Quantum and nuclear physics home experiments and simulations

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 the quantum and nuclear physics topics in their specifications. 


This simulation from PhET will help students learn about how a traditional laser works and what population inversion means. To run this simulation the java file needs to be downloaded and run locally on your device, so unfortunately most tablets will not be able to support this activity.

The simulation has two settings:

  1. One atom laser - although this is highly simplistic, it is possible to achieve lasing from a single atom in this simulation. This is useful to learn the basics of stimulated emissions and population inversion. The key is to ‘play’ with the lifetime in energy levels 2 and 3 to really start to understand how population inversion can be achieved.
  2. Multiple atoms laser - this is a more realistic simulation setting that contains a number of atoms that can absorb and emit photons. So, once students are ready to move from the basic principles to more complex systems they can explore the simulation settings to achieve lasing and maintain the power output at a steady level.

By clicking on the link “For teachers” below the simulation thumbnail, you can access a range of worksheets and activities that will guide students in their learning about lasers with this simulation. You can see an example here.

Alpha particles scattering

This simulation from PhET is suitable for both 14-16 and 16-19 students and it will help them learn about the famous Rutherford’s experiment of alpha particles scattering. It is developed in HTML5, so it should work with most devices directly from a web browser. There are two settings that can be used:

  1. Plum pudding model of the atom - this will not deflect alpha particles and show that the traces go straight through
  2. Rutherford atom - this setting shows a few atoms of gold by default and all the positive charge concentrated at the nucleus. You can also change the number of protons and neutrons in the atoms, as well as the energy of the incident alpha particles

A range of activities could be developed for students using this simulation. For example, they could take screenshots of different interactions of alpha particles with gold atoms (or other atoms) and write a paragraph for each observation to support Rutherford’s model of the atom.

Line emission spectra

This is a really useful activity set up in a Google Spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is view only, so to allow your students to edit the spreadsheet and work on the activity, you will need to copy and paste all the cells in a new spreadsheet on your Google Drive, or Google Classroom. By clicking on the link in cell A2, you will open a beautiful simulation made in GeoGebra that illustrates the orbitals and the electron transitions between different orbitals. The transitions will also give the wavelength of the photon emitted, which the students need to complete the activity.

VPLab Simulations

Suggested file download guidance:

  1. Download the file you want.
  2. Right-click on the downloaded file, and select “extract all files” (make a note of which folder it is extracting the files to so that you can find them again!)
  3. When it finishes extracting all the files, search for the “.exe” file and double-click on it
  4. The simulation will run on your computer for 7 days. 
  5. If your computer is a MAC, you will need to run the simulation through Wine Bottler 

Here are some useful simulations in VPL for Quantum and Nuclear physics:

  • Inverse Square Law (Radioactivity) – students move the detector away from the source and store ‘readings’ which are plotted on a graph, with ‘distance’ ‘1/distance’ and ‘1/distance squared’ as the axis options. [approximate expiration date for this link 26th May 2020]
  • Photoelectric Effect – students use 2 target materials; for each one, they choose various values of colour/wavelength of the radiation and then use a variable resistor to ‘stop’ the photoelectric current. Results are plotted on a graph of stopping voltage v frequency; which is then used to obtain h (as far as I can see, the students don’t have to do the calculations). [approximate expiration date for this link 26th May 2020]
  • Young’s Slits Experiment – you can actually pick any number of slits from 1 to 10, adjust the brightness of the laser (red, green or blue) beam and adjust slit width and separation. The result is shown on a screen, with an option for intensity graph along with a handy pop-up window to show the geometry and the standard equation that appears on exam specs. [approximate expiration date for this link 30th May 2020]

Photoelectric Effect

This Phet simulation is suitable for A level students and is found in the STEM Learning Library. To access you will need a free account with a password. In this simulation, students can see how light knocks electrons off a metal target, and recreate the experiment that spawned the field of quantum mechanics. Students could also predict the results of experiments of the photoelectric effect, e.g. how changing the intensity of light will affect the current and the energy of electrons, how changing the wavelength of light will affect the current and the energy of electrons, how changing the voltage will affect the current and the energy of electrons, how changing the material of the target will affect the current and the energy of electrons.

Black Body Radiation

This is another Phet simulation that is not included in the STEM Learning library.

It offers an opportunity for pupils to study how the blackbody spectrum of the sun compares to visible light. They can also learn about the blackbody spectrum of Sirius A, the sun, a light bulb, and the earth as well as adjust the temperature to see the wavelength and intensity of the spectrum change and view the colour of the peak of the spectral curve.

Questions that could be used with this simulation include:

  • Describe what happens to the blackbody spectrum as you increase or decrease the temperature. What happens to the shape of the curve and the peak of this curve?
  • Describe the blackbody spectrum of a light bulb. Why do light bulbs get hot? Do they seem efficient? 
  • Imagine that you see 2 hot, glowing objects - one is glowing orange and the other is glowing blue. Which one is hotter?
  • Find the relationship between the temperature and the wavelength at the peak of the curve.

Health and Safety Guidance

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.
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