Quantum and Nuclear

Home experiments and simulations to support remote teaching of radioactivity

Remote teaching support for 14-16 16-19

In this page, we have listed a range of experiments and simulations that students could do at home when working with radioactivity. 

These experiments have been selected by trained teachers as appropriate for use at home, but we have not specifically tested them for home use. All experiments are carried out at your own risk.

To avoid risk of injury or damage, we recommend that you follow the instructions as shown, and that a responsible adult supervises all practical activity and considers the suitability of each task for their child.

Teachers proposing to recommend any resources to their students should:

  1. work within safety policies established by their school;
  2.  use their professional judgement to assess the suitability of experiments for their own students;
  3. direct students and their parents/guardians to follow all stated instructions.

Half-life: paper, m&ms, pennies or puzzle pieces

This website contains a series of simulations and activities that students could do at home over a period of time. Results from experiments and simulations could be shared on a common platform (e.g. Google Classrooms or MS Teams) and mean values from different students’ data could be used to plot exponential curves of increasingly higher accuracy. 

The Student data collection sheet enables the user to download a really useful set of templates and activities for 16-18 age students.

Exploratorium also has some nice information similar to this.

Half-life of a water bottle

In this video you can show your students how they can simulate radioactive decay by recording the height of water in a bottle as it empties out of a hole at the bottom of the bottle. This is a really nice analogy for carbon-14 dating and the bottle could represent a creature living, if you keep the same volume of water entering the bottle from the tap each second as the water leaving the bottle from the bottom. When you close the tap, the bottle represents a dead organism and C-14 is no longer replenished in the body.

PhET simulations

Alpha, Beta and Gamma decay simulations by PhET are always useful: Watch alpha particles escape from a polonium nucleus, causing radioactive alpha decay. See how random decay times relate to the half-life.

  • Explain what happens in alpha radiation.
  • Predict what happens to an element when it undergoes alpha decay. 
  • Explain the concept of half life, including the random nature of it.
  • Begin to gain an understanding of the forces that work to hold an atomic nucleus together (strong nuclear force) and the forces that work to break it apart (Coulomb, i.e. electric charge, force).

Start a chain reaction, or introduce non-radioactive isotopes to prevent one with this PhET simulation. Control energy production in a nuclear reactor! 

  • Describe how a neutron can give energy to a nucleus and cause it to fission.
  • Explain the byproducts of a fission event.
  • Explain how a chain reaction works, and describe the requirements for a sustained chain reaction large enough to make a bomb.
  • Explain how a nuclear reactor works and how control rods can be used to slow down the reaction

MRI Radiation 

Is it a tumour? Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) can tell. Your head is full of tiny radio transmitters (the nuclear spins of the hydrogen nuclei of your water molecules). In an MRI unit, these little radios can be made to broadcast their positions, giving a detailed picture of the inside of your head.

  • Recognize that light can flip spins if the energy of the photons matches the difference between the energies of spin up and spin down.
  • Recognize that the difference between the energies of spin up and spin down is proportional to the strength of the applied magnetic field.
  • Describe how to put these two ideas together to detect where there is a higher density of spins.

Furry Elephant

Show how a gamma tracer can be used to find a leak in an oil pipeline. You only need to understand the properties of gamma radiation, rather than the details of where it comes from for this to make sense.

This animation explains the difference between contamination and irradiation.  A common misconception is that when radiation hits something it then becomes radioactive.

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