Tag Archives: atoms


Hey, you guys!  Science is back!  We did a bit of science over the summer, mostly reading books, being out in nature, and letting the everyday be our guide.  We had an especially excellent trip to Fernbank Natural History Museum in Atlanta where we saw a dinosaur so big that it could totally have stomped any of the dinos in the Smithsonian.  But now it’s time to turn our minds to a more organized approach, so here we go.  In case you’re curious, this year will be mostly earth science with a little chemistry thrown in.  You can find the list here.

For this topic, I really wanted the kids to understand that atoms are the basic building blocks of absolutely everything.  I wanted them to learn the parts of an atom.  I wanted them to understand that molecules are combinations of atoms.  Finally, I wanted to show them that atoms aren’t as simple as we like to make them seem.  They’re full of empty space and things at that level don’t behave the way things do in what we think of as the normal world.



Our first topic is atoms and molecules.  For a topic so basic, there’s a surprising lack of books about it for children.  There are a few series books out there, and so many chemistry experiment books that you could easily stack them to the ceiling.  However, there weren’t a lot of good introductory books for elementary school students.  We had one, from the 1960’s, called Biography of an Atom which had the sort of information I wanted, but which was obviously a bit out of date.  We also had two longer series books, Splitting the Atom by Katie Parker and Atomic Universe: The Quest to Discover Radioactivity by Kate Boehm Jerome.  Both were a little too detailed for this age and the latter book was focused more on radioactivity and X-rays.  There is a Rookie Read Aloud Science book about atoms.  However, the book I wish I could have gotten in time was The Adventures of Adam the Atom by Casey Waid.  That book looked perfect for this age group, but none of the libraries had it.  Overall, we didn’t find just what I wanted.

For experiment books, I drew ideas from Janice Van Cleave’s Molecules and the book Adventures with Atoms and Molecules by Robert Mebane.  Both had a lot of general chemistry experiment ideas, but this is a topic you have to help kids connect the dots.  After all, they can’t see the atoms and molecules.


Luckily there are plenty of videos for atoms and molecules.  First of all, there’s our two standards.  Bill Nye gives up the episode “Atoms” and The Magic School Bus gives us the episode “The Magic School Bus Meets Molly Cule.”  Plus, there’s two Eureka episodes for this topic.  First, there’s one on atoms, which I embedded below.  Next, there’s another on elections.  Both refer to atoms as “round” but otherwise seemed accurate, despite their age.

There were also a number of other good videos for atoms.  There’s this one from Khan Academy, which was a little too long for us, but probably about right for older kids (and grown ups!).  It starts by telling you that with chemistry you get to start with the most philosophically interesting thing, which pretty much sums out what I like about Khan Academy’s approach as well as studying atoms.  A much simpler introduction is this Ignite Learning video.  And this is an amusing little song about the history of the atom.  We also have a new Brainpop subscription that we got for a good deal and the older kids’ site has a whole section on matter with a number of good videos for this unit, such as this one about the atom.  You’ll need a subscription to see that one.

Below is one more that I really loved, from NOVA, which basically tears apart all your science textbook ideas about how to represent an atom.  I thought it was perfect.  And here’s a quick little excerpt from a longer documentary that explains the scale of atoms and might make you a little disturbed about just how much empty space we’re all made of.


We have brand new science notebooks, so order of business number one was to decorate them and put names on them.  For BalletBoy and Mushroom, we’re going to be printing out their narrations and taping or pasting them into the notebook.  Doing narrations about science is a new thing for us this year and I can see that it’s a challenge for the kids, but I’m excited to make it work.

I already wrote a couple of weeks ago about the quandary I faced with atomic models.  However, I wanted to start with some simple notes, so the kids copied a model of an atom.  We drew them for the sake of vocabulary, essentially.  However, at the end of our science time, I asked the kids to say what was wrong with the drawings and we finished by putting big cross outs on them.  You can see Mushroom’s notes and model with BalletBoy’s taped in narrations below.

It’s easy to see that you, your toys, your house and all the (seemingly!) solid objects around you are made of something, but I thought it was worthwhile to think about how air is also made of molecules and atoms, so we did a version of this experiment where you blow up a balloon and weight it on a balance with an balloon that’s not blown up.

Next, we explored some behavior that molecules help explain.  Each kid picked out an object that was made of atoms (they laughed about that command, which I hope means they get it) and we looked at it and noticed how different they are.  We talked about how the structure of the molecules explains why the fork is hard and the eraser was rubbery.  Next,  we made water flow sideways to think about how molecules like to cling together.  This is one of the cooler experiments I’ve done.  It had both a wow factor and a learning objective that the kids really seemed to get.  When I asked if it would work with a dry string, they immediately saw that it wouldn’t because the water would have no other water molecules to cling to.  One more thing I had planned was to spray perfume to see how molecules move and disperse, but I forgot to do it.  Next week!

Finally, we explored the space between molecules by doing an experiment with salt and water.  We filled a glass with water to the brim.  Then, we slowly added salt until the water overflowed.  The kids really got into this one.  You could see that a lot more salt fit inside the glass than seemed possible.  The reason is that the salt dissolves so that the salt molecules fit in between the water molecules.  This experiment came from the Janice VanCleave book and it had an additional suggestion to illustrate the idea by combining a glass filled with marbles (to illustrate the water molecules) with a glass filled with salt.  Each glass is full, but together they still only fill one glass.  This illustration really helped the kids get the concept.  At first, they didn’t know how to explain why the salt “fit” inside the water.  But after seeing the demonstration with the marbles, they get it immediately and Mushroom then made the connection that atoms are also made mostly of empty space, which is when we went back and marked out our original atom drawings.

Science Delays and Quandarys

Science was supposed to return this week, but after doing all the prepwork and having the kids get ready by doing lots of read alouds…  The other family got sick and canceled on us.  And worse, now they’ve fled to Europe!  I’m not annoyed, just jealous.  They’re even going to Iceland on the way back home in a couple of weeks, which is basically the ultimate in earth science field trips.  Sniffle!  Iceland is so beautiful.  When the Husband and I went years ago, we got to stare into the abyss between the North American and European plates.  Literally.  The Husband and I thought briefly about going to Iceland too, but then we remembered that we’re already going to Africa later this year and that’s going to deplete pretty much penny of extra money for a little while.  Oh well.  I’m sure there will be interesting geology in Africa too.

In the meantime, we’ll keep going with some readings about atoms and molecules and maybe watch a video or two more.  I have even introduced narrations about science, which seems to be a nice thing to add to the science notebooks.

As I got ready for the first week, I found an interesting issue that really summed up some of my problems with teaching science, but also created some problems for me.

The first topic is atoms.  Because you can’t actually see atoms, the way most classrooms approach it for this age group is by making models.  Protons and neutrons stuck together and electrons spinning around, perhaps on pipe cleaners.  I began by thinking surely we would start with models of an atom.  However, I couldn’t get satisfied about it in my mind.  Every time I thought about what the model would be like, I felt unhappy with it, though I couldn’t really say why.

I began poking around on the internet and stumbled on this website, a sort of ask the scientist page about building models of atoms.  It makes a pretty funny read through, to tell the truth.  I’ll sum it up for you.  Various kids wanted to know how to build an atom model, but the scientists (actually, mostly just a single scientist) explained why all the models are basically horrible representations of an atom and they shouldn’t do it.  Then more people chimed in calling the scientists names and suggesting that the students just do what they need to do with various materials like styrofoam and gumdrops to get a good grade.  Also, some people think the scientists used too many big words.  The scientists then got all philosophical about education, which only made their critics more angry.  A few people really appreciated where the scientists were coming from, but for the most part, there was a profound lack of understand displayed in the comments, most of which were from adults.

The thing is, I agree with the scientists about this.  What’s the good of studying something as amazing and, honestly, weird, as atoms if all you’re going to do is glue some styrofoam together and basically say that if we only had a better microscope we could stick it under there and see it looking just like that…  when it’s not true?  If you’re curious about what’s wrong with the models of atoms you typically see, either in classrooms or books, this video from NOVA Science Now is a super quick, useful explanation.  For one thing, unless your model is city block sized or more, the scale is off.  For another thing, new thinking about how electrons move basically shows its nothing like those neat orbits they show you in books.  And that doesn’t even get at all that Heisenberg uncertainty stuff.  Probably the kids are too young for that, though after seeing the Bill Nye episode on atoms, Mushroom included in his narration something along the lines that the electrons are too fast to find at any given time, which I thought was pretty good for this age group.

So, nix on the models.  Except…  young kids need simplified ideas.  Seeing that little drawing or doing something hands on can help kids remember it.  Thinking of other subjects, we have certainly done history projects that are hardly historically accurate.  As cool as our mini-Roman road was, we substituted materials, and I doubt that the Romans would have thought much of an aqueduct made of cardboard that only carried water a foot.  I think the kids were able to make a distinction that what we did was partly for fun, partly to remember the basic concepts, and partly to see how something worked, but only in the most simplified way.  So in that sense, the models seemed like a good idea.  No one (or, no one I know!) goes around complaining about kids making art projects about history, geography or literature if it’s not just right.

I sort of enjoyed being challenged by this.  Not being a trained scientist by trade, I don’t know if I have the right thinking exactly.  In the end, I decided we’d do some drawings for the sake of vocabulary, but also watch the peppy NOVA video and perhaps put a little X over our pictures once we did them.  Of course, we’d have done it…  except science was canceled!