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5 Ways to Make Radioactive Decay More Fun and Engaging for Students

Hasan Amjad
Chemistry
Physics

5 Ways to Make Radioactive Decay More Fun and Engaging for Students

Radiation is incredibly significant in the contemporary world. Its influence on society and the development of research cannot be understated since it is used in energy, military, and medical applications.

In simple terms, radioactive decay is a process through which the unstable atomic nuclei lose energy and emit radiation. The emitted radiation can be in the form of alpha, beta or gamma rays. 

The decay process is very random for any atom. You cannot predict when the nucleus will decay. However, there is a term called the half-life, which refers to how it long will take for half of an atom to decay.  This half-life is quite important for archaeologists to determine how old an object is.  

Now, for most students, the topic of radioactive decay is as exciting as watching paint dry. However, it doesn't have to be that way! With a little creativity, it can be turned into an interesting and enjoyable topic!

Read on to learn why teaching this topic can be difficult for the teacher and five ways to make learning about radioactive decay more fun and engaging for students. 

Radioactive decay GIF

GIF from Labster's Radioactive Decay Simulation, available for high school & university level learning.

Why radioactive decay can be tricky for Students?

First, let’s talk about the main reasons why the radioactivity concept can be trickier for students to understand. Actually, there are about three main reasons. 

1. It’s Abstract 

Radioactive decay is an invisible process happening around in the background. Since atoms are so microscopic, it is hardly possible that students might have seen a real image of an atom. They can hardly visualize atoms in their minds. So, understanding the process of how tiny atoms disintegrate and decay is quite hard for them to imagine. 

2. It’s content-heavy

Radioactive decay is a random process, and different elements undergo different types of decay. There is alpha decay, beta decay, and gamma decay. Remembering, which element undergoes which type of decay and memorizing the half-life of each element can be a difficult task. 

3. It’s complex

In chemistry, most students have difficulty understanding and memorizing the chemical reactions involved in the process. Since radioactive decay is of three types i.e. alpha, beta, and gamma. Students will have to go through and learn the chemical equation of this process; Look at the reactants and what possible products are formed at the end of decay. 

5 Ways to Make Radioactive Decay a More Approachable Topic

Now, that this topic is dry and boring, here’s a list of ways you can use to make radioactive decay crispier for students.  

1. Tell them Stories about People behind Radioactivity

Students love to hear stories, and an interesting way to communicate the topic is by building the story of how the people came to know about it, or how scientists discovered it purposefully or accidentally.

In this case, you tell them the tale of Henry Becquerel, who was the founder of radioactivity, and Marie Curie, a chemist. 

Henry Becquerel was a French Physicist, who won a Nobel Price in 1903 for his discovery of Radioactivity. In 1896, Rontgen discovered X-rays in his experiment. However, there was phosphorescence (light emission) in the vacuum tubes. 

Henry Becquerel decided to find the relation between X-rays and light. He took some uranium salts, which he got from his father (another physicist), and placed them on a wrapped photographic plate. Despite the paper wrapping, the plates started to blacken. He concluded that uranium salts, when exposed to light, were producing some invisible radiations that could pass the paper. With more research, he found out that, uranium salts emitted radiations even without sunlight exposure. That was just the start of radioactive discoveries.

The story of another face with notable contributions in the field of radioactivity is also very interesting. Marie Curie was the daughter of a Physics teacher in Poland. She was a gifted student and married French physicist Pierre Curie. The scientific marriage proved to be successful for science. 

Marie was looking for a subject for his doctoral thesis when he found Becquerel's research on Uranium. She, along with her husband, studied the mineral pitchblende (uranium is also a primary element of it) and discovered two radioactive elements Polonium (named after her homeland Poland) and radium. Moreover, she also separated the radioisotopes of elements. 

2. Show Applications: Relate it to the real world

For students, a science topic is a mere piece of text, if taught without applications. They might think that “What do I have to do with the thing?”, “Where do we use it?”. Interesting and relevant applications of the subject will arouse their curiosity and interest. 

For instance, you can tell students that radioactive decay is largely used to determine the life of ancient fossils. There is a process called carbon dating in this regard. 

Since it is known that the half-life of Carbon-14 is 5,700 years (half of the Carbon-14 will decay in that time), the Carbon-14 that is left in the fossil is a direct indicator of its age. This technique is used worldwide to determine the age of fossils that are up to 50,000 years old.

3. Explain with Analogies

To make things more interesting about the reactions, and atoms disintegration it is important to use concrete examples and analogies. 

For example, you could use a physical model to demonstrate how atoms break down and decay over time. You can use color balls to distinguish between the electrons and protons of the atom. Then, the decay process can be shown by the removal of balls from one atom and adding them to the other. This will help students to better understand the concept.

radioactive decay

Snippet from Labster's Radioactive Decay Simulation.

 4. Teach them to balance equations 

In chemistry, the students mostly have a problem memorizing the chemical equations. For instance, in this case, the students will have to learn the decay equations of alpha, beta, and gamma rays for their exams.

So, if you teach students how to balance the number of electrons and protons in the equations, it will much easier for them to understand. For instance, alpha particle means Helium nuclei. Helium has an atomic number 2 and mass number 4. 

So, when uranium-238 emits an alpha particle, its atomic mass reduces to 234 and its mass number becomes 90. And the new element (Thorium) is formed. If you check the numbers on both sides, the total count is the same. 

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238 = 2+ 234 92 = 2 + 92.

So, it is quite easy for students to write the chemical equation if they just know alpha is a helium nucleus; they just have to subtract it from the existing nuclei.  

In the case of beta decay, they just have to add one electron to the atomic number since an electron is emitted.

5. Use Virtual Lab Simulation of Labster

There is nothing better than the visualization of a concept. That’s where Labster’s Virtual Lab Simulation software comes in.  At Labster, we are committed to providing fully interactive, cutting-edge laboratory simulations that make use of gamification components like narrative score systems, all set in an engrossing, 3D world.

radioactive

Check out Labster's Radioactive Decay Simulation, which enables learners to explore the topic actively through inquiry-based learning. In the simulation, students embark on a quest to find the radioactive sample from the crash site of a meteor. With different experiments, they find out what is within that rock.  They also learn about various chemical equations of the process.

If you are interested in ]Labster simulations for your students or want to explore more, contact us now.

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