Atom Day

24 January 2019

Did you know, a one centimetre cube of metal contains as many atoms as there are stars in the visible universe? Children from Hollickwood Junior School, part of the Ogden Highgate & Muswell Hill Primary Partnership, have been exploring questions like this as part of a project with the Physics Department of Imperial College London.

Thirty Year 4 students were introduced to the beautiful world of atoms in a workshop day created by Geraldine Cox, the artist in residence at the Physics Department, and atomic physicists from the Centre for Cold Matter. Fuelled by their questions and with art, experiment and dance, the students learnt about the microscopic universe beneath our fingertips that shapes our world.

Viewing and identifying atomic spectra with spectroscopes.
Viewing and identifying atomic spectra with spectroscopes.

“The Atom Day is a prototype workshop to introduce 8-year-old children to the beauty of atoms and their intricate interactions with light,” explains Geraldine. “These processes colour and shape our world, yet in schools children may only come across these ideas aged 15 to 17 if they do GCSE or A-level physics. Children learn about the vastness of our universe but are not taught about the worlds within our world. So, we asked: can we illuminate the microscopic world for children to inspire wonder, creativity and curiosity and expand the imagination?”

The answer was a resounding yes!

Exploring vibrations in atoms
Exploring vibrations in atoms

To reach as many minds as possible the workshop included lots of different means and methods. The day began with the children’s questions. Within minutes they had filled four flip chart pages. Then, they each held a one centimetre cube of metal and thought about the universe inside; as a group they demonstrated Brownian Motion by wriggling their fingers like jiggling atoms to generate the random motion of a beach ball and they learnt how atoms combine to make our world by collaging with atomic pieces, imaginative pictures of trees, people, the Sun and oceans.

In the afternoon, the group discovered that atoms can be thought of as tiny musical instruments producing beautiful vibration patterns and colourful notes of light. The students explored the vibration patterns by playing Chladni plates with violin bows and viewed and identified atomic spectra. To learn how atoms absorb and emit light the children became dancing electrons in an electron dance. The day drew to a close with a reflection on how atoms shape our everyday world and last but not least, the group returned to the children’s questions to see if they could answer them all. Everyone made a concertina Atom Book which they shared with teachers, friends and family.

I learnt about what atoms are made of.
I enjoyed EVERYTHING. I loved the bumping. I loved when we were running. I loved the instrument and the light.
I enjoyed the part when we acted like atoms.
I enjoyed the spectra because it was cool and colourful.
Some fabulous feedback

Following the workshop in December, the children have continued to create work inspired by their day.

 Artwork showing the atoms that make up the Sun and the Earth’s atmosphere (left) and the 87 protons and 87 electrons inside a Francium atom (right)
Artwork showing the atoms that make up the Sun and the Earth’s atmosphere (left) and the 87 protons and 87 electrons inside a Francium atom (right)

“Our overall objective for the workshop was simple,” concludes Geraldine. “Thirty happy children who have had a brilliant unforgettable time. Our plan now is to run the prototype workshop with a further two schools in March. We will then roll out the day to schools supported by our team of atomic physicist colleagues from Imperial College, Oxford and Durham Universities. Please do get in touch if you’d like to be involved!”

You can find out more about Geraldine’s work on her Finding Patterns website.

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