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published by the Physics Education Technology Project
written by Trish Loeblein
This is a lesson plan developed specifically to accompany the PhET simulation Build An Atom. Created by a PhET "Gold-Star" teacher, the lesson contains a complete student guide in printable pdf format, and pre-lab/post-lab assessments. By following the student guide, learners will be able to create models of stable and unstable atoms, identify elements and their position on the periodic table, and determine if a model depicts a neutral atom or an ion.

The atom builder simulation, which must be open and displayed to complete this activity, is available from PhET at: Build An Atom.

This item is part of a larger collection of simulations developed by the Physics Education Technology project (PhET).

Please note that this resource requires Java Applet Plug-in.
Subjects Levels Resource Types
Education Practices
- Active Learning
= Modeling
Modern Physics
- Atomic Physics
= Atomic Models
Other Sciences
- Chemistry
- Middle School
- High School
- Instructional Material
= Activity
= Lesson/Lesson Plan
= Student Guide
- Assessment Material
= Test
Intended Users Formats Ratings
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- Learners
- General Publics
- text/html
- application/java
- application/pdf
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Free access
© 2010 University of Colorado at Boulder
Additional information is available.
atom, atom simulation, atomic structure, electron, electron orbit, ion, isotope, neutron, nucleus, proton, stable element, unstable element
Record Cloner:
Metadata instance created July 13, 2011 by Caroline Hall
Record Updated:
October 2, 2013 by Caroline Hall
Last Update
when Cataloged:
June 18, 2011
Other Collections:

Great Lesson

Author: Yvette Giron
Posted: March 21, 2013 at 6:05PM
Source: The Physics Front collection

I have a wide variety of different learners in IPC and the lesson was able to reach all levels of learners.

» reply

Re: Great Lesson

Author: Caroline Hall-Managing Editor
Posted: Mar 26, 2013 at 8:20AM

> On Mar 21, 2013, Yvette Giron posted:
> I have a wide
> variety of different learners in IPC and the lesson
> was able to reach all levels of learners.

Glad this was beneficial to your students, Yvette. The author is a veteran teacher who has created an impressive collection of lessons to accompany PhET simulations. To see more of her lessons, type "Trish Loeblein" in the Physics Front search box.

» reply

Post a new comment on this item

AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)

4. The Physical Setting

4D. The Structure of Matter
  • 6-8: 4D/M1a. All matter is made up of atoms, which are far too small to see directly through a microscope.
  • 6-8: 4D/M1b. The atoms of any element are like other atoms of the same element, but are different from the atoms of other elements.
  • 9-12: 4D/H1. Atoms are made of a positively charged nucleus surrounded by negatively charged electrons. The nucleus is a tiny fraction of the volume of an atom but makes up almost all of its mass. The nucleus is composed of protons and neutrons which have roughly the same mass but differ in that protons are positively charged while neutrons have no electric charge.
  • 9-12: 4D/H2. The number of protons in the nucleus determines what an atom's electron configuration can be and so defines the element. An atom's electron configuration, particularly the outermost electrons, determines how the atom can interact with other atoms. Atoms form bonds to other atoms by transferring or sharing electrons.
  • 9-12: 4D/H3. Although neutrons have little effect on how an atom interacts with other atoms, the number of neutrons does affect the mass and stability of the nucleus. Isotopes of the same element have the same number of protons (and therefore of electrons) but differ in the number of neutrons.
  • 9-12: 4D/H5. Scientists continue to investigate atoms and have discovered even smaller constituents of which neutrons and protons are made.

11. Common Themes

11B. Models
  • 6-8: 11B/M1. Models are often used to think about processes that happen too slowly, too quickly, or on too small a scale to observe directly. They are also used for processes that are too vast, too complex, or too dangerous to study.
  • 6-8: 11B/M4. Simulations are often useful in modeling events and processes.
11D. Scale
  • 6-8: 11D/M3. Natural phenomena often involve sizes, durations, and speeds that are extremely small or extremely large. These phenomena may be difficult to appreciate because they involve magnitudes far outside human experience.

Next Generation Science Standards

Matter and Its Interactions (HS-PS1)

Students who demonstrate understanding can: (9-12)
  • Use the periodic table as a model to predict the relative properties of elements based on the patterns of electrons in the outermost energy level of atoms. (HS-PS1-1)

Disciplinary Core Ideas (K-12)

Structure and Properties of Matter (PS1.A)
  • Each pure substance has characteristic physical and chemical properties (for any bulk quantity under given conditions) that can be used to identify it. (6-8)
  • Each atom has a charged substructure consisting of a nucleus, which is made of protons and neutrons, surrounded by electrons. (9-12)
  • The periodic table orders elements horizontally by the number of protons in the atom's nucleus and places those with similar chemical properties in columns. The repeating patterns of this table reflect patterns of outer electron states. (9-12)
  • The structure and interactions of matter at the bulk scale are determined by electrical forces within and between atoms. (9-12)

Crosscutting Concepts (K-12)

Patterns (K-12)
  • Macroscopic patterns are related to the nature of microscopic and atomic-level structure. (6-8)
  • Different patterns may be observed at each of the scales at which a system is studied and can provide evidence for causality in explanations of phenomena. (9-12)
Scale, Proportion, and Quantity (3-12)
  • Phenomena that can be observed at one scale may not be observable at another scale. (6-8)
  • The significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs. (9-12)
Structure and Function (K-12)
  • Complex and microscopic structures and systems can be visualized, modeled, and used to describe how their function depends on the shapes, composition, and relationships among its parts, therefore complex natural structures/systems can be analyzed to determine how they function. (6-8)
Stability and Change (2-12)
  • Explanations of stability and change in natural or designed systems can be constructed by examining the changes over time and processes at different scales, including the atomic scale. (6-8)

Science and Engineering Practices (K-12)

Analyzing and Interpreting Data (K-12)
  • Analyzing data in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to introducing more detailed statistical analysis, the comparison of data sets for consistency, and the use of models to generate and analyze data. (9-12)
    • Analyze data using computational models in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims. (9-12)
Developing and Using Models (K-12)
  • Modeling in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to using, synthesizing, and developing models to predict and show relationships among variables between systems and their components in the natural and designed worlds. (9-12)
    • Develop a model based on evidence to illustrate the relationships between systems or between components of a system. (9-12)
Engaging in Argument from Evidence (2-12)
  • Engaging in argument from evidence in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to using appropriate and sufficient evidence and scientific reasoning to defend and critique claims and explanations about natural and designed worlds. Arguments may also come from current scientific or historical episodes in science. (9-12)
    • Make and defend a claim based on evidence about the natural world that reflects scientific knowledge, and student-generated evidence. (9-12)
Science Models, Laws, Mechanisms, and Theories Explain Natural Phenomena (2-12)
  • Models, mechanisms, and explanations collectively serve as tools in the development of a scientific theory. (9-12)
Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking (5-12)
  • Mathematical and computational thinking at the 9–12 level builds on K–8 and progresses to using algebraic thinking and analysis, a range of linear and nonlinear functions including trigonometric functions, exponentials and logarithms, and computational tools for statistical analysis to analyze, represent, and model data. Simple computational simulations are created and used based on mathematical models of basic assumptions. (9-12)
    • Create a computational model or simulation of a phenomenon, designed device, process, or system. (9-12)
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Record Link
AIP Format
T. Loeblein, (Physics Education Technology Project, Boulder, 2010), WWW Document, (
T. Loeblein, PhET Teacher Ideas: Build An Atom (Physics Education Technology Project, Boulder, 2010), <>.
APA Format
Loeblein, T. (2011, June 18). PhET Teacher Ideas: Build An Atom. Retrieved July 22, 2014, from Physics Education Technology Project:
Chicago Format
Loeblein, Trish. PhET Teacher Ideas: Build An Atom. Boulder: Physics Education Technology Project, June 18, 2011. (accessed 22 July 2014).
MLA Format
Loeblein, Trish. PhET Teacher Ideas: Build An Atom. Boulder: Physics Education Technology Project, 2010. 18 June 2011. 22 July 2014 <>.
BibTeX Export Format
@misc{ Author = "Trish Loeblein", Title = {PhET Teacher Ideas: Build An Atom}, Publisher = {Physics Education Technology Project}, Volume = {2014}, Number = {22 July 2014}, Month = {June 18, 2011}, Year = {2010} }
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%A Trish Loeblein
%T PhET Teacher Ideas: Build An Atom
%D June 18, 2011
%I Physics Education Technology Project
%C Boulder
%O text/html

EndNote Export Format

%0 Electronic Source
%A Loeblein, Trish
%D June 18, 2011
%T PhET Teacher Ideas: Build An Atom
%I Physics Education Technology Project
%V 2014
%N 22 July 2014
%8 June 18, 2011
%9 text/html

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A link to the PhET simulation, Build An Atom, which this lesson was specifically developed to supplement.

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