Atom Frenzy – Lesson 1 – Introducing Atoms

Students learn the name and number of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. They then devise rules to make model atoms, learning that atoms are made of protons and neutrons in a tiny central nucleus surrounded by electrons in an electron cloud.

*Note, please ensure that students have completed the Student Attitude to Science questionnaire and the Atom Frenzy knowledge Pre-test before starting Lesson 1.

1. Introduction: In Atom Frenzy we are learning about atoms and molecules because that’s what everything’s made of and heat is just about jiggling atoms. Then present the learning intentions using Lesson 1 of the Atom Frenzy PowerPoint.

2. Discussion: What is air? What is air made of? What are atoms? What are the four most important atoms: H, C, N and O. Today we are going to make model atoms.

3. Activity (small groups) – Making Paper Plate Atoms: Students make paper plate model atoms with tiny balls of plasticine for protons and neutrons, and electrons made of 3-5 cm bits of pipe cleaner. Rules for atoms: equal numbers of protons and electrons. Often but not always equal numbers of neutrons. Students work in small groups, each allocated one or more of H, C, N and O.

4. Activity (whole class or small groups) – Introducing Lego Atoms: Each group sees how many different objects they can make with 36 Lego bricks.

5. Group Reporting – Paper Plate Atoms, Similarities and Differences: When students have finished ‘building’ their atom, ask them to sit in their groups in a large circle, with their model atoms in front of them. Each group’s spokesperson names their atom and explains to the class how they made it.

Then create an Atoms ‘Same’ and ‘Different’ chart by asking students two questions: In what way are the atoms the same? In what way are the atoms different? Draw out similarities and differences by questioning.

6. Review and introduce the next lesson: Identify and review all new words and start the class Word Wall and let students know that in the next lesson we will make models of atoms and molecules together.

Download a printable copy

Students will: 

  • know that everything is made of atoms
  • know that atoms are like Lego bricks, where a small number of identical pieces combine together in different ways to make many different things.
  • know that there are different types of atoms and that each type of atom has a name, different number of protons and electrons, and a number.
  • know the name and number of four atoms: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen
  • Access to a highlighter
  • Atom template printed on A3 (or A4 if options are limited) paper. Or medium sized paper plates. One per group.
  • To make atoms: two differently coloured types of plasticine to represent protons and neutrons (alternative: polystyrene beanbag balls and Blue Tac and/or double-sided tape)
  • Short lengths of pipe cleaners (about 3-5 cm) (to represent electrons)
  • Sealable plastic bag of Lego bricks: (please note atoms do not have any colour)
    • 8 small one colour, e.g. white (H)
    • 8 large second colour, e.g. black (C)
    • 8 large third colour, e.g. blue or yellow (N)
    • 12 large fourth colour, e.g. red (O)

We are commencing the exciting Atom Frenzy topic. During the topic students will learn how everything in the world is made and explore some interesting things about how chemistry can help us explain why many things are the way they are.

We start exploring chemistry by introducing atoms in Lesson 1 and molecules in Lesson 2. During the lessons, we will also learn about heat. We will explore heat in more detail later in the program within the Hot Stuff Module.

Introduce the Lesson 1 learning intentions using the Atom Frenzy PowerPoint. Follow the directions under ‘Getting Started‘ if you haven’t done so already.

Introduce students to the language of chemistry. Explain that it is OK if they have not heard these words before.

Ask students to work in pairs and, using a strategy such as ‘Think, Pair, Share’, answer the following questions:

    • What is air made of? (Lead class discussion towards an answer that it is made of atoms. Some students may say ‘oxygen’. Then lead them towards the idea that oxygen is one of the types of atoms in air).
    • What are we made of? (Lead students to the understanding that we are made of atoms, mainly H, C, N and O. We will revisit this in Lesson 2.)
    • Names of different types of atoms: (Students contribute names of atoms such as oxygen and nitrogen. Each type of atom is called an element.)

    Then ask pairs to discuss and write their answer to the question:

    • What is everything made of?/What is stuff made of? Atoms.

    Now watch the four-minute ‘Tidlibits’ video: What are Atoms? The smallest parts of Elements and YOU!

    Discuss the video with the class. These questions could provide a starting point:

    • What are too small to be seen but are what everything is made of? Atoms and molecules.
    • How big are atoms? Miniscule, can’t be seen with a normal light microscope.
    • What is a group of atoms that are all the same called? An element.
    • How many different types of atoms are there? About 100. At high school you will learn about the periodic table of the elements that lists all the different types of atoms.
    • What does each atom look like or how do they act compared to the other atoms? They are all different.
    • Optional: Does anyone know of any other famous atoms? Calcium in milk, phosphorous in wee, sodium in salt, iron in nails.
    • Do the atoms in our body stay in the same place? No, they are continually being renewed and replaced.
    • Where do the new atoms in our body come from? The food we eat and drink and the air we breathe.
    • Can atoms break? Atoms are really difficult to break up – that’s what happens inside the Sun and other stars and in atom bombs or nuclear powerplants.

    See a quick overview video of this activity on the right before reading through the detailed outline below.

    Students will make toy atoms – for the four most important atoms: hydrogen H, atom number 1. Carbon, C, atom number 6, nitrogen, N, atom number 7 and oxygen, O, atom number 8. Food, air and water are mostly made of these atoms.

    • What are atoms made of? All atoms are made of three types of even tinier things: protons, neutrons, and electrons.

    Each group will make models of a hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, or oxygen atom. Hydrogen has one proton, one electron; carbon has 6 of everything (including neutrons), nitrogen has 7 of everything, and oxygen 8 of everything.

    Allocate one or more atoms to each group. Ask students to gather a small amount of each colour plasticine and the number of pieces of pipe cleaners they need for their electrons. Show students how to make tiny balls from plasticine.

    All atoms have two parts:

    • a super-tiny central core called the nucleus that is made of protons and neutrons and;
    • electrons in a fuzzy cloud far away from the nucleus.

    Check list for students: a) Which atom is allocated to your group? b) How many protons? c) How many neutrons?

    Provide each group with an atom template and a paper plate. Groups build their atoms on the paper plate. Students make red rice-grain sized balls for protons, blue or black for neutrons, and they should carefully squeeze the correct numbers together to make the nucleus. Instruct students to watch out not to squash them!

    Students stick the nucleus in the centre of the paper plate. It should be smaller than the end of their little finger.

    Students use 3-5cm pieces of pipe cleaner for electrons: have them bend them into waves to emphasise the fuzziness and waviness of electrons, then stick them randomly on the outer part of the paper plate. They should use BluTac, glue, or double-sided tape. (*Randomly means no pattern, in a ‘higgledy, piggledy’ way.)

    Note: Because hydrogen is the simplest of all atoms – it has only one proton, no neutrons and one electron, suggest groups may make hydrogen and also another atom as well.

    You can make many things out of Lego and you can make everything out of atoms! Atoms are a bit like Lego bricks.

    If only one set of 32 Lego bricks is available, then complete this as a class activity. However, if multiple sets are available then distribute the bricks evenly amongst the groups.

    Give students five minutes to build different things like animals, houses, shapes. The goal is to see how many different things each group can make with just eight of the four types of blocks. Some potential ideas can be provided with this worksheet.

    The colours represent atoms of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. Be sure the students don’t develop the misconception that atoms are coloured. Share the different Lego brick objects that were built with the class.

    In this activity, the ‘big idea’ being developed is that with just four types of Lego bricks, we can make a large number of different things. As we will see in Lesson 2, atoms are like this.

    Re-bag the Lego bricks so they can be used again in lesson 2.

    Each group puts their atoms out on display and selects a spokesperson. Spokespersons report on their atoms to the whole class as follows:

    • What atom they built (H, C, N or O)
    • How many protons their atom has in its nucleus
    • How many neutrons their atom has in its nucleus
    • How many electrons their atom has in its electron cloud.

    Then create an Atoms ‘Same’ and ‘Different’ chart and ask students

    • In what ways are the four types of atoms the same? They are all miniscule, too small to be seen using a normal microscope, all have electrons in the electron cloud, all have protons and neutrons in the nucleus, all nuclei are miniscule compared to the atom itself, etc.
    • In what way are the four types of atoms different? Number of protons which determines the type of atom, number of electrons, number of neutrons, size of different atoms, etc.

    Display the model atoms on the classroom pin-up board for future reference.

    Identify and review all new words and start the class Word Wall. 

    Encourage students to remember hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. Consider encouraging them to learn about the other types of atoms, find library books about atoms, perhaps learn the first ten.

    Let students know that in the next lesson we will learn how atoms combine to form molecules.

    Optional Extension Task

    Atom: Building blocks of all matter.

    Nucleus: The tiny central core of an atom.

    Protons: Tiny positively electrically charged particles in the nucleus.

    Neutrons: Tiny particles in the nucleus which have no charge.

    Electron: Tiny negatively electrically charged particles that surround the nucleus.

    Electron cloud: Ball or spherically shaped region around the nucleus where the electrons are found.

    Waviness: Behaves like a wave.

    Bulletiness: Behaves like a bullet, has momentum, and can damage things.