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Atomic Theory

By Crystal Jeter
Product Developer

Atomic Theory

It’s the beginning of another school year, and if you’re a chemistry teacher you’re probably teaching or reviewing the history of atomic theory. Perhaps you’re looking for a new way to engage students in this often dreaded topic, or maybe this is the first time you’ve covered the material and you need ideas. Here are some ideas that we’ve compiled:

>Candy models

Many teachers relate the different historical understandings of atomic structure to different varieties of candy. At the beginning of a review of models, you might distribute class sets of different types of candy and have the class explain which candy best represents each model being discussed. Or, you might instead choose a single type of candy to distribute while discussing a particular model. In either case, have students explain why they think the candy represents the model. Examples include a solid candy with no variation (such as a jawbreaker) to represent the models of Dalton and Democritus; a candy with 2 items evenly distributed (such as Nestle® Buncha Crunch™ or Hershey® Cookies n’ Crème Kisses®) to represent Thomson’s model; a candy that has a shell but also a fairly solid interior (such as a Ferrero® Rocher® chocolate) to represent Rutherford’s model; a candy with multiple layers (such as Wonka® Everlasting Gobstopper® candies) to represent the orbitals in Bohr’s model; and cotton candy to represent the electron cloud models of modern atomic theory.

Time lines

Have students create a time line of events that led to major discoveries in atomic theory. Students may do this electronically or on paper. Encourage them to include photos and illustrations.


Have students depict each of the major historical atomic models, either in labeled drawings or 3-dimensional renditions. Possible media range from basic craft clay or dough to paper, wire, and found materials of various types. Students might make tasty versions in the form of cookies, cupcakes, or cake balls (or, maybe, plum pudding).


Have students work in groups to create videos on the history of atomic theory. These videos may be as simple or as sophisticated as the available technology and talent allow. Students might present the entire history, a specific scientist’s contributions, or an important discovery. You may either let your students’ imaginations run wild or temper the wildness by vetting proposals.


Students may present different aspects of atomic theory to their classmates in a number of ways, including PowerPoint® or Prezi® presentations and mini posters. Students might use a fake Facebook or Twitter® page for a particular scientist, including status updates or tweets regarding their discoveries. Students might create a skit about a discovery, an original song or poem about atomic theory, or a game to take their classmates through the progression of atomic theory.

Laboratory activities

Have students perform laboratory activities that simulate discoveries along the path of atomic theory. Carolina ChemKits™: Atomic Theory Kit and Inquiries in Science®: Reconstructing Atomic Theory Kit both take students through the major discoveries in atomic theory and are great teaching tools.

Whatever approaches you and your students choose, we hope these suggestions help you have some fun while learning the history of the atom.