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What’s missing from American schools’ curricula? Nuclear weapons via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

By Sara Z. Kutchesfahani

This week, students across the United States are heading back to school. While many high schools and universities are still deciding whether classes this semester will happen online, in-person, or in some hybrid combination, one thing is certain: Nuclear weapons are not a standard part of their class curricula.

A perpetual question of self-reflection in the nuclear professional community is why so few people are aware of the dangers associated with nuclear weapons, especially in the United States, a country that boasts 43 percent of the total global nuclear stockpile.

But the answer is fairly simple. Nuclear weapons issues are not a standard part of secondary school education, nor are they widely covered in undergraduate and graduate programs. A 2018 survey of 1,100 high school students in Washington State found that less than 1 percent even knew which countries possessed nuclear weapons. The finding was all the more startling because the students live in a nuclear-armed country themselves, and in an area with a nuclear legacy dating back to the Manhattan Project.

While the situation is not as bad at the university level, the number of undergraduate courses that cover nuclear weapons issues is still low. A 2019 study on undergraduate nonproliferation education found that, among 75 of the top-ranked public, private, and military institutions in the country, on average, each institution offered seven such courses over a two-year academic period, or less than two courses per semester. A good way to contextualize that is to compare it to course offerings on climate change—the other most pressing threat to humanity’s survival. The same study found that on that topic, the nation’s three leading public, private, and liberal arts institutions each offered between 19 and 30 courses during just a single academic year (2017–2018).

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First, check out a new platform that offers a diverse volunteer network of professionals ready to speak with students and teachers about topics, lessons, classes, college, internships, and career advice on nuclear issues. The platform is called NRICHED, and its creators want to empower students with agency to tackle the world’s biggest problems through experiential learning. Beyond the network of professionals, the platform also offers engaging, memorable lesson plans to help enhance understanding of nuclear weapons issues.

Second, consider offering a nuclear security undergraduate class at your institution, and press administrators to recognize its importance. For those whose administrators are hesitant, the Stanton Foundation provides grant support for the development of new nuclear-related courses for undergraduates each academic year. (Full disclosure: I was the lucky recipient of such a grant, which allowed me to teach a course on nuclear security policy, the first of its kind to be offered at the undergraduate level, at the University of Maryland this past spring.)

Third, enlist the outstanding work of Girl Security, an organization that provides specialized programming for (female) high school students on national security subjects, including nuclear weapons. The Girl Security team helps empower young women with practical training through simulation exercises developed by women national security practitioners. Moreover, they provide girls with placement in a phased mentorship network, pairing them with women national security professionals who are one step ahead of them in their academic and professional advancement.

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