Exploring Students Thinking of Atoms and Radiation with the Atom Builder Simulator

Anna Hafele


Although nuclear power is touted as an important future energy source, few Americans understand it. We are developing inquiry materials on radioactivity to address this literacy gap and have uncovered substantial student difficulties with thinking of atoms as sources or as victims of ionizing radiation. Learning about radiation requires understanding the general structure and properties of atoms. We wanted to characterize student concepts and find out whether using a new simulator would help them understand the behavior and structure of atoms. We used mixed methods to infer student ideas. Most students entering a survey level physics course had only vague ideas about the structure of atoms and had great difficulty constructing coherent mental models of atoms. For example, most did not relate atoms to elements. Some drew protons orbing the nucleus and others thought that "electron shells" or "membranes" hold electrons in place. Students knew very little about ions, isotopes and the radioactivity of atoms. These difficulties impair student understandings of the simplest radiation processes - emission and ionization. To scaffold Piaget's formal reasoning among students who reason concretely we developed an inquiry-based atom simulator. Using the "Atom Builder" students manipulate one atom at a time and observe its behavior. New inquiry-based activities guide student investigations into atoms. By the end of the unit student knowledge and understanding of atomic structure and ionization improved dramatically in comparison with lessons without the simulator. We will present ways of thinking about atoms that students brought to the classroom, and demonstrate how they developed using the inquiry simulator. This work is part of a three year curriculum development project supported by NSF DUE grant 0942699. The radiation materials and simulators are available online at www.camse.org/andy/radiation.


Learning Research; Inquiry; Radiation

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