Flying the Radioactive Skies Case Study - Biology

Education Services / L’équipe des services d’éducation
2 November 2016

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In this case study, students will learn about the biological effects of ionizing radiation and will discuss the health risks from cosmic radiation to flight crews and other long-distance airline passengers.

Suggested Timing: 110 minutes plus time outside of class


Regular long-distance fliers (i.e., flight crews and frequent travellers) are exposed to three to four times the Canadian national average annual background radiation dose. This ionizing radiation, in particular from cosmic rays, can theoretically lead to negative health effects. There are currently no mandatory regulations in Canada limiting exposure to cosmic radiation in flight.


  • Subject Focus: Science, Biology
  • 21st Century Skills Focus: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration

Learning Goals

  • Calculate, analyze and understand the impact of ionizing radiation on long-distance fliers
  • Propose a course of action to minimize the health risks due to ionizing radiation to long-distance fliers

Learning Activities

Students will research the issue of limiting exposure to cosmic radiation in flight from the perspective of an identified interest group, then participate in a town hall discussion of the issue.

Big Idea

Long-distance fliers have greater chances of health risks of due to the effects of ionizing radiation from cosmic rays. For the health of this group of people, it is important that they are informed of the risks and that safeguards be put in place to minimize their exposure.

MINDS-ON 1: What’s your exposure?

As an introduction to this case study, students will brainstorm the risks associated with long-distance flights and will review the concept of ionizing radiation. They will also calculate the radiation exposure from various long-distance flights. Requires devices with internet access and calculators.

Suggested Timing: 20 minutes

MINDS-ON 2: Biological Effects of Radiation

Students will learn about how radiation affects the human body by using a physical model to explore the effects of different types of radiation on DNA.

Suggested Timing: 30 minutes

ACTION: Research

In small groups, students will research the topic of exposure to cosmic radiation on longdistance flights and provide reasons why, from their interest group’s perspective, limitations on annual exposure should or should not be placed by the government. Requires devices with internet access.

Suggested Timing: 30 minutes plus time outside of class

CONSOLIDATION: Town Hall Meeting

Students will discuss the results of the research (ACTION) as a class using a Town Hall Meeting format.

Suggested Timing: 30 minutes

  • Completed Interest Group Research (from Action)

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