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published by the Physics Education Technology Project
written by Trish Loeblein
This lesson plan by an experienced high school physics teacher was created specifically to accompany the PhET simulation "Alpha Decay". It is intended for students who have had prior exposure to half-life and a fundamental understanding of nuclear decay. It provides guided directions to help students make predictions and verify their ideas through data tables and charts. As it progresses, students investigate a specific radioactive decay scenario, using the simulation to compare results of multiple trials. The lesson, as a whole, is designed to encourage deeper thinking about what half-life means in terms of single particles and larger samples.  

The alpha decay simulation, which must be open and displayed to complete this activity, is available from PhET at: Alpha Decay.

This lesson is part of PhET (Physics Education Technology Project), a large collection of free interactive simulations for science education.
Subjects Levels Resource Types
Education Practices
- Active Learning
= Modeling
Modern Physics
- Nuclear Physics
= Models of the Nucleus
= Nuclear Reactions
= Radioactivity
- High School
- Lower Undergraduate
- Instructional Material
= Activity
= Problem/Problem Set
= Student Guide
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- Educators
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© 2012 University of Colorado at Boulder
Additional information is available.
alpha decay, alpha particle, atom, chain reaction, fission, half-life, isotope, nuclear properties, probability, radioactive isotope, radioactivity, radioactivity lesson, statistics
Record Cloner:
Metadata instance created September 16, 2012 by Caroline Hall
Record Updated:
August 18, 2016 by Lyle Barbato
Last Update
when Cataloged:
April 29, 2012
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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.
  • 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/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/H4. The nucleus of radioactive isotopes is unstable and spontaneously decays, emitting particles and/or wavelike radiation. It cannot be predicted exactly when, if ever, an unstable nucleus will decay, but a large group of identical nuclei decay at a predictable rate. This predictability of decay rate allows radioactivity to be used for estimating the age of materials that contain radioactive substances.

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.

Common Core State Standards for Mathematics Alignments

High School — Functions (9-12)

Interpreting Functions (9-12)
  • F-IF.4 For a function that models a relationship between two quantities, interpret key features of graphs and tables in terms of the quantities, and sketch graphs showing key features given a verbal description of the relationship.?
  • F-IF.5 Relate the domain of a function to its graph and, where applicable, to the quantitative relationship it describes.?
  • F-IF.6 Calculate and interpret the average rate of change of a function (presented symbolically or as a table) over a specified interval. Estimate the rate of change from a graph.
Linear, Quadratic, and Exponential Models? (9-12)
  • F-LE.5 Interpret the parameters in a linear or exponential function in terms of a context.

High School — Statistics and Probability? (9-12)

Interpreting Categorical and Quantitative Data (9-12)
  • S-ID.6.a Fit a function to the data; use functions fitted to data to solve problems in the context of the data.
Making Inferences and Justifying Conclusions (9-12)
  • S-IC.2 Decide if a specified model is consistent with results from a given data-generating process, e.g., using simulation.
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AIP Format
T. Loeblein, (Physics Education Technology Project, Boulder, 2012), WWW Document, (
T. Loeblein, PhET Teacher Activities: Alpha Decay Investigations, (Physics Education Technology Project, Boulder, 2012), <>.
APA Format
Loeblein, T. (2012, April 29). PhET Teacher Activities: Alpha Decay Investigations. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from Physics Education Technology Project:
Chicago Format
Loeblein, Trish. PhET Teacher Activities: Alpha Decay Investigations. Boulder: Physics Education Technology Project, April 29, 2012. (accessed 26 February 2017).
MLA Format
Loeblein, Trish. PhET Teacher Activities: Alpha Decay Investigations. Boulder: Physics Education Technology Project, 2012. 29 Apr. 2012. 26 Feb. 2017 <>.
BibTeX Export Format
@misc{ Author = "Trish Loeblein", Title = {PhET Teacher Activities: Alpha Decay Investigations}, Publisher = {Physics Education Technology Project}, Volume = {2017}, Number = {26 February 2017}, Month = {April 29, 2012}, Year = {2012} }
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%A Trish Loeblein
%T PhET Teacher Activities: Alpha Decay Investigations
%D April 29, 2012
%I Physics Education Technology Project
%C Boulder
%O application/pdf

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%0 Electronic Source
%A Loeblein, Trish
%D April 29, 2012
%T PhET Teacher Activities: Alpha Decay Investigations
%I Physics Education Technology Project
%V 2017
%N 26 February 2017
%8 April 29, 2012
%9 application/pdf

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PhET Teacher Activities: Alpha Decay Investigations:

Accompanies PhET Simulation: Alpha Decay

A link to the PhET simulation Alpha Decay, which must be running to complete this activity.

relation by Caroline Hall
Covers the Same Topic (Different Course Level) As PhET Teacher Activities: Alpha Decay Simulation Lab

This is a simpler activity on alpha decay, targeting Grades 8-10. It was also developed specifically to accompany the PhET Alpha Decay simulation.

relation by Caroline Hall
Same topic as PhET Teacher Activities: Nuclear Fission Simulation - Student Guide

For high school students needing concept-building help, this problem set guides them through the PhET simulation Nuclear Fission.

relation by Caroline Hall

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