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Grade Level: 6 (5 – 7) Lessons in thisUnit: 1 2 3 Time Required: 15 minutes Subject Areas:
Physical Science

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Mixtures and Solutions The Building Blocks of Matter Understanding Elements Properties of Mixtures vs. Solutions: Mix It Up!
Unit Lesson Activity

The building blocks of matter


Students use the associated activity to learn about atoms and their structure (protons, electrons, neutrons) — the building blocks of matter. They see how scientific discoveries about atoms and molecules influence new technologies developed by engineers. This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Some students may have heard of anti-matter, "phasers" (Star Trek™ laser-like weapons that emit high-energy light bursts to stun or fatally wound an enemy) and "Beam me up, Scotty!" (the Star Trek ™ signal to the transporter room). Imagination is great, and as technology advances and engineers learn more about the building blocks of matter, these types of technologies move from imagination to reality.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

Define a molecule.List the basic components and structure of the atom.Understand how engineers use their knowledge of atomic structure to design new technologies.

Educational Standards

Each ptcouncil.net lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in ptcouncil.net are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS: Next Generation Science Standards - Science
Common Core State Standards - Math
International Technology and Engineering Educators Association - Technology
State Standards
Colorado - Science
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Look around the classroom. What do you think makes up all the items in the classroom? (Possible answers: atoms, matter, solid stuff, etc. Some students may answer more concrete things, such as: desks, walls, air, humans, etc.). All living and non-living things around us are made up of stuff called matter. In fact, any item that has mass and takes up space can be considered matter.

Do you know what the basic building blocks of matter are called? Well, the basic building blocks that make up matter are called atoms. Sometimes two or more atoms bond, or stick together, and form a molecule. A molecule is the smallest part of a substance that still has all the properties of that substance. For example, a water molecule is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Sometimes, a molecule is made up of two or more of the same atoms, such as a helium gas molecule. The matter and molecules that make up the world around us are formed mostly by many different atoms bonding together — each having their own properties or attributes.

Atoms are little, but they pack a wallop when their energy is released. Let"s start with the basic particles that make up the atom and their associated charges and structure. Atoms consist of three particles: negatively charged electrons, positively charged protons and neutrons, which have a neutral charge. It is easy to remember the types of charges on each of these particles when you use a simple association. For example, protons are positive, and both of those words start with p. Also, neutrons are neutral, which start with n. Then we only have to remember one particle: electrons, and they have a negative charge. Where are all these particles located in an atom? The electrons exist in orbits or shells that spin around the nucleus of the atom, which contains the protons and neutrons. In reality, these shells looks like fuzzy clouds that the electrons move about in.

Engineers use their knowledge of the structure of atoms to do everything from developing new materials (non-stick coatings for frying pans, safer football helmets, carbon fiber for faster cars and lighter prosthetics and bicycles, etc.) to harnessing the energy of nuclear reactions for electricity. They also create machines, such as lasers, to artificially create elements. Lasers are used in the medical and dental fields, as well as in various types of industry. Many of the technologies from the old series Star Trek™ are real possibilities for the future, as scientists and engineers learn more about the makeup of matter. During this lesson, we are going to learn more about matter, and the basic building block of matter — the atom. Let"s also think about how we can use our knowledge about matter to understand new engineering technologies.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers


The ancient Greeks started the atomic ball rolling. Democritus was the first to theorize that matter was made of small pieces. Leucippus was the first to use the term atom (atomon), which meant "indivisible" in Greek. We now know that the atom is divisible and is made of even smaller pieces — the puzzling subatomic particles. Because the Greeks had no way to test and verify their theories, we had to wait almost 2000 years to confirm that atoms do exist, though not quite the way the Greeks imagined.

In the 16th century, Robert Boyle came up with the notion that there were elements that could not be broken down any further, but it was not until the 18th century that John Dalton reasoned that elements might be made of atoms.

The Atom and Atomic Structure

The basic facts to know about the atom are that it is made up of three basic subatomic particles: 1) electrons (negative charge) that spin in shells around a nucleus that consists of 2) protons (positive charge) and 3) neutrons (neutral charge). Generally, the number of protons and electrons balance out to make the atom have an electrically neutral charge. Electrons that are farthest away from the nucleus of an atom (valence electrons) are the ones that are most easily shared with or transferred to other atoms. The atoms that are missing an electron or share an additional electron are called ions and combine easily with other ions to make molecules.

The number of protons in an atom is called the atomic number. This number determines the element of the atom. Within an element, the number of neutrons may vary, creating the different isotopes or nuclides. For the most part, this does not affect the electrical and chemical behavior of the atom. (There is some exception with the mass of the isotope, as heavier isotopes tend to react more slowly than lighter ones.) There are some things that affect the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom, including nuclear fission, nuclear fusion and radioactive decay. Normally, though, the number of electrons is the particle that is most easily changed, because of its lower bonding energy.

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Traditionally, the atom was represented as a kind of miniature solar system. Now, scientists understand that if we could see an atom, it would look more like a fuzzy little cloud. In fact, scientists can only predict where an electron might be in its shell using the probability theory: the exact position and momentum of an electron cannot be determined simultaneously.