In this card sort activity kids solve a puzzle of how one element (Uranium 238) transforms through a series of steps into 13 other isotopes before becoming a stable form of lead. Once kids become proficient, a second sequence is available for them to work through. If you study radiometric dating, this is a useful activity to add to your curriculum. The activity focuses on the different types of nuclear decay; alpha and beta. Additionally the cards show each isotope's half-life. Gamma radiation is not discussed. 


When learning about atoms, elements, and ions, kids can become confused when we introduce nuclear decay. Typically we treat atoms as immutable—they can combine with each other, but in doing so they do not change their nature. Even when gaining and losing electrons and become ions, they remain the same element. This is not the case with radioactive elements. The focus is on the proton—the number of protons an atom has determines which element it is. If that changes, the element changes. And that's what's occurring in radioactive decay.


Use this to learn and reinforce answers to questions such as:

❑ How can one element turn into a different element? 

❑ Which of the atomic particles define an element? 

❑ What is the difference between alpha and beta radiation?


Once students work through the activity, they can capture their observations using the included Lab Notes or probing questions included in the instructions. 


Concepts Addressed

♦  When an atom gives up particles during nuclear decay, it changes into a different element

♦  Half life is the time it takes for half of a sample to transform into different element(s)

♦  Atoms of the same element may differ in their numbers of electrons (making them ions) or neutrons (making them isotopes)

♦  An atom's number of protons defines which element it is. 


Standards Addressed



VA SOL Science PS.5c


Answer Keys and Teacher Notes address most questions and issues that might arise in this study—you shouldn’t have to do any outside research unless you want to.


Materials Needed     Nonconsummables: Copies of isotope cards which can be made on cardstock and/or laminated. Copies of directions can be placed into page protectors or laminated. 


Prep Time  Photocopying the student cards and directions (laminating optional).


Teaching Time   About 40 mins or more depending on accompanying writing assignment.


Student Sheets   Scaffolded writing prompts & lab reporting 

Radioactive Decay: Track Sequence of Alpha & Beta Radiation—A Card Sort Activity


    Answer Keys and Teacher Notes address most questions and issues that might arise in this study—you shouldn’t have to do any outside research unless you want to.

    Connect with me: If you have questions or problems, please let me know and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.


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