drugs. They put it in water; they used it for paint,” sophomore Logan Hagen said. “They put it in all these things saying it was a cure-all, without actually knowing the bad side effects.”

The “Radium Girls” who painted the watch faces were taught to wet the brushes in their mouths to create a fine tip between dips in the paint, thereby ingesting the radium.

10th grade science teacher Grace Boersma prompts student Logan Hagen to think about ways to experiment with a marble and ping pong ball that represent calcium and radium

A Highly Charged Lesson

If you only caught bits and pieces of the class, you might think this was a history or an ethics class. But it’s all part of a storyline for Boersma’s science class. Over five weeks, students delved into the periodic table, the structure of human bones, half lives of elements, and alpha, beta, and gamma particles, among other things. Inspired by occasional “tweets” from a science teacher who created a unit on the Radium Girls, Boersma and colleague Derek Stoneman designed a series of labs for their own students.

“We thought, ‘we should do this too’, because the storyline is so engaging,” said Boersma.

Using the scant resources they found, Boersma and Stoneman created the unit basically from scratch.

Inquiring minds

“You have a ping pong and a marble. Which is calcium and which is radium?” Boersma asked her student, as they studied how radium ended up in the women’s bones.

The classroom erupted in discussion as students hypothesized which sphere represented which element.

“Radium is the marble because it’s heavier.”

“Calcium is the marble because it’s stronger and we want it in our bones.”

“Here’s my hint to you: don’t focus on the mass; focus on the size,” said Boersma.

Using a spot plate to represent bone lattice, students began experimenting: rolling the spheres into the plate, dropping them, and trying to understand which sphere represented which element, and why.

“Look at how the marble and the ping pong ball actually fit into the hole,” Boersma told a group. “Radium has a bigger structure than calcium. If you have a huge molecule trying to fit into a small place, what’s going to happen?”

“It’s going to break it,” answered a student.

It was the “aha moment”.

“It ‘clicked’ why radium replaced calcium,” said Sophomore Samara Mosley. “Today it just kind of all came together.”

Bone bonding with radium, an atom that is similar in structure and charge to calcium but much greater in size, put pressure on the bones and weakened them. Logan surmised correctly that entering the body via the mouth sent radium to the nearest bones, the tiny jaw hinges, explaining why entire jaws would break off.

“Just learning how to organize the periodic table with the valence electrons and number of rings around the atoms is the biggest thing we learned,” said Logan.

Elements of Ethics

While the story engaged students in science, the broader lessons proved equally captivating.

Samara said, “The thing that stuck with me most is how you can do something that you think is completely safe and you find out later it’s not and you’ve got all this stuff in your body and you can’t get it out.”

She compared it to vaping today: “People do it a lot and don’t realize how bad it is for you.”

With the science piece complete, students had one more challenge: making the case for either the company or the employees in an oral argument in front of a jury of ninth graders from Stoneman’s class.

“I’ll probably take the side of the company,” said student Daniel Montoya, “because it would be more fun. Obviously, I think they’re wrong, but it would be fun to take a different view because it’s a challenge.”

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The Biology Chronicles

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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting.

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