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5 Ways to Get Students Energized about Atomic Structure

Hasan Amjad
Chemistry
High School
Teaching with Labster

The smallest individual unit of matter is an atom. Everything around us is made up of atoms, which are the universe's building blocks. 

From the start, scientists have been on the quest to determine the structure of atoms. Earlier, it was believed that the atom was an indivisible particle, as proposed by the Greeks and then John Dalton. Soon after discovering fundamental particles within an atom, the chemists looked for answers on how these particles were structured within an atom. In this regard, many theories were presented, including JJ Thomson’s plum pudding theory, Rutherford’s, and Bohr’s. 

The former two were based on classical mechanics, whereas Bohr’s theory simplistically explains the atomic structure. Though an advanced theory on atomic structure developed by Schrodinger exists, the foundation is still Bohr’s atomic model. 

According to Bohr's atomic model, the atom is composed of a small, dense nucleus with protons and neutrons inside. The electrons orbit the nucleus in shells of fixed energy. The number of protons in the nucleus determines the element. For example, all atoms with one proton in their nucleus are hydrogen atoms. Atoms with two protons are helium atoms, and so on. The number of electrons in the outermost shell determines how the atom will react with other atoms. Atoms tend to react with other atoms to fill their outermost shell with electrons. 

Since the atomic structure is responsible for many of the chemical and physical properties of materials, so understanding it can help students predict how substances will behave. Moreover, it is also at the heart of nuclear science and technology, so understanding it is crucial for anyone who wants to work in that field.

Atomic Structure (Principles)- Bohr and quantum models

Figure from Labster’s Simulation on Bohr and Quantum models Virtual Lab.

If you teach basic or advanced chemistry courses, you may get a chance to lecture students on this topic. Since its an abstract and theoretical concept, students may find it hard. Read on to learn five ways to make Atomic Structure interesting for students. 

3 Reasons Why Students Find Atomic Structure Tricky

Laws and models, in general, are considered abstract and dry for students. The same is the case here. Here are three reasons why students find atomic structure hard.

1. The Internal Structure of Atoms is Invisible to us

Atoms are incredibly small, making them difficult to wrap our heads around. Since we can't see atoms with our eyes, it can be difficult to understand what they look like and how they are put together. 

2. It’s Complex 

A complex set of rules governs atomic structure. The behavior of atoms is determined by their size, shape, and number of protons in their nucleus. Moreover, multiple set of principles governs the atom’s structure. As the topic gets advanced, it becomes more and more complex for students. 

3. It’s Content Heavy

There is a lot of information that students need to learn about atomic structure. They need to know about the history of the atom, multiple theories on the atomic structure, the nature of protons and electrons, the types of bonds that atoms can form, and the role of atoms in nuclear science and technology. This can be a lot for students to take in.

5 Ways to Familiarize Students with Atomic Structure

Keeping in view the difficulties students face, here are five ways to get students excited about learning Bohr’s Atomic structure.

1. Show Them People Behind Science

One way to get students interested in atomic structure is to show them the people behind the science. There are a lot of great scientists who have worked on uncovering the secrets of the atom. Showing students their stories can help make the topic more relatable and interesting.

The history of atoms goes back to the Greeks' time. Democritus, a Greek philosopher, presented the idea that matter is made of smaller indivisible particles called atoms (derived from the Greek word “Atomos” meaning indivisible). However, the first scientific definition of atoms was given by John Dalton in 1803, who used the Greek definition to explain atoms as indivisible spheres. 

After the discovery of electrons by JJ Thomson in the early 1800s, the indivisibility theory didn’t hold longer. JJ Thomson through his experiments proposed a “Plum-pudding theory” to explain the atom’s structure. He stated that an atom is like a sphere of positively charged particles surrounded by a sea of negative charges, just like plums in a pudding. 

Later, a British Physicist, Ernest Rutherford purposed another theory for the structure of atoms in 1911. His famous gold-foil experiment is quite popular in this regard. To study the atom’s internal structure, he bombarded alpha particles on a gold foil. Most of the particles went past through, only a few were deflected and the ones who hit the center bounced back. This led him to conclude that the atom’s space is empty and it has a dense nucleus in the center. Rutherford’s theory was based on classical mechanics, had some shortcomings. 

Soon after that, in 1903, Neil Bohr presented another model for the structure of atoms; it was more like an improved version of the Rutherford Model. He stated electrons proton-bearing nuclei in orbits (shells) of fixed energy. The loses or gains energy when it jumps from one orbit into another. Since Bohr’s model explains the atom in simple ways, it is taught in high school chemistry classes.

2. Use Analogies and Models to Explain Bohr’s Model

One way to make the atomic structure more understandable for students is to use analogies and models. 

Most educators draw the analogy of atomic structure with the solar system. Just as planets orbit the sun, electrons orbit the nucleus. This can be a simplistic way to sum up things. However, technically we cannot draw an analogy between a solar system and Bohr’s atomic model because, in the solar system, the planetary object can be at any distance from the sun and still revolve due to the gravitational pull. However, electrons can only orbit around the nucleus at specific /fixed orbits. Moreover, the planets orbiting the Sun are accelerating, but the electrons don’t accelerate. 

The analogy that may seem awkward to you but fits the situation is of a ladder. When moving down or up you can only step on specific rungs; you can occupy the space in between. The same is the case of electrons; they only occupy fixed orbits; there is no intermediate state between orbits.  Similarly, as you climb up the ladder, your potential energy increases. The same goes for electrons.

3. Break It Down into Steps

If you find that your students are struggling with the concept of atomic structure, try breaking it down into smaller steps. Start with the history of the atom, then move on to the nature of protons and electrons. Then, explain the complex theories surrounding the atomic structure. 

History of Atom

First, you need to explain the history of atoms; how the concept evolved starting from the Greek philosopher Democritus to Schrodinger. For that, you can use the history explained in the first section.

Internal Structure

Mention how electrons, protons, and neutrons are arranged inside an atom, and how these particles help us differentiate between atoms of different elements.

The atom of every element has a nucleus with positively charged particles called neutrons and neutral neutrons. Negatively charged particles called electrons revolve around the nucleus in fixed energy paths called shells. 

The number of protons within the nucleus indicates the atomic number of an element. For instance, hydrogen has one proton so its atomic number is one. All elements have a unique atomic number, based on which they are arranged in the periodic table. The sum of protons and neutrons is called atomic mass. 

Atoms of some elements do have the same no. of protons (atomic number) but differ in the number of neutrons. Such element species are called isotopes. 

4. Use Animations to Explain Core Concepts

Since the atomic structure is a theoretical concept, many theories and principles are involved; it’s natural for students to lose interest in this abstract subject. So, to make things more exciting for students, you can visual aids or animations to explain the concepts.

The internals of atoms may be invisible. However, you can show them the animations of how protons, neutrons, and electrons are arranged in an atom; how electrons orbit the nucleus. Things become clearer for them once you visually show them what’s happening inside an atom.

Atomic Structure (Principles)-Atoms and isotopes Virtual Lab Simulation

Figure from Labster’s Simulation on Atomic Structure showing the Internal Structure of Lithium 

Moreover, the two complex theories on atomic structure, Bohr and Quantum theory, can also be compared side by side, using animations. 

Bohr and Quantum models Virtual Lab

Figure from Labster’s Simulation on Bohr and Quantum models Virtual Lab.

5. Use Virtual Lab Simulations

Virtual lab simulations can be a valuable tool for teaching atomic structure. These simulations allow students to experiment with atoms and molecules, forming and breaking bonds. This can be a great way for students to see how the various parts of atomic structure interact with one another.

Here Labster can help you greatly. At Labster, we have a wide range of 3D virtual lab simulations covering various topics in atomic structure. All these simulations make the atomic structure with multiple visual elements. 

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For instance, you can check out our simulation on atomic structure and isotopes, where students figure out from the internal structure of an atom whether it’s an isotope or not. Moreover, with our advanced simulation of Bohr and Quantum models, students use a holographic table to differentiate between the two theories. 

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