Adapted from: Farin, S. (1997). Acting
Atoms, Science Scope, 21:3, p. 46.
- University of Virginia
- Physics Department
Making Atoms Come
A Physical Science Activity
2003 Virginia SOLs
- interpret data from the periodic table;
- use atomic number and atomic mass to describe the structure of an atom;
- work in teams to model the Bohr atom.
- How can we make a model of an atom? Atoms are much too small
to be seen, but experiments on the behavior of atoms have allowed
us to understand that an atom is made up of protons and neutrons
in the nucleus and electrons in various orbitals around the
nucleus. Because the atom is so small and the electrons move so
quickly, it is difficult to know exactly how an atom looks.
However, we can develop models to help us understand them better.
This is a game that allows students to demonstrate their
understanding of atomic structure. It can serve as a strong
reinforcing activity to information learned previously about the
parts and structure of an atom. The model presented has shortcomings
as noted in the procedure section and they should be explained to
students before starting.
Additional Background Information
Note: Due to the Frames Layout of this page, these pages may be more easily
viewed by opening them in a new window (Right-Click on the link and choose "open
in new window")
Elements Periodic Table
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Additional Physics Tutorials
- Construction paper of three colors cut into squares (Two
colors of paper should be cut into 10 cm squares; one color should
be cut into 5 cm squares. Approximately 50 squares of each color
will be needed.)
- Explain the shortcomings of the models that will be
constructed such as:
- Atoms are three dimensional, but the models will
only be two-dimensional.
- Atomic masses are not integral values on the periodic table
because those values are weighted averages of all the possible
atomic arrangements. For the game, however, the atomic mass
should be rounded to the nearest whole number.
- Electrons within the atom are nearly randomly distributed
and constantly moving very quickly. In the game, electrons will
be still and spaced evenly apart within the energy levels.
- In a box labeled "Electrons," place the fifty 5 cm squares of construction
paper. In a box labeled "Protons," place fifty 10-cm squares of one color.
In a box labeled "Neutrons," place the remaining fifty 10 cm squares.
- Divide the class into two teams and clear a large space so there will be
enough room for the team members to assume their positions as parts of the
atom. Note - Competition is not required for this exercise. This activity
also works well when the class works together or in smaller, non-competing
- On a large piece of construction paper or on the board, write
the symbol, name, atomic number, and atomic mass of an element as
it appears on the periodic table. This will be the first atom the
teams will construct. (Be sure to choose atoms so the total number
of protons, neutrons, or electrons needed does not exceed the
available number of squares.)
- Tell the students within their teams to calculate the number
of protons, neutrons, and electrons for the atom. One student
should serve as the team leader and retrieve the needed number of
"electrons", "protons", and "neutrons" from the labeled boxes.
- The teams should construct the atom by having one person
represent each of the electrons. One or several team members can
represent the nucleus. The paper squares should be distributed to
the appropriate individuals within the team by the team leader.
The electrons should be spaced around and from the nucleus in a
manner similar to the Bohr model.
- When a team has completed the atom, the leader should yell
"Stop" at which time everyone on both teams must freeze where they
are. A representative from the team must then explain the model
and the process used to determine the number of component parts
and their placement. The opposing team then decides if the model
is correct. If it is deemed right, then the next element is
presented. If it is incorrect, both teams must continue working as
- Continue the activity with other elements from the periodic
table to offer students an opportunity to practice a variety of
electron configurations. This will also allow other students to
serve as team leaders.
- Integrate the use of ions into the above exercise.
- Students pick an element to research using web and library sources.
- Students produce a power point presentation on their element.
- Students post their element presentation to a class web page as part of
a "Cyber Periodic Table."
Students with Special Needs
Students who may not be able to move readily about the room could remain stationary
and provide an anchor point for the atomic models. They can also direct construction
of their team's model.
Click here for further
information on laboratories with students with special needs.
- Have students rotate responsibilities within the teams to
assess individual understanding of atomic structure.
- Have students draw on a map of the classroom where individuals
should be positioned if they were to direct the construction of an
atomic model for a different element.