Aside from being the most basic parts of matter, atoms are also among the most basic parts of science education. Kids who understand the elemental aspects of atoms--protons, neutrons, electrons and basic atomic structure--from an early age will be well-equipped to succeed not just in chemistry but in all branches of science later on in their education. According to Piaget's theory of Constructivism, kids learn best through personal experience, so the best way to teach them about something as abstract as atoms is through models that they can look at, feel and explore on their own.
Select a building material. Clay works best because it is easy to mold and already colored, but pom-poms, tennis balls, ping pong balls and foam balls can work too. The material must be round and come in two different sizes.
Build the nucleus. If making boron from clay, roll five clay balls of one color to be protons and six of another color to be neutrons, then stick them together. If working with foam balls, color five one color and six another and glue them together.
Build the electron cloud. Take either thin metal rods or pipe cleaners and stick them through the nucleus, then attach smaller balls on the protruding ends. Use rods of different sizes to represent different energy levels. In the boron example, you could make five smaller balls of a different color to be electrons, stick a short metal rod through the nucleus, then stick an electron on either end of it to be the inner energy shell. For the three electrons in the outer energy shell, pierce the nucleus with a longer metal rod and place an electron on either end of it, then cut a second longer rod in half, stick one end into the nucleus and place an electron on its protruding end. This gives you an accurate model of the electron configuration of boron.
Find four different colors of construction paper, felt or other material.
Using three different colors to represent the three subatomic particles, cut out twice the number of subatomic particles that the element has so that you will have a two-sided atom. For boron, cut out 10 protons, 10 electrons and 12 neutrons.
Cut backgrounds for the nucleus and electron shells from the fourth color material. Make sure the nucleus is big enough to fit all the protons and neutrons it must hold. Make the electron shells concentric rings around the nucleus.
Glue the protons and neutrons to both sides of the nucleus circle to make the nucleus of the element show on both sides of the mobile.
Glue the appropriate number of electrons to each side of the electron rings. For boron, you would glue two electrons to each side of the smaller ring and three to each side of the larger ring. Glue the electrons to random points around the electron shell instead of in a neat pattern to demonstrate the chaos of the electron cloud.
Punch one small hole on the edge of the nucleus and two small holes at opposite edges of the electron rings.
Tie fishing line through the holes and hang the atom mobiles from the ceiling.
Tips & Warnings
- Whichever model you choose, try putting little pluses on the protons and little negatives on the electrons to emphasize their charge.
- Consider using solid materials like little plastic balls or pom-poms for the mobiles.
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